First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.
Shweta Duggal graduated from the National Law University Delhi in 2013 and worked for six years before embarking on an LL.M. at Berkeley Law. In this interview, she discusses the cost benefit analysis involved in her decision to enrol for the course, the LL.M. experience itself and passing the California Bar, as well as how foreign trained lawyers can make the most of the LL.M.
Let’s start with the California Bar first – was the plan behind the LL.M. to gain foreign qualification? And if so, did you consider any other countries to apply to?
Honestly, I went into this for a different reason. My plan behind the LL.M. was to break into the foreign legal market. To give the California Bar Exam – and this is exclusive to California – foreign trained attorneys are allowed to give the Bar Exam without having a degree (J.D. or LL.M.) from a U.S. university.
So, my plan behind the LL.M. had no bearing on whether I wanted to give the California Bar Exam.
Yes, my long-term plan is to work in the U.K. so during the application phase, I had concentrated more on the U.K. universities – LSE, QMUL, UCL. However, Berkeley Law has always been my dream law school and I just did not have it in me to pass up on the opportunity.
What were some of the expectations that you had from the LL.M. experience, and looking back, were these expectations met?
Given that the pandemic hit during my LL.M., of course, my expectations were not fully met.
However, it was still an enriching experience and one of the best decisions I’ve made for my professional and personal growth.
Coming into this, I had many expectations. I wanted to meet and engage with the brightest legal minds over AI, Tech, Trademarks and other areas to which I’m not exposed. I wanted to be involved in as many networking events and talks hosted by attorneys working in the BigLaw firms. I also wanted to explore and see what San Francisco and other near-by cities on the West Coast had to offer. Most of them were cut off due to the pandemic and my semester being virtual.
However, one of the most positive things about my LL.M. experience, that even the pandemic could not take away, was meeting like-minded people from around the world. It’s funny how similar two people from different countries and cultures can be.
I’ve surely made friends for life.
Given that you had 5+PQE when you applied for the LL.M., was there a cost-benefit analysis made? Looking back, do you think there is a “right” time to apply for a foreign LL.M.?
Most definitely a cost-benefit analysis was made. It’s very easy to get sucked into a comfortable monthly salary in your bank account lifestyle. During the LL.M. application phase, I was working independently and my practice was growing each month.
So, I had to seriously consider the fact that I will be leaving that comfortable bubble and perhaps re-start my career in another country all together. However, looking at the holistic picture of how pursuing an LL.M. aligns with my long-term goal was helpful.
One of the most consistent pieces of advice that I keep hearing from others is that one should get some work experience before applying for an LL.M. However, I see this a bit differently. It’s difficult to say what’s the right time to apply – this is an individualistic approach. It depends on why you’re pursing a foreign LL.M. If your sole goal is to work abroad i.e., in any area of the law, then an LL.M. right after your graduation is completely fine. In fact, you are not limited to any profile then.
But if its only for your academic interest, then yes I would say that it’s better to get some work experience to know where your interests truly lie. Sometimes what you find interesting in law school might not be all that interesting when practicing in that area.
An LL.M. is a costly affair and you would want to make the most of it.
On the LL.M. itself, what got you to choose Berkeley in particular?
As said earlier, Berkeley Law has always been my dream law school. My work back in Delhi was primarily focused on Intellectual Property, and Berkeley Law is known to have an exceptional I.P. faculty and offers a diverse selection of courses surrounding I.P. pertaining to technology, pharmaceuticals, entertainment and more.
Other than that, the location played a part too – who wouldn’t want to live and study in California!
Did you apply for/receive any financial assistance?
No, I did not apply for any financial assistance. I did receive financial aid from Berkeley Law for the professional track LL.M. However, I chose the traditional track LL.M. and was unable to transfer that. Specific to Berkeley Law, you are automatically considered for financial aid and depending on how strong your profile is, you are chosen for the aid.
Coming back to the California Bar Exam – at what point of time did you start preparing for the exam? Did you begin any of the documentation even before you moved to the US? Any advice for prospective applicants?
California Bar Exam is the toughest bar exam in the U.S. You would want to study as much and get enough practice before giving it. There is a lot of rote learning involved. You are essentially learning the main areas of the U.S. Law in a few months as opposed to J.D. students who’ve studied it over a course of three years.
Having said that, you don’t want to start too early. With my bar exam – which kept getting postponed because of the pandemic – I had essentially started too early and I had to revisit a lot of the material. You would want to avoid doing that since you need to concentrate more on practicing the MBEs (multiple choice questions), essays and the Performance Test.
The ideal time to start would be 2.5 months before the exam.
Everyone has a different style of studying and what works for them. You must stick to that. This is not the time to experiment. So stick to your style of studying. Other than that, I would highly recommend enrolling for one of the commercial bar prep courses – Themis and Barbri being the best out there. These courses provide you with short online lectures, handouts, outlines and practice MBEs and essays. They also help you organize your study plan so you don’t lose time on doing it yourself.
I had enrolled with Themis and I do owe them a lot for helping me pass the California Bar Exam. Other than that, I would also suggest enrolling with Adaptibar for additional MBE practice. Please know that MBEs are extremely tricky and you must get as much practice with them to get a hang of it.
I did not begin my documentation before moving to the US – I was still unsure about my plan to give the Bar Exam at that point. However, it is advisable to begin the documentation process as early as possible. If you’re a foreign attorney applicant, one needs to get a ‘good standing certificate’ from their respective Bar Council.
Looking ahead, how do you think foreign trained lawyers can make the most of their US LL.M. experience when it comes to finding employment? Any words of wisdom to share here?
Networking! Networking! Networking! The U.S. legal market is extremely competitive and LL.M.s do not have a level playing field. We are often, if not always, pitted against J.D.s. In terms of finding employment.
Reach out to the LL.M. alumni from your respective university and who working in the U.S. It is of utmost importance that we understand how to approach the market and what worked for them. Since they would’ve been in the same position at one point, the LL.M. alumni is always ready to help out as much as they can.
Keep interacting with your professors. In most universities, professors have office hours. Attend those! It’s great for your visibility and they offer some of the best advice with regard to employment since some of them have worked in law firms previously.
Be in touch with the Career Development Office and have them vet your resume. But most importantly, attend networking events in your university. It could be in the form of a mixer or a talk by an attorney on a specific subject.
Try approaching the attorneys at the end of the talk and have a general chat or ask questions about the specific subject (if it aligns with your interest, of course) and try to remain in touch.
You need to be patient with the recruitment process in the U.S. Make connections and maintain them. It won’t help overnight but you might never know when it will click.