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.
In this FPA, we get Namit Jain to talk about his Juris Doctor (JD) experience at the University of Illinois College of Law. A 2014 graduate of National Law University Delhi, Namit worked for a year before enrolling for the JD. Working as a legal professional in the US for nearly four years, Namit shares his thoughts on the JD versus LL.M. debate, prepping for the Illinois Bar, recruitment opportunities in the US, and a whole lot more.
Alright, let’s start with the more obvious one – why a JD as opposed to the more popular LL.M.? Was this something that you always had in mind as an undergrad law student, or was it a decision that you made after graduation?
I had always planned to add on to my legal education in India with a post grad degree in the US with the goal of practicing here, and after a lot of research (including speaking with practicing attorneys in the US), I opted for a JD as I felt it was better suited to my goal.
And once you had decided that it was going to be the JD, how did you go about selecting just where to apply? Also, how did you go about the application itself, more specifically, the LSAT?
In deciding where to apply, I looked at three primary factors: academic reputation, employment outcomes for graduates, and scholarship opportunities.
I perused websites like toplawschools.com and abovethelaw.com (akin to Legally India) which gave me a detailed insight into the application process, tips for maximizing scholarship outcomes, and the reputation that a particular law school enjoyed within the legal community.
For anyone considering a JD, I’d absolutely recommend abovethelaw.com’s ranking of JD programs as it’s a very good predictor of the placement potential of law schools.
I took the LSAT for the first time in my final year of undergrad without much preparation and didn’t do that well. For my subsequent attempt, I prepared over a four month period while working a full time law firm job in India and used an online prep course to aid my preparation. I definitely benefited from the prep course and doing official practice LSAT tests as I scored in the 90th percentile which was the score I needed for my target schools.
I’d say that the LSAT is definitely the most important aspect of the application process. For the JD program, Law Schools also require a personal statement and letters of recommendation.
For the personal statement, I ensured that it was specifically tailored to the school I was applying to while stressing on how there was a mutual fit between my professional goals and their program. I got my letters of recommendation from undergrad professors I had taken multiple courses with so that they could credibly speak to my abilities as a student.
What were some of the schools you shortlisted, and what made you narrow down on the University of Illinois?
I applied to a wide range of schools and my final shortlist included University of Illinois, Northwestern, and Washington University in St. Louis. All these schools have an excellent reputation and it finally came down to finances, and I decided to go with University of Illinois as they gave me a full tuition scholarship.
How was the JD experience itself? Am particularly interested to know how the JD learning experience was compared to your time as an undergrad law student?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the JD program. Being at a large University gave me the added advantage of enrolling for interdisciplinary courses at other schools within the University and I took a few courses at the Business School, which was an amazing experience!
US law schools heavily rely on the “Socratic method” which is in stark contrast to the more lecture based teaching at Indian law schools. Students are assigned daily readings and are expected to be prepared, as professors rely on them to facilitate learning by asking open-ended questions or “cold calling”.
The exams are also different in that most professors go for an open book format and test students on application of legal concepts rather than their ability to memorize case law or statuary provisions.
Any best practices at US law schools that you think should be introduced in India?
I definitely enjoyed my academic experience in the US more than I did in India, which is largely due to the fact that most courses focus on understanding the conceptual framework and encourage student participation.
This creates a dynamic learning environment. A course that I really enjoyed was Constitutional Law, where we critically analyzed SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) decisions and our professor challenged us to point out flaws/inconsistencies in the court’s reasoning in some of the landmark cases, which was a completely new experience for me as my experience at an Indian law school largely revolved around listening to lectures.
Another best practice that I think would really help students in Indian law schools is giving them more autonomy over course selection. In the US, after the mandatory first year courses, students are free to choose any course as part of meeting the minimum number of credits needed towards the degree.
This lets students focus on their areas of interest and is a much better use of their time as they don’t have to worry about learning subjects they won’t really use in their practice.
So, one of the advantages of the JD is that it opens up Bar eligibility – how did you go about preparing for the Bar, and how easy or difficult is the Illinois Bar?
Before moving to the US, I had taken and cleared the All India Bar examination and I must say that the state specific bar exams in the US are an altogether different beast.
The Illinois Bar exam has two components, much like most other US Bar exams, the MBE (multiple choice section), and the MEE (the essay section). I prepared for the Bar over a three month period following graduation, and I think what helped me the most was practicing with real MBE questions (questions that had appeared in previous administrations of the exam).
A lot of Bar prep companies throw a lot of material at students so it’s really important to optimize your prep and really focus on studying smart. I knew that if I did well enough on the MBE, I’d clear the exam and therefore focused on the multiple choice section as I was very comfortable with the essay portion (thanks to years of taking law school exams!).
To do this, I used a resource called AdaptiBar which gives one access to every MBE question that has been released by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and has great analytics features that lets one see what they’re doing well and what they could improve on.
How do you view the recruitment opportunities available to foreign trained law graduates in the US? What were the specific advantages of the JD as compared to an LL.M.?
Having been in the US legal industry for almost four years now, I’d say that JDs definitely have an edge because it’s the more popular degree in the US and is what most practicing attorneys are familiar with.
There are certain pre conceived notions regarding the LL.M degree (like the LL.M being an academic program) that do a disservice to LL.M graduates when they look for jobs and as a result they are typically limited to big law firm and some in-house positions whereas JDs have a variety of options ranging from judicial clerkships, attorney positions with government agencies, and public interest roles.
Regardless of the degree you pursue, know that US employers care a lot about culture fit.
Once you have landed an interview, it’s mostly about how well you can present yourself as someone who’d be easy to work with, rather than someone who knows all the finer legal points, and I think that’s very important to know as an Indian law grad trying to find employment in the US.
Getting good at interviewing is a marathon and you learn by having as many conversations with people in the industry as you can. The practice of “informational interviews” is very popular in the US which is more of a networking tool that you can use to talk to people in the industry and learn about what they do.
It’s a great way to improve your interview skills in an environment where you don’t have the pressure to “get the job”, and also helps you build your network.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?
I think it’s very important to figure out your end goal and ascertain why you want a foreign law degree. That can really help you make the best decision for yourself as you won’t just be following the herd and spending all that time and money on a foreign degree just because everyone else is doing it.
Once you have figured out the why, do your own research to figure out the best way to get to your goal. Not everyone has the same path and it’s very important to keep that in mind. Make sure to have your application materials critiqued and proof read by our colleagues or classmates!
Also, when getting a letter of recommendation, make sure the person who’s recommending you actually knows you. Getting an LoR from a Supreme Court Judge who barely knows you won’t do much good but getting it from a professor you’ve taken multiple courses will be worth much more as they can really speak to your abilities and skills.