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.
This year Simhanjana G Sumathi graduated with an LLM in National Security Laws and a Certificate in International Human Rights Law from Georgetown University Law Centre. In this FPA, she shares her reasons for choosing such a specialised LLM, her internship experiences as a law student at the Dr. Ambedkar Law University School Of Excellence In Law, the GULC experience itself, and a whole lot more.
Perhaps not quite connected to the LLM but two of your work experiences are particularly interesting – one was an internship with the then LG of Puducherry, Dr. Kiran Bedi and a judicial clerkship in the High Court of Madras. Looking back, what were some of the more memorable learnings from these two experiences?
My experiences, particularly the internship with the then LG of Puducherry, Dr. Kiran Bedi, and a judicial clerkship in the High Court of Madras, have left a lasting impact on my understanding of the legal profession, offering me a well-rounded perspective that I find immensely valuable as a young professional with a keen interest in public law, criminal justice, and human rights.
During my internship with Dr. Kiran Bedi, I was exposed to the stark realities of access to justice, legal aid, and prison reforms. Beyond the academic knowledge gained, this experience shook my conscience and ignited a deep sense of sympathy. Witnessing the challenges faced by marginalized individuals seeking justice left a profound mark on me. It was a humbling experience that reminded me of the importance of understanding the ground-level issues within our legal system.
In contrast, my judicial clerkship in the High Court of Madras provided a different dimension to my legal education. It taught me the importance of making impartial and informed decisions based on the rule of law. The role required me to approach cases with neutrality and rationality, ensuring that justice was delivered consistently. This experience allowed me to transition from a place of sympathy to one of empathy, which I believe is crucial for maintaining a balanced and just legal system.
Unfortunately, due to confidentiality and privilege, I cannot provide specific instances from these experiences, but collectively, they have enriched my understanding of the legal field and have shaped me into a professional who is not only knowledgeable but also compassionate and committed to upholding the principles of justice.
Just to set the context – when did you start considering an LLM abroad? What were some of the expectations you had from the course, and what were the factors you used to narrow down on just where to apply?
Though I did not initially plan for an LL.M. abroad while pursuing my first degree in law in India, the idea certainly did cross my mind several times. My legal internships, interactions with college peers, and senior members of the Bar, though focused on litigation, fuelled my desire for an LLM after enrolling at the Bar and practicing law. Undergraduate and graduate legal education in India is often textbook-centric, with limited exposure to real-world interactions with professionals and policymakers. I aspired for a course that went beyond textbooks, offered a broad and research-oriented approach, and provided guidance from professors who were both academics and practitioners. I chose Georgetown University Law Center (GULC) over two other T-14 admissions primarily because it met these criteria. Additionally, GULC’s location in Washington, D.C., a hub for national and international policymaking, offered ample opportunities for academic interactions with policymakers.
What would you say was the most time-consuming aspect of the entire LLM application process? Where do you think applicants should try and spend as much time as possible?
The most time-consuming aspect of the application process, without a doubt, is the Statement of Intent and/or the application essay. These components demand a significant amount of time as they require deep self-reflection, especially for foreign-trained lawyers. Given the substantial financial investment and the time commitment required for this endeavour, applicants must thoroughly assess their motivation.
Additionally, in my own experience, being used to the Indian style of judicial and legal writing which is more elaborate and expressive, first, I grappled with understanding the American expectations of writing style, which in contrast is more concise and direct.
Second, was to understand their expectations of how applicants assess themselves. Given the differences in academic and work cultures, especially in the Indian context, it’s essential not to underestimate the value of your co-curricular performance, extracurricular interests, and work experience. Every relevant experience and achievement should be considered – no achievement or experience is too small. Though, applicants should be able to justify such experience and achievements in the context of their chosen program and future career goals.
Lastly, in my personal opinion, there’s no need to tailor your curricular, co-curricular, and work experiences specifically for an LLM abroad. What truly matters is that you can convincingly demonstrate your consistent and passionate pursuit of academic and career objectives. I myself did not have a long term plan to apply for an LL.M. abroad, but my curricular performance was greatly supported by my co-curricular and work experiences.
Now that you have had the chance to complete the LLM at GULC, do you think your expectations were met? Any pleasant (or other) surprises along the way?
Thanks to the honest feedback from my mentors and friends with an LL.M. experience abroad – I went in with an open mind. This mindset allowed me to absorb more from the year than if I had specific expectations.
During my time at GULC, I had the privilege of learning from exceptional faculty members, including Professors David Koplow and Laura Donohue in courses like National Security and Foreign Intelligence Law who are not only experts in their respective fields, but in their tutelage and guidance. While initially quite terrifying, the faculty and learning atmosphere at GULC helped bolster my confidence, and thereafter it was smooth sailing for me.
Too many pleasant surprises and memories lasting a lifetime made, actually! While I initially anticipated a more business-like atmosphere where individuals focused solely on their work and schedules, I was totally swept off my feet by the strong sense of community I found at Georgetown Law. I discovered a family away from home, consisting of incredibly talented and remarkable people. Each person I met was a successful leader in their respective fields and a wonderful individual. In addition, interacting and exchanging experiences and perspectives with accomplished women in the field of National Security was absolutely inspiring.
The sense of unity extended beyond the faculty and students to the staff at the Law Center and the Gerwirz Student Center (the on-campus housing); We were all one big happy family! A dream, I will never wake up from!
Sticking with GULC, the National Security Laws specialisation is an interesting one – what got you to choose this one in particular?
I did encounter a lot of scepticism regarding my choice of specializing in National Security Laws, with questions about its relevance and career prospects in the Indian context. However, I remained steadfast in my decision because I firmly believe that National Security Laws are of paramount importance, particularly in light of India’s increasing significance in the global arena and its role as an emerging international leader, amid the evolving geopolitical and economic landscape.
My keen interest in monitoring India’s position in the ever-changing geopolitical landscape, especially its self-sufficiency in defence in relation to its neighbouring States had made me acutely aware of the pivotal role that India’s national security policies play in shaping its future.
Since a young age, I’ve held a profound interest in matters related to peace, security, and defence. As a student, I co-founded an organization called the S Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness among civilians about the role and contribution of India’s defence forces in fostering peace and security in the nation. I also volunteer with Colours of Glory, an organisation founded and run by veterans of the Indian Armed Forces to spread awareness about the military history and heritage of India, and therefore regularly interact with veterans, and defence and security professionals. I even made a sincere effort to join the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) branch. In fact, I consider this choice to be almost inevitable for me.
As an LLM candidate, how did you find your work experience helping you in the classroom? Not to put you in a spot, but would you recommend gaining some work experience before applying for an LLM?
Unlike the (my) law school experience in India, the American law school experience expects you to form and express your opinion and views based on research and extensive reading. I’d say this is where my work experience, particularly as a law clerk writing opinion and research briefs, and my experience writing op-eds and research papers specifically helped me.
However, I wouldn’t categorically state that gaining work experience is a prerequisite for pursuing an LL.M. I had the chance to learn alongside and from some very erudite and competent friends who came in for their LL.M. right after graduating with their first degree in law. They were able to contribute and compete effectively alongside individuals with over a decade of professional experience. Therefore, it ultimately centres on your confidence, expertise in your field, and your willingness to embrace new learning experiences.
Specifically for foreign-trained lawyers, I would strongly recommend approaching the LL.M. program with an open mind and balance of perspective. For instance, I encountered instances where there was a lack of accurate understanding of political and developmental aspects of my home country, ranging from outdated misconceptions to potential bias rooted in Western media perspectives. I also encountered new perceptions and region-specific public laws. Having an open mind is essential, as unlearning preconceived notions allows you to allocate more intellectual space to acquire new viewpoints and perspectives. Moreover, it allows you to engage in informed and rational debate and discussion, which can help break down stereotyped biases and misconceptions.
What is your reading of the work opportunities that are available to foreign trained lawyers in the US? Is there anything in particular that you recommend all foreign LLM graduates ought to do?
It’s better not to have absolute or overly rigid expectations regarding work opportunities in the U.S. as they can vary based on the courses selected and personal circumstances. In my case, as a foreign trained lawyer specializing in National Security, my opportunities were primarily limited to research positions. I would suggest structuring courses which do not restrict employment on the basis of citizenship. However, course selection is a personal choice, and you should customize it to suit your career goals and interests.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?
For Indian law graduates contemplating a master’s program abroad, I’d offer the following perspective: An overseas master’s is a valuable means to an end. It’s neither an end in itself, nor a checkbox on your list of accomplishments. If one can afford to pursue education abroad, a master’s program overseas can indeed open doors to a whole new realm of legal knowledge and professional practice. It offers both professional and personal advantages. I would advise potential applicants to critically evaluate it as a strategic step toward achieving their academic, career and personal goals.