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.
Diksha Maheshwari completed an LLM from Columbia Law School in 2022, and is currently working in Singapore. In this FPA, she shares her reasons for choosing Columbia, the LLM experience itself, and how foreign trained lawyers can increase their chances of finding employment.
I will get to the LLM in a bit, but could you tell me a bit more about how you made the move to Singapore? From what I understand, it is quite a small and competitive market to enter – any advice for foreign trained lawyers who are looking to make a similar move?
I started my career with an Indian law firm working on cross-border M&A transactions. I always enjoyed the ever-evolving regulatory and business environment in India and the way that can impact clients’ and lawyers’ approach to deal-making. Joining an international law firm which is renowned for their work in the APAC region seemed like a natural next step and I was fortunate to get a tremendous opportunity in Singapore.
Lawyers with experience of deal-making in India already possess skills which are easily transferable to the APAC region. Networking with lawyers who are experienced in this region can help you to gain better insight into the Singapore legal market – cold emails/ LinkedIn messages to people whose career trajectory resonates with you can be a great way to build connections or even find mentors. Lawyers can also leverage their existing network of peers or university alumni working in Singapore who can then connect them with their own network.
Alright, when it came to the LLM – what prompted you to apply for one? Was there any particular instance that made you realise that the time had come for you to apply?
There wasn’t one particular instance but a gradual realisation. Working on cross-border deals involved collaborating with counterparties and counsel from different jurisdictions, understanding the client’s commercial bottom-line and delivering a solution which is not only legally viable but also commercially feasible. And to add to this recipe, the regulatory jumble of foreign investment laws and host of other complex laws, the dynamic market environment, the legal excitement (and often, “nail-biting” negotiations with counterparts).
This prompted me to dive deeper into corporate and business laws from a more commercial perspective. My goal was to become a more commercial-minded advisor to clients. I wanted to build a though process which makes me better at analysing and solving for the commercial issues underlying a M&A deal.
Many LLM courses are taught by former general counsel of global PE houses, law firm partners or academic authorities in the field. I was quite keen to have this kind of intellectual exposure for my professional growth and the stars aligned to turn my plans into reality.
One of the trickier bits of applying is having law firms who might not want their lawyers to leave – how do you think one should approach this, especially since one does need professional recommendation letters?
I was quite fortunate to have worked with some really amazing (and needless to say, exceptionally smart) seniors and mentors. Before even deciding to pursue masters, I had quite lengthy conversations with them to get their advice and they all were very supportive.
While my experience with getting recommendation letters has been smooth-sailing, I think it might help to have a conversation with the partners/seniors about your professional and personal reasons for pursuing the LLM – a sharing of perspectives could help them better appreciate your decision.
Back to the LLM – what made you narrow down on Columbia? What were some of the other schools, if any, that you applied to?
I applied to few Ivy League schools in the US, and Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. I chose Columbia primarily for their course structure and faculty, and also the global appeal of a US education.
Out of the few Ivy League schools and UK schools that were happy to grant me an admission, I chose Columbia for two reasons: (i) their course curriculum was more aligned with my goals, such as their Deals workshops, Prof Goshen’s seminar on corporate governance, and the ability to cross-register for business school courses, (ii) the helpful (although not substantial) scholarship offered by Columbia.
On a lighter note, being in NYC meant I could feast on the famous New York style pizzas and bagels even at 2 am (which I definitely did and that too, very often).
With the benefit of hindsight, how has the LLM helped in your professional growth? And what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of the Columbia Law School LLM?
There are too many to count.
What sticks out for me is the platform of opportunities it presents for whatever is it that you decide to do. The LLM as a course lasts for less than a year, but the experiences and network you build through that last for much longer (and even for the lifetime).
I was learning not only in the classrooms but also from my interactions with my peers and alumni on a scale which was beyond what I could have imagined.
And most importantly, the LLM taught me how to be comfortable even out of my comfort zone – whether it was the new subjects or an unfamiliar city or the new friends (and of course, the very intimidating cold calls from the professors and the open-book exams).
Lastly, any advice for Indian lawyers who are considering a master’s abroad?
It helps to first think about what are the reasons and the ultimate goal to be achieved from pursuing the LLM. Once you have decided to go ahead with the LLM, it is absolutely critical to plan around financing the LLM and the path/prospects after the LLM (both best and worst case scenarios).
My advice on the financing aspect would be to research into the scholarships available and put the work in to secure scholarships – even a partial scholarship can prove to be very rewarding given the high cost of living in US especially after factoring in forex rates.