First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of law graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (an LLM or otherwise) from different universities across the world.
Soma Hegdekatte graduated with a law degree from GNLU, Gandhinagar in 2017 and enrolled for the LLM at Cornell Law School that very year. After working in the field of international arbitration across multiple geographies, in 2021 Soma enrolled for a second LLM, this time QMUL’s Comparative and International Dispute Resolution LLM.
In this FPA, she discusses her reasons for applying for a specialised LLM, building one’s career in international arbitration, the difference between US and UK law schools, and a lot more.
As an undergraduate law student in India, when did you start thinking about a foreign LLM? And when did you start the application process?
I actually wanted to do an LL.M. from the beginning itself. I remember speaking to a senior in my first year about LL.M. applications. However, my motivations to do an LL.M. were rather vague in the beginning. I only gave it a more thorough thought in my 4th year when I chose not to sit for placements. I started my application process during the first semester of my 5th year in law school.
How did you go about shortlisting the schools you wished to apply for? And why narrow down on Cornell?
I was looking at universities with good courses on business laws. I went through the course lists offered by universities. I also spoke to seniors who had attended universities abroad, to narrow down my criteria. I ultimately chose Cornell because Cornell is a small law school with lesser number of intakes per year. That helped me have more face time with my professors and there was more scope for in-classroom interactions. Cornell also had a wide variety of courses on business laws.
Did you consider working for a year or two before embarking on the LLM? Or was it quite clear that you wanted to enrol right after you completed the Indian law degree?
I was quite clear that I wanted to study straightway. My reason was that its easier to study and concentrate when you have just graduated. The idea was also that I wanted to finish my education before I start my career.
I didn’t want to later take a break from my career (which I eventually ended up doing). And now that I am studying again, I can confidently say your concentration power is not the same after a few years of working. You also don’t enjoy the process as much when you are older, because you have other things on your mind.
However, I think your reason to do an LL.M. also matters. If your sole purpose to do an LL.M. is to work abroad, then probably working for a few years makes more sense. The key to getting a job abroad is networking.
I think when you have worked for a few years and have contacts in your field, networking is much easier. I also wouldn’t suggest to someone to do an LL.M. when unsure of what they like.
It is better to work for a year or two and figure what field of law you like before pursuing an LL.M. A lot of people think they like a certain subject, only to realize later that they don’t like the subject in actual practice.
I think it should be kept in mind that a lot of people completely change their areas of interest after working.
Overall, it is better to wait for a year or two before you do an LL.M., unless you are very certain of your motivations.
Looking back, what were some of the most rewarding aspects of the Cornell LLM?
I was taught by some of the best professors in law and the classroom interactions were very rewarding. The quality of my work, my oratory skills, my analytical ability have all improved after my time at Cornell.
For example, I took a course at Cornell on cross-examination. I couldn’t do the mock cross- examination very well during class, and my professor demonstrated how I should have done it. Later when I was working somewhere and I had to cross examine a client in a mock hearing, I tried to implement what I had learnt.
My supervisor was very happy with it and even asked me how many cross-examinations had I conducted in the past!
I would say the people I have met, the things I learnt in classroom and outside of it are the most rewarding aspects of my time in Cornell.
As someone with a varied background in international arbitration, how did you find the Cornell LLM helping you in your professional career?
I think the Cornell degree has helped me by the name itself. There is a certain prestige that is attached to attending an Ivy League university and that prestige has helped me.
From networking events to interviews, I notice I am sometimes automatically taken more seriously when the name Cornell comes up. While I wouldn’t suggest that someone take up an LL.M. only because of the name of the institution, it is equally true that it does have a positive subconscious effect on people.
Last year, you enrolled for another LLM, this time at QMUL – again, what made you consider a second LLM? And did you look at schools other than QMUL?
My QMUL degree is more focussed on my area of specialization, i.e., international dispute resolution. My Cornell degree, though very rewarding, wasn’t international arbitration focussed. QMUL offers a highly specialized degree which covers courses like energy arbitration and construction arbitration.
After working for a while in international arbitration, I felt the need to go back to school and do a more specialized course. This time however I was quite sure I wanted to study in QMUL only.
Slightly open ended question, but any major differences in the learning experiences at a UK University as compared to an American one?
I found the American education to be more hectic. The benefit of that is you are more focused. The con is that you have little time to do anything else, except studying.
The courses at an American university are more American law focussed. In the UK, course have a more international focus. The references to English law in my classes are minimal. If you are planning to take the NY bar, you also have to compulsorily take certain core subjects. That eats up a lot of credits and it’s harder to take up the courses of your choice.
The teaching styles in both countries differ. In the UK, you have lectures and tutorials. Lectures are when the professor teaches the subject and tutorials are reserved for discussions. In the US, the classes are largely analytical discussions.
Personally, I found the classes in America more engaging. However, I also think it’s a lot harder to cope with. I should also add, that a degree from the UK is a lot cheaper than a US degree.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is keen on building a career in international arbitration?
I think the first thing is ask yourself is why international arbitration. A lot of students do an international moot on international arbitration and decide to pursue a career in it.
However, real arbitration cases are not like the cases presented in a moot. Its important to first understand if your foundational interest in the field is strong or not.
I say this because building a career in international arbitration is incredibly hard. It takes years of hard work and resilience. This is because there are a lot of people who have an interest in the field (Indians and foreigners alike) and very few jobs.
It is thus very important to have a strong interest in the area.
My word of advice for anyone trying to build a career in international arbitration would be to take what you get and keep moving. Do not expect a job to come your way easily. People intern/train for years before they get their first associate position.
Be prepared for it.
Keep publishing, keep networking, keep interning, keep reading on international arbitration; essentially keep trying. There is no one solution or gateway to success to enter or build a career in this field.
So don’t be disheartened if it takes time.