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.

In this FPA, Mrinali Menon shares her thoughts on the LLM experience at Columbia Law School, finding employment in the US as an international lawyers, and a whole lot more. 
Mrinali Menon

In this FPA, Mrinali Menon shares her thoughts on the LLM experience at Columbia Law School, finding employment in the US as an international lawyers, and a whole lot more. 

Am sure you get this a lot, but how does one go about finding employment in the US as a foreign trained lawyer? Any advice to share? Did Columbia help with the OPT process? 

Employment opportunities in United States for the legal profession as a foreign trained lawyer is a tough nut to crack, quite understandably. Prior to gaining qualification in the U.S., it is a difficult market to navigate as most law firms and organizations require you to be licensed at the respective State Bar.

However, it is certainly not impossible, as most law firms similar to any organization value the experience you bring to the country from your nation. Hence, I always advise every candidate to work on your skillset and apply to firms/organizations which match your strengths and qualifications.

In a country with more than 2/3rd of the market flourishing with domestic lawyers, an international candidate must stick out by capitalizing on your existing experience while hunting for opportunities.

Yes, Columbia University similar to every university assists each international student with the entire OPT process. The University assists you throughout while applying for the OPT permit, and once your permit is granted, the candidate is entitled to work in the country for the 1-year period.

Columbia Law School has a good job fair which attracts employers from all across the world.

They undoubtedly value your experience, and you get the opportunity to apply to various places depending on their requirements. However, being a foreign trained lawyer, it is comparatively difficult to have multiple options.

But again, it is a commitment which comes along with the decision to pursue your higher studies in a new jurisdiction!

Given your expertise in IP, what were the other (if any) schools you had shortlisted? And why narrow down on Columbia? 

I was admitted to Cornell University, George Washington University, University of California – Berkeley Law School, and Columbia University.

After comparing the course structures and syllabi of these schools, my reason to pursue Columbia Law was bolstered with my desire to get a General LL.M. While my other admitted schools provided me the opportunity to specialize in Intellectual Property, I chose Columbia as it provided me the option to handpick my subjects.

Since I wanted to appear for the New York State Bar examination, I had to select relevant courses, and alongside, I wanted to gain a basic knowledge of other non-IP subjects as well, such as practicing International Laws, Anti-trust and Trade regulations, Corporations, American Litigation, amongst others in addition to few courses focused on IP.

Hence, despite my expertise in IP, I wanted to use this opportunity to learn other subjects to broaden my understanding of the US legal market.  

Was it difficult to make the switch from legal professional to LLM candidate after four years of working? And, on the flip side, how useful was your work experience in the learning experience at Columbia? 

Honestly, no.

It was not personally difficult for me to pursue studies after four years of a professional life since I had always planned to proceed in a similar manner with my career. In fact, I was very glad that I got the opportunity to “go back to school” and learn and un-learn my skills.

Columbia endeavours to create a diverse environment, with your peers ranging from 2 years to 15 years in the profession, and undoubtedly, it was a rewarding environment as I got the chance to study with a cohort of trained experienced professionals from across the world.

Hence, I strongly believe that one must pursue LLM studies after gaining a few years of experience in this profession. As the degree states, it is indeed a “Masters” of this field, and the journey bears higher rewards, when you are aware about the profession with the work experience.

Personally, I would not recommend pursuing higher education without a few years [of work experience] under your belt, as not only does it allow you to understand your courses during your LLM better, but it also assists you while finding employment opportunities.

Looking back, what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of the LLM experience? 

The entire environment at Columbia, comprising of a great cohort and most importantly learning from the greatest legal minds in the nation and the world, is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding aspects.

Columbia Law is known to have Professors which are legal stalwarts and distinguished names in the industry, and this opportunity to learn from the same people who are the reigning leaders is an experience of a lifetime.

I recall often being in absolute awe and anticipation while attending few lecturers, as those Professors were known for having conceptualized landmark findings and decisions, which are now cemented as “the” theory in law. Columbia Law definitely gave me a lifetime of great learnings with a wonderful set of peers from across the world, and looking back, I am now well-aware as what constitutes the patented “Ivy league” experience.

Not quite connected to the LLM, but what made you opt for a Times of India internship when you were an undergrad in India? Would you encourage other law students to also take up such non-law internships?

The Times of India internship was a great experience as it enabled me to understand the world of media through the editorial lens. Having known that I would be pursuing a career in IP, the desire to know the backstage of how the media operates bolstered my decision to pursue a non-legal internship.

And yes, I would definitely encourage law students to pursue non-law internships as well, since these opportunities ultimately do add value to your skills as you go forward in the career. In a 5-year course, every student gets an opportunity to intern and I ensured that I use my vacation period in exploring new avenues and volunteering/partaking in diverse activities and organizations.

Ultimately, a decade down the road, I am glad that I diversified my internships by working at an editorial house, non-governmental organizations, multi-national corporation, Senior Advocates and definitely law firms, as I believe every learning adds value to navigate your career for the future.

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

A re-cycled piece of advice – research, interact, and be confident with your choice! A master’s abroad is not only an investment of time, and energy, but most importantly – money. Hence, decide to invest when you are fully aware of the advantages and the challenges it comes with while exploring a new jurisdiction.

Law is a dynamic profession, but it does not always come with a transferable skill set. Your skills as an Attorney with your bar license limits your practice to a particular territory, therefore it is important to map your journey and stay committed.

Hence, it is important to research about your desired schools, courses, professors, alumni, and craft your way ahead accordingly.

It is a learning curve full of great prospects, and a decision of pursuing Master’s is definitely worth the effort!