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.

Aaina Duggal graduated with an LLM from Columbia Law School in 2015, two years after she completed her Indian law degree from the University School of Law and Legal Studies
Aaina Duggal

Aaina Duggal graduated with an LLM from Columbia Law School in 2015, two years after she completed her Indian law degree from the University School of Law and Legal Studies. She is currently working as an Attorney at Potter Handy, LLP in San Francisco.

In this FPA, she discusses her reasons for choosing CLS, prepping for the US Bar Exams, and finding employment as a foreign trained lawyer in the US. 

After working at a law firm for two years, how did you know that it was a good time to apply for an LLM?

I always intended to study further, and I felt that some work experience would give me more perspective on what to pursue going forward.

Once you decided on pursuing an LLM, how did you go about the process of selecting the right law school? Why narrow down on Columbia?

I applied to several law schools based on their locations and courses. Subsequently, once I was admitted to a few, I researched the courses more deeply, and found Columbia most exciting.

With a few years of work experience under your belt, did you find it difficult to make the switch to student life once again? Looking back, do you think your work experience helped you in any way during your LLM experience? 

Quite the contrary.

It was delightful to go back to student life in a city like New York.

My work experience likely informed whether I was invited to the LLM at all, and also presumably had shaped who I was and how confident I felt in my self-perception as a lawyer.

I have also been constantly guided and supported by my first ever boss and mentor, Mr. Anupam Varma, and so I have my prior work experience to thank for the friendship and advice of one of the finest lawyers I have ever known.

Not quite connected to the LLM experience, but how easy or difficult was it to find housing in NYC? Any advice for prospective students?

It’s not difficult to find housing. There are many informal fora online, and universities have formal channels as well (mine did).

My advice would be to look sooner than later, since the best places fill up. Your search will also be informed by how much you’re looking to spend, where you want to live, whether you’d like roommates or not, etc.

I lived in International House, which was an exquisite experience.

You must get asked this a lot but how does an international trained lawyer look for job opportunities in the US?

There’s really no single perfect way to look for employment. My advice to someone pursuing further studies only to be employed in the US would be to do a JD (Juris Doctor).

While that may seem strange, because the JD is an LLB equivalent, and an LLM is a masters, and therefore a “superior” degree, a JD means three years of legal education in the US.

Firms are aware of this, and therefore, it is a better guarantor of employment, specially if you rank well. However, many students don’t want to spend another three years, and corresponding monetary costs, studying.

After an LLM, landing a job depends on your prior work experience (with fields like corporate M&A, and arbitration being most easily adaptable across jurisdictions), your visa status, how effectively you network, and how early you start your job-search.

Follow up question – any advice on how to go about preparing for the Bar Exams? 

For LLM students, it’s important to recognize that the bar exams in the US are very different than other exams they’ve taken, even though Indians are used to closed-book exams and are generally very good test-takers.

I took the bar exams in New York and California, and they were highly time sensitive. It’s imperative to practice answering questions.

Often, in prior exams, you might’ve gotten away with reading through course materials and not practicing answering questions (I did).

That would likely be fatal in this case.

You would generally use a bar review course (sort of like a bar exam tuition), and most will advise you to start testing even before you feel you know the subject-matter perfectly.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?

Don’t drift.

When making any big decision, it’s important to consider why. Many people pursue a masters because of ennui, or to escape a dull job that demands far too much of them.

I’m not judging your reason, but spare a thought for what’s ahead, and you’re likely to plan everything better.

In Alice in Wonderland, when Alice comes to a fork in the road, she asks the Cheshire Cat, “Which road should I take?”. “Where do you want to go?” responds the Cheshire Cat. “I don’t know”, Alice answers. “Then”, says the grinning Cat, “it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

(This interview was conducted by Swati Sabharwal, a law student at the University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University)