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.
Namrata Shah graduated with an LLM from Columbia Law School in 2015, two years after she completed an LLB from Government Law College, Mumbai. Currently a Partner Designate at Rashmikant & Partners, in this FPA she shares a few thoughts on the value of a US LLM from an Indian employer’s perspective, the LLM experience itself, and a whole lot more.
Straight off the bat, how do you think the Columbia LLM helped you in your professional growth? Would you recommend the US LLM to other law grads who are interested in a career in dispute resolution?
The LLM got me to break out of the mindset that there’s a model answer out there and get comfortable with independent thinking and trusting my own judgement. It improved the way I draft, the way I communicate with clients, the way I manage my practice, and how I manage a team. It also helped me narrow down the areas of law that I’m interested in.
Over the years, it has also brought me opportunities that I doubt I would have had without the people I met through the LLM.
About the second question, I would always recommend any form of education, but given the cost of an LLM, it’s important to really think through what you want to gain from the programme. I strongly recommend you do this after you have some work experience.
You applied for the LLM a few years after the LLB. What were some of your expectations from the LLM, and with the benefit of hindsight, were these expectations met?
I applied for the LLM a year into practice and had 2 years of experience when I went for the course. I was working as a junior counsel in Darius Khambata’s chamber at the time, and he encouraged me to apply.
I had the impression, from Mr. Khambata, from my father and siblings who also studied in the United States (but in different fields), and from colleagues, that US schools encourage out of the box thinking and have classes that mix different streams (Columbia used to have a brilliant class on Law and Literature). I also expected to improve my academic research and writing skills.
The LLM met both these expectations.
It’s also normal for your expectations to change once you’re in the programme and you find new opportunities and interests. I had planned to return to counsel practice in Bombay immediately after the course and never expected that I would take the New York Bar or work in the US, but that changed while I was there.
What were some of the schools you shortlisted, and what got you to narrow down on Columbia?
I focused on schools in the US only, and applied to Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, and NYU.
Some of the other schools that people recommended to me were University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Northwestern, University of Virginia, Duke, Cornell, and University of Chicago.
I chose Columbia because of the location, the smaller class size, the courses, and specific professors I wanted to learn from.
I know it has been a while, but what were some of the more challenging and stressful aspects of the LLM application process?
It’s difficult to gather relevant information. There is simultaneously a lot of information out there, and not enough to tell you what you’re getting into – College websites have a lot of information but this can be overwhelming without really conveying anything if you haven’t seen the campus or lived in the United States.
This was also one of the reasons why I limited the number of schools I was applying to and focused my energy researching them as thoroughly as I could.
If you ask people in your network, they will only be able to tell you about their personal experiences, and not everyone has a network to turn to. Most of us see these campuses for the very first time on the day of Orientation, unlike the JDs who are invited and hosted by law schools to visit and get a feel of the programme. (Unlike other graduate programmes, the US LLM has a very clear divide between American and International students because of the division between JDs and LLMs.)
When I applied, I don’t think law schools were doing information sessions online, but they are now. Most in person events and information sessions are not directed to Indian or South Asian students, despite us being such a large demographic in their applicant pool.
As for the LLM itself, what were some of the more rewarding aspects of the LLM experience? Apart from the chance to live (and revel) in NYC of course.
I value and enjoy cross – cultural communication and I had the opportunity to learn how to do this effectively not just from the LLM, but also from living in New York. It also gave me the opportunity to work in Philly and see what it’s like to work in a different culture and appreciate the good things about my own.
I have mixed feelings about the different treatment given to JDs and LLMs but one of the most rewarding aspects of the experience was sharing classes with the JDs. They’ve already had a year or two at the law school and I learnt quite a lot from many of my JD classmates, just by watching them in class or working with them on group projects, or studying with them.
This may not be relatable to everyone, but at a very personal level, studying or living abroad gives you the space to come to terms with and be comfortable with your own identity. My time living in the United States allowed me to explore my notions about diversity, inclusion, and privilege – things that I had been conveniently oblivious to while growing up in Bombay.
Some of the rewards of the LLM start to come your way well after the course is over. This does not necessarily have to be in the form of a job in a different country – it could be opportunities to collaborate with classmates, or work referrals, or travel experiences.
A lot of lawyers believe that a foreign LLM, or any master’s for that matter, has minimal value add to one’s professional growth – thoughts?
I wouldn’t have had so many of the opportunities I have if Mr. Khambata hadn’t encouraged me to apply for the LLM but I got this question a lot when I moved back and interviewed with firms.
If you’re relying on the LLM to get promoted or negotiate a higher pay, then yes, it probably has minimal value. In fact, it sets you back by a year, but that’s because many hiring partners deny that it has value during interviews, and then go on to accept the benefit of your network and the improvements the LLM makes to the quality of your work.
I’m optimistic that this view is changing, especially since more people from a generation that has invested in the LLM are now rising to a level of decision making, and even counsels are looking to globalise their practices.
The benefits of the LLM are mostly intangible, so be clear why you’re doing it, because a lot of people will ask you that question.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?
The LLM is a huge investment and it is compressed into one year.
It is perfectly okay to not know what you want to do, and it’s okay to be confused about your goals, but do your research well in advance so that you know what you’re signing up for and what you can get out of the programme.