FPA International: Liana Cercel on the TADS LL.M., investment arbitration & more

As most readers know by now, First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued, or are currently pursuing, a post-graduate course (be it an LL.M. or otherwise) from different schools across the world.

The FPA (International) is meant to broaden this scope somewhat, getting non-Indian law graduates to discuss their LL.M. experiences in different law schools from across the world. The idea behind the FPA(I) interviews is to help the Indian law graduate better understand her potential cohort, and also expand the LL.M. conversation in general.

Liana Cercel is an LLB graduate from City University London who completed the TADS LL.M. programme from Sciences Po in 2018. In this interview, she shares her reasons for studying law, her interest in international arbitration, and why it is so important to not give up.

 

Liana Cercel is an LLB graduate from City University London who completed the TADS LL.M. programme from Sciences Po in 2018.
Liana Cercel

Going slightly back in time, what got you interested in the study of law? And, looking back, what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your study?

My father is a business and real estate consultant, often engaged in legal proceedings and working closely with lawyers. Ever since I could remember, he used to drive me to school and would share the details of his projects, asking for my opinion and debating his ideas, strategies and options with me.

He has a natural talent for deconstructing and explaining complex topics in a simple, comprehensive way (much needed for a 7-year old), so I was able to genuinely engage. This gave me the opportunity to develop my critical thinking from a young age, tackle legal issues, make connections and speak my mind.

I got hooked!

I genuinely wish I could remember the exact ‘lightbulb’ moment when I decided to set course for becoming a lawyer, but I cannot. Law has always been it for me, simply because it engages and challenges my cognitive and creative abilities in a very fulfilling way. The most rewarding aspect of my studies and career was definitely the network of incredible people I have had the opportunity to build, who continuously inspire, guide and motivate me.

It makes me proud to be part of their world. 

Right after your LLB from Sciences Po, you opted for the TADS course – what was it about international arbitration that you found most appealing? And were there any other LLMs that you applied for?

Moving to Paris for an exchange program in my third year and being immersed in international law studies constituted a perfect context for discovering arbitration. This unique universe unfolded before me as I learned about famous inter-State proceedings and procedures (hence why, I believe, I remain most passionate about investment arbitration).

The main thing that fascinates me about international arbitration is its versatility with respect to the subject matters it engages. I am also a fierce advocate of its crucial role in providing an apolitical forum with a functional and flexible dispute resolution system for high-stakes, important issues dealing with, for example, corruption, renewable energy reforms, environmental damage and strategic infrastructure projects.

I clicked with the SciencesPo culture and its distinguished faculty, and really wanted to return for more. It was not only the only masters’ I applied to, but my only post-graduation plan at that point.

Looking back, I realise the pull I felt towards this practice must have been so huge, enough to make me put all my eggs in one basket. I was the youngest of my class, as part of the first ever edition of the masters’ programme, and had no real legal professional experience !

Being granted this opportunity was a game changer and I have never looked back. It is also, to me, a firsthand example of why this field needs to give chances to its young professionals more often.

How was the LL.M. experience itself? Again, with the benefit of hindsight, what have been some of the most useful lessons picked up through the TADS course? 

The LL.M. was intense, but extremely rewarding. Its main advantage to me was connecting us with all the ‘titans’ of international arbitration – renowned, experienced professionals we would have never realistically had the opportunity to meet and actively engage with otherwise.

The course was also defined by a hugely advantageous practical component, as we spent over 120 hours in over 12 law firms and arbitration institutions, being given a run through of all the procedural and substantive issues that arbitration practitioners deal with most often. Having successful professionals and esteemed academics from around the globe teaching us the ABCs of arbitration made me feel professionally equipped and confident in taking on the challenges of starting a career in this field.

The most important lesson I have learned from the course is the importance of networking and making the most out of every second of wisdom and experience that is imparted, because I have banked on them in my professional career afterwards. 

Finally, an invaluable perk that the TADS LL.M. provided me with was getting to meet most of the teams I later worked with and engage with them, and I think that truly helped me land my first job.

You also managed to qualify as a US attorney in the State of New York – could you tell me a bit about the process involved, and how you managed to qualify without a US LLM? [I understand that this may be a bit of a long answer so please feel free to ignore]

I was eligible to take the New York bar by virtue of my English law LLB degree. ‘Managed’ is a very good word to use, as the process is indeed strenuous. In short, what I would recommend to anyone embarking on this path is to be organised and start early. Start by checking and confirming your eligibility, it should only take a month and mainly requires your law school (and masters’ university, if applicable) to send a letter to the New York State Board of Examiners confirming your completion of the relevant degree.

Once that is done, research and choose a suitable preparation course (I did Barbri and feel it truly offers everything you could possibly need and more). Then, start grinding! There are typically two exam sessions, one in July and one in February – but new schedules are currently in place due to the pandemic and exams are now taken online.

An important advice I wish somebody stressed to me is: start gathering the documents for your admissions file early, take all other exams required early and find a project for your 50 hours of pro bono as soon as possible – even before your exam or before your results come in.

It took me an entire year to do so only after getting my results. 

Lastly, you have worked at a number of arbitration firms based in Paris – any advice for the young law student who is looking to break into the field of international investment arbitration?

Be patient and do not give up. To date, I believe I have sent over 100 applications – and so have most of my peers.

This is something I think none of us expect when starting out and it is prone to disappoint and make us take it personally, as a reflection of our competence. This is not true! 

Most applications do go unanswered, simply because law firms are flooded with similar inquiries daily.

One advice I would give is to be creative and find ways to stand out.

Also, it is not a time to be shy and coy – it is best to come forward and be specific with what it is you are seeking and why you would be a good fit. Reach out to your connections, ask for advice and constantly perfect your profile. Learning new languages provides a significant advantage and targeting firms which may have ongoing cases in your region/language might be a good strategy.

In the end, it is a difficult field to get into and you are bound to do a lot of internships before ‘landing’ a job. Afterwards, I would say the most important thing is to remain positive and motivated, and find the energy to give every task your best. Being rigorous, organised and proactive is crucial – try not to rush tasks and learn to prioritize, always asking and knowing what timeline you are working with !

Finally, never underestimate the benefits (both personal and professional) of taking time to engage with your team. We are spending most of our waking hours in the office, so it is only natural that team players and compatible personalities will be preferred in the hiring process.

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