First Person Accounts: Sapna Reheem Shaila on an LLM from SOAS, academic careers & more

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued a masters course from schools across the world. One of the purposes of the FPA is to also provide greater insights into the world of academia, and how Indian law graduates who are interested in this field can use a master’s program to achieve their goals.

Law graduates who are academically inclined, and who have pursued higher education outside the country, are also interesting to speak to since they provide perspective on the state of Indian legal education, and Indian law schools.

Which is why I am particularly excited about this edition of the FPA.

Sapna Reheem Shaila

Sapna Reheem Shaila

Sapna Reheem Shaila completed her LLM at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Class of ’15), two years after finishing the BA LLB course from NALSAR University. Sapna also happens to be PhD candidate at Kings College London (KCL), as well as a Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as a Visiting Lecturer at KCL.

At what point in time did you decide to do an LLM? Was it always the plan while you were an undergrad student at NALSAR, or was this something you decided to do after the stint at CCG?

I always planned to do an LLM as I thought it could help me to specialise in an area that fascinated me. This goal was reaffirmed after my exchange semester at Griffith University in the third year of my undergraduate degree.

The only doubts were about what would be my specialisation, which university and when?

How did you go about selecting your graduate school, and why did you narrow down on SOAS?

This is an interesting question, and I don’t think I have a straightforward answer for this. In my fifth year, NALSAR gave us the opportunity to pick courses that were interdisciplinary. I did Law and Anthropology; and Law and Subaltern studies. This opened up a  range of scholarly works I wasn’t familiar with until then. I remember discussing with my Constitutional Law professor about interdisciplinary LLM degrees.

She suggested I look into LSE’s MSc in Law, Society and Anthropology course or SOAS’s LLMs. I applied to both programmes and was accepted, but I couldn’t decide as to which college to pick.  That year I didn’t manage to get any full funding- which made the decision process easier, so I decided to wait it out and figure out what I wanted to do in the future.

That year in July, I started working at the Centre for Good Governance as a Legal Researcher. It was an exciting time to be based at the Centre in Hyderabad as the state of Andhra Pradesh was planning to bifurcate into Telangana and State of AP within a year. The Centre received a couple of exciting projects from the World Bank on land rights and public governance. I was involved with the teams working on these issues. Throughout that year, I remember looking at the governmental policies and development agendas and wondering what role law plays in all of this. After that experience, it made perfect sense to pursue SOAS’s LLM specialisation on Law, Development, and Governance.

I remember looking at the governmental policies and development agendas and wondering what role law plays in all of this. After that experience, it made perfect sense to pursue SOAS’s LLM specialisation on Law, Development, and Governance.

SOAS’s LLM provided various modules to study how international organisations assist countries in the Global South to undergo legislative reforms with promises of development or as part of rule of law reforms. Luckily that year it all worked out with the funding  as well from  SOAS.

How early did you start the application process, and was it difficult to do so while also balancing your work?

As I mentioned earlier, it was a reflective process over a year that helped me to develop a coherent statement of purpose for the LLM at  SOAS. 

Definitely having a clear plan and reasons as to why I was pursuing the specialised LLM made it easier to work on the application and convince the admission and funding committees.

Did you view the LLM as a step towards a doctorate degree? Or was this something you decided to do well into the LLM course?

Yes, I did see my LLM as the step towards a doctorate. Again, the topic for my doctorate became more evident after I finished writing my Master’s dissertation.

During my LLM I worked very hard to make sure that I had a Distinction for my degree so when I applied for a doctorate, I could get accepted by the supervisor I had in mind.

What were some of the most enjoyable moments of the LLM at SOAS?

SOAS was an amazing experience – if I could relive my Master’s again, I will do it all over- including the coursework! At SOAS  you meet students from across the globe. I made friends from  Fiji, Madagascar, East Timor, and so many other countries that were never on my radar!

It was also a humbling experience to realise how little I knew about the legal cultures, society, and politics of countries other than the UK, US, Canada or Australia. SOAS used to have regional music concerts every week in the common room – this was fun! Also, the student protests (on cleaners’ rights/green investments) made it a fascinating learning space.

Trying to understand how one works towards the PhD – any advice you would have for those looking to do something similar? How does one go about setting up RA’s and internships?

Yes. The most important advice I want to give for an aspiring Ph.D. candidate is to read widely around the area of your interest and ask yourself as to whether you would have the energy and excitement to work on that topic for the next three years or so. 

Research assistantships/internships could give you a practical edge over your thesis proposal. For me, the RA I had at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law helped me to consolidate my thoughts for the final thesis proposal. But make sure the RA/internship is in the area of your research interest, or you are pursuing it for specific skill development.

The most important advice I want to give for an aspiring Ph.D. candidate is to read widely around the area of your interest and ask yourself as to whether you would have the energy and excitement to work on that topic for the next three years or so.

Since last year, you also got a Visiting Lecturer post at KCL – how has the teaching experience been? Any practices at KCL that you think Indian law schools can or should adopt?

The teaching experience has been excellent so far! In the beginning, I was a bit nervous, but King’s provide extensive training for young lecturers and teaching fellows on evidence-based teaching methods. The training was useful in evaluating how I could improve and help my students to engage critically with their course materials. I  handle seminars and tutorials – they are mostly discussion based. For me, teaching reminds me of how learning is a continuous process – as I am always picking up on a new idea or a thought-provoking question from my students.

I definitely believe that Indian law schools should think about adopting different teaching methods beyond lectures and seminars- for example, court visits or familiarising students with sample affidavits could assist those who retain information especially through experiential learning. I also think it is crucial to encourage students to engage with their course materials critically. Therefore the faculty members should try to evaluate how their teaching practices are supporting students and how to help them to be more proactive.

I also think it is crucial to encourage students to engage with their course materials critically. Therefore the faculty members should try to evaluate how their teaching practices are supporting students and how to help them to be more proactive.

Last question – would you consider moving back to India as an academic? I suppose what I am asking you is what would Indian law schools have to do to encourage academics like you to come back to the country.

To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer. After my Ph.D I want to look for a position that helps me to pursue my research interests in socio-legal studies, comparative law or transnational law. During my undergraduate years,  I noticed there was limited enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches to law within the Indian law schools. 

The majority of Indian law schools seemed to predominantly follow narrow notions of law as a ‘black-lettered’ normative institution and the role of lawyers  to be limited within courts or private firms. So in a way, I do feel my research interests might not be appreciated within the current educational structure. Another factor is the limited exposure of research and publications to a broader global audience. This is a sad aspect for the academics in the Global South ( for no fault of theirs!).

There are very few reputed academic national law journals/mediums through which young scholars can engage with a wider academic community. I think Indian law schools need to think about how to make academic research valuable for policy decisions in the country. This needs lobbying from the universities, and a change of mindset regarding academic legal research from the wider society itself.

I think Indian law schools need to think about how to make academic research valuable for policy decisions in the country. This needs lobbying from the universities, and a change of mindset regarding academic legal research from the wider society itself.

 

Studying the post-graduate preferences (LLM or otherwise) of Indian law graduates

With LLM application deadlines fast approaching, Amicus Partners has largely been kept busy with the counselling side of things. Which is unfortunate because one of the goals of Amicus Partners is to conduct research on the career trajectories of this country’s law graduates. More specifically, on where they choose to pursue higher education, if at all, where this takes them, and how do they view the Indian and non-Indian learning and working experiences.

Lofty (unattainable?) goals perhaps, and I don’t think we have come even close to capturing enough data to make accurate predictions. But, you have to start somewhere.

And that somewhere is here.

Thus far, we have managed to compile partial data on just under two hundred (one hundred and ninety-six to be exact) Indian law graduates who completed their Indian study of law in between 1998 and 2017.

And based on this data, there are four questions that we can answer. It goes without saying that there are strong elements of bias in this data set, a flaw most glaringly exposed with question number one.

Question No. 1: Where do they complete their Indian law degree?

Nearly one-third of the individuals hail from my alma mater (NUJS), something that is statistically at odds with the sheer number of graduates that older law schools (NLU or otherwise) have churned out.

After NUJS, you get NLSIU (27) then NALSAR (24) and then both, GLC Mumbai and NLU Jodhpur (11). Some of the other graduates that were tracked graduated from ILS, NLU Delhi, and Delhi University.

UniversityNumber of graduates
NUJS56
NLSIU27
NALSAR24
NLU Jodhpur11
GLC Mumbai11
Delhi University8
ILS Pune8
NLU Delhi6
GNLU5
SLS Pune4
KIIT Law School3
Ambedkar University3
Allahabad University3
HNLU3
NLIU 2

Question No. 2: Where do they go for a master’s course?

In terms of geographies, the United Kingdom is the most popular destination by a fair margin. And when I say “fair” I mean a big, big margin.

Just to give you some perspective on this, as per official LSAC figures, around 470 applications were made by Indian students for an LLM in the US between June 2017 and June 2018. Even if you presume that half of all American schools accept non-LSAC applications, that would mean about 1,000 applications were made.

On the other hand, according to official figures released by Cambridge University, there were 177 applications from India for the LLM program for the academic year 2017-2018. In other words, Cambridge University’s LLM course received more than one-tenth the number of applications received by US Law schools in total!

That is a staggering statistic.

Institution-wise, Oxbridge remains the strong favourite with forty-five Indian law grads choosing either the universities of Oxford (32) or Cambridge (13). Then you have the big guns from the US like Harvard Law School (18), Columbia Law School (16) and New York University (15) being the most popular choices.

University/Law SchoolNo. of Indian graduates
Oxford University32
Harvard Law School18
Columbia Law School16
New York University15
Cambridge University13
LSE7
Geneva Centre for International Dispute Settlement6
National University of Singapore5
Queen Mary University of London5
Berkeley4
Duke University3
University of Chicago3
Yale Law School3
Stanford Law School3
Edinburgh University2
UCL2
Univ. of Miami2
UPenn2
Univ. of Missouri Columbia2

Question No. 3: When do they go for their post-graduate degrees?

This was a particularly interesting question for more than one reason. After all, the “when” question is one the most commonly asked at Amicus Partners, and also one that has no “one size fits all” answer. Two, this opens up the door to better understanding the motivations behind the master’s program, and is a great pathway to understand the career trajectories of Indian law graduates.

At what point in time do they decide to do a post-graduate course, and are there any trends that we can spot along the way?

Now, out of the one hundred and ninety-six law graduates in the study, I have PQE data on only one-hundred and nine of them.

PQENumber of law grads
0 years26
1 year19
2 years20
3 years17
4 years10
5 years4
6 years4
7 years5
More than 7 years3

Based on this, one could argue that interest in a master’s course peaks within the first three years following the Indian law degree. After that, interest of the actionable kind declines until. At the cost of repetition though, it needs to be said that this is a rather small data set to play with. And perhaps, with more data, you could actually come down to a more accurate representation of just when Indian law graduates opt for higher education.

Question No.4: Is it only an LLM?

Like some others, I believe that a law degree can be a great liberal arts degree to possess and not one which is only meant to serve the needs of the legal profession. However, I don’t really have the statistical data to back this assertion at least as far as higher education choices are concerned.

The majority of those studied for a postgraduate course in law, but there are some notable exceptions. One of those is an MPP degree, another would be the MBA. As this study expands in scope, I am sure there will be a few other popular non-LLM options that will be churned out. I also think that today’s law graduates

Question No.5: What do they after the foreign degree?

Well, I have not really gotten around to figuring out just what sector of the legal profession, if at all, do Indian law graduates end up at after their master’s course.

Broadly speaking, of the data that has been collected, 82 have returned to India while 67 are working outside the country. For the remaining, I still haven’t been able to collect enough data.

Conclusion

Like I mentioned at the start of the piece, this is very much a work in progress and I think I will only get a more accurate picture with greater data. More specifically, data on what prompted them to pursue a master’s course, did they end up paying for the entire course, and how satisfied were they at the end of the program.

Those, to be honest, are the more important questions.

Far more important.

 

Always happy to hear your thoughts, please feel free to write in at: 

contact[at]amicuspartners[dot]co[dot]in

First Person Accounts: Ritwika Sharma on LLMs from NALSAR, Cambridge University

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of lawyer’s who have pursued a post-graduate course from different schools across the world. In this edition of the FPA, we get talking with Ritwika Sharma who recently completed an LLM from Cambridge University.

That is not the only post-graduate degree that she possesses, Ritwika also completed an LLM from NALSAR University. In this interview, she talks about the differences (and similarities) between the two LLMs,  a career in research and policy, and a whole lot more.

 

Ritwika Sharma on Cambridge LLM

Ritwika Sharma

 

When did you start thinking about a post-graduate education? Given that you went to NALSAR for an LLM immediately after your undergrad, was this something you decided on in your final year?

I started thinking about post-graduate education only towards the end of my final year at college. I was not very sure if I wanted to pursue the LL.M. and was actively applying for jobs till the beginning of my tenth semester.

I was certain that I wanted to start litigating after graduation, and I sat for the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) mostly to have a backup. The fact that the LL.M. had been converted to a one-year course (as opposed to the long-standing two-year course) nudged me into applying for the CLAT.

I ended up securing a decent rank in the exam which made me realise that I could get into a law school of my choice. At this point, I knew I wanted to do the LL.M. a few years later  but because I had a good CLAT rank (and well, no job!), I decided to take the plunge and do the LL.M. immediately after my final year. So I will have to say that the NALSAR LL.M., for me, happened mostly by chance!  

Why an LLM, and why at NALSAR?

When I managed to secure a good rank in the CLAT, I decided to go ahead with the LL.M. and not wait. Also, I must mention that at this point, I had not worked out the finances or the application procedure for an LL.M. from a foreign university. So personally for me, applying for a foreign LL.M. was completely out of question.

NALSAR was my first preference because of the choice of courses the university had on offer. I wanted to specialise in constitutional law. Even though NALSAR had stopped offering the constitutional law specialisation by the time I applied, the general LL.M. gave me the opportunity to study an assortment of courses. I ended up reading the most well thought-out courses in public law at NALSAR because I had the option to choose courses from across specialisations. Of course, most of them were grounded in constitutional law and administrative law but I also read courses in legal theory and environmental law.

Special mention for courses titled ‘Federal Features of the Indian Constitution’, and ‘Theories of Adjudication’ which helped strengthen the basics of constitutional law for me.        

How would you compare the learning experiences at Amity and NALSAR? What were some of the bigger differences when you look back at the two?

I graduated from Amity Law School, Delhi which is affiliated to the Guru GobindSingh Indraprastha University. There were some very stark differences between the learning experiences at Amity and NALSAR. Something that comes to mind almost immediately is the way exams at Amity are structured.

Barring few instances, the exam is a test of rote learning. Open book examination did not exist at Amity, and we knew we were being tested on a very limited set of skills. Of course, I can imagine a law school like Amity being bound by the curriculum and examination patterns of the Indraprastha University, and being unable to immensely modify how they go about assessing students’ performances.

The other important factor that set apart Amity and NALSAR is exposure. Exchange programmes are not a norm at Amity. Based on my limited observation, most undergraduate students at national law schools have been to exchange programmes, an experience which is hard, if not impossible, to have at Amity.

Having said that, I must mention that I was equally happy with the faculty at both Amity and NALSAR. I remember being taught by some brilliant teachers at Amity and in that respect, I could not spot huge differences between the two institutions. The teaching styles were similar, and the faculty at Amity did try their best to stay at par with the way classrooms function at national law schools.     

The one-year LLM in India is a fairly recent phenomenon. Would you recommend it to other law graduates? 

Most people are surprised when I say this, but I will say (rather confidently) that the NALSAR LL.M. was almost as fulfilling as the one at Cambridge! I would certainly recommend it to potential candidates. Law schools are trying to diversify the specialisations and elective courses they have on offer, and I am certain that the quality of the Indian LL.M. is going to improve in the years to come. I found the faculty at NALSAR supremely invested in designing the LL.M. as an advanced research-based course of contemporary relevance.     

Most people are surprised when I say this, but I will say (rather confidently) that the NALSAR LL.M. was almost as fulfilling as the one at Cambridge! I would certainly recommend it to potential candidates.

Of course, there are some aspects of the Indian LL.M. which merit deeper examination. The perception is that if one is pursuing the LL.M. from India it is because they want to venture into academics. This is a sweeping generalisation and I wonder why someone specialising in say, corporate law (or trade law) would not want to work at a law firm.

In a way, what I am trying to say is that LL.M. candidates should have an equal shot at recruitment at law firms (when they come visiting). Things might have changed since 2014 (when I graduated from NALSAR) to now, but back then, it was quite irksome to not have LL.M. students participate in recruitments right from day one. Also, high time that the unfounded discrimination between the undergraduate and graduate students ends – it is juvenile, meaningless, and does nothing to better the academic environment of a law school.

Also, high time that the unfounded discrimination between the undergraduate and graduate students ends – it is juvenile, meaningless, and does nothing to better the academic environment of a law school.

Clearly, your education journey was not complete. A few years at Vidhi, and you went on for another masters (LLM) at Cambridge. What were the reasons behind this move, and did you look at any other universities?

After about two years at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, I was certain that I want to remain in the research and policy space (in India). To that end, it did make sense for me to pursue another advanced research-based degree. By then I knew that a second masters is not entirely unheard of, so I went ahead with it.

Apart from Cambridge, I had applied to Oxford, and the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK. I had also applied to Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale in the US. These choices were premised on the kind of courses these universities offered under the broad realm of public law (because that is what I wanted to specialise in).    

Did you apply for any sort of financial aid?

I did apply for financial aid but unfortunately, I could not lay my hands on any scholarship/ funding. In hindsight, I feel I should have been slightly more diligent with my funding applications.

It is hard, but not entirely impossible to get funding, especially because universities like Oxford and Cambridge have several scholarships on offer. Even a partly-funded LL.M. is a lot of money saved.

My sincere advice for candidates would be to diligently research funding opportunities because there is a lot out there. LL.M. courses in Europe are still not as well as known (as compared to those in the UK and USA) which means there are several untapped funding avenues over there.    

When it came to the application itself, any advice for how one should go about drafting the SoP, who to ask for LoRs etc?

While drafting the SoP may not be that arduous a task in itself, answering a question about how to write one is! I was told that the SoP needs to be like a story – a succinct (and maybe poetic!) description of one’s current and future goals. I was also told that one needs to subtly market oneself in the SoP.

The point of the SoP is to establish one’s suitability for the course they are applying for, and to also convey to the admission authorities as to why that course is crucial for a person’s future goals. I guess if both these requirements are met, that makes for a good SoP (of course, in the form of a story)!

The point of the SoP is to establish one’s suitability for the course they are applying for, and to also convey to the admission authorities as to why that course is crucial for a person’s future goals.

Universities are very clear on the kind of LoRs they require. Most universities require academic LoRs, so always makes sense to keep in touch with professors from your undergraduate institution. For a person who has some professional experience, it makes sense to have one professional referee. Of course, it is advisable to get a LoR from someone who knows you closely, and not necessarily from someone who may be otherwise well-known.    

How was the Cambridge experience? What were the expectations going in, and looking back, were they met?

The Cambridge experience was surreal! Even before the course commenced, I was quite taken by the grandeur of the city, and the kind of resources the University had to offer. It is a holistic experience where there is a lot to gain from the LL.M. course, and from the University town itself.

The University houses some of the most well-endowed libraries and one should make the most of those. There are some brilliant resources on offer, at times archival resources as well which are otherwise hard to find. The city by itself is culturally vibrant and there’s a lot to keep one occupied between terms. Cambridge as a city is quite expensive so there’s always this nagging concern about saving money. Even then, there are a lot of free activities that one can partake in, so all’s well!  

Life at Cambridge could have been better if they had more courses on offer as part of the LL.M. For a university of Cambridge’s repute, the number of courses on offer is startlingly less, and not exactly diverse. Also, I am still trying to wrap my head around 8-week long terms which got over sooner than I realised.

Now I am sure that this has been in existence since time immemorial (and for Oxbridge, quite literally!), but I do believe that that’s something potential applicants should keep in mind while applying. Personally, I could have done with longer terms because I do feel that gives a student more time to familiarise with both the faculty as well as their fellow classmates.  

Lastly, any advice for Indian law grads who are thinking about an LLM?

Be very, very mindful of what you want to specialise in. A student spends just about 10 months in the LL.M. course which get over even before one realises.

It makes sense to wisely choose one’s subjects when all you have is 10 months to specialise in it! This means that the whole applications’ process requires diligent research to ascertain the best law school suited to one’s area of interest.

I will repeat myself and say that candidates should spend as much time working on funding and scholarship applications. Chances are high that several people will get selected for the course, and the only thing that then sets one apart is the fact of earning a scholarship.

I will repeat myself and say that candidates should spend as much time working on funding and scholarship applications. Chances are high that several people will get selected for the course, and the only thing that then sets one apart is the fact of earning a scholarship.

#Interviews: Molina Asthana on Australian LLMs, work-life balance & more

Molina Asthana

Molina Asthana

I came across Molina Asthana’s profile while looking for Indian law graduates who had made the shift to Australia. And the more I read about her, the more I thought she would make for a good interview for Amicus Partners.

A lawyer practicing in Delhi, Molina moved to Australia in 2004. A masters from Melbourne Law School was followed by stints at two top-tier law firms, being on the Board of the Law Institute of Victoria, and also becoming the Vice President of the Asian Australia Lawyers Association. Amongst other things.

I spoke to her on legal education, the utility of a LLM from the perspective of an Indian law grad, and law firms in general. Here are some edited excerpts from the interview.

First off, you do devote a lot of time to non-legal forums such as women in sports, the CommonWealth games, Melbourne University etc – how on earth do you get the time for this?

It depends on your passion. When you have a passion for something you will find the time to do it, no matter how hectic your schedule. I am passionate about creating greater diversity and inclusion for everyone in mainstream Australian community and I find that a lot of my work intersects as well so in doing one thing, I am also creating value for another.

I also find that more things that you have to juggle, the more likely you are to do them as you have no option. Whereas when you have much time on your hands you tend to procrastinate and not accomplish much.

I know it has been a while, but what were some of the bigger differences in the learning experience at MLS as compared to your time as a law student in India?

Indian legal studies still follow the rote learning technique. I remember that we had to remember case names, citations etc. There was little practical application. Whereas in Australia it is about application of principles. We had open book exams, take home exams or essays, based on either hypotheticals or analysis of cases.

In Australia it is about application of principles. We had open book exams, take home exams or essays, based on either hypotheticals or analysis of cases.

Also, when I did my law degree from Campus Law Centre, we did not have any regular moots or similar competitions and not much in terms of gaining practical experience whilst studying. Whereas here in Australia, there is much emphasis on taking part in such activities and also study tours, short-term internships and practical learning, organising seminars etc. Student groups are very active here and engage with the profession at all levels. There is emphasis on mentoring, networking and the value of being part of organised groups/bodies.

I know things have changed in India since then and when I go and speak at conferences or law schools in India I find that the students are much more engaged and dynamic.

Any advice for Indian law grads who are looking at the Australian LLM as a means to enter the Australian legal industry?

I would definitely recommend a LLM from an Australian university as we have some of the best  universities in the world. Melbourne University is rated 7 in the world for law, only after Yale, Harvard etc. Monash is also very good, as well as ANU.  I think many Indian students are not aware of opportunities to do a masters in Australia and that it is a viable and cheaper option than some universities in UK and US.

However, I cannot assure anyone that it a means to enter the Australian Legal Industry. To be able to practice in Australia you have to either complete an undergraduate law degree or do almost 11 subjects again (if you have done your law degree from India).

Melbourne Law School

“I think many Indian students are not aware of opportunities to do a masters in Australia and that it is a viable and cheaper option than some universities in UK and US.”

The masters does not help to get a job in itself. It may be useful only if you have done the local qualification or re-qualification. Further there are too many law graduates coming out locally every year and they are struggling to find jobs and it is much harder for overseas qualified lawyers.

The masters does not help to get a job in itself. It may be useful only if you have done the local qualification or re-qualification. Further there are too many law graduates coming out locally every year and they are struggling to find jobs and it is much harder for overseas qualified lawyers.

I think there are far more opportunities in India for Indian law graduates/lawyers who have completed a LLM overseas then there are in Australia as of now. In the future it may be different when we have reciprocity of recognition of legal qualifications between the two countries, something that I am also working towards.

So, my advice, looking at the current circumstances, would be to do a LLM degree here and then go back to India for better opportunities.

One of the interesting points in your interview with Louise Hvala, is how you used your own network to speak informally with potential recruiters. Do you think this aspect of networking is one that Indian law grads should focus on while in Australia for a LLM?

I think my point was to network to get opportunities directly with law firms. Most recruiters are also biased and would probably not put your name forward as they are not familiar with your qualifications, work experience etc.

I found contacts that got me interviews directly with partners and I was able to convince them the value I would bring to their law firm. I worked at the two top 5 law firms in Australia and in both places, it was because I met the partners directly. Though I moved on to the government after that to get more of a work life balance, I still stay in touch with them and with starting my own practice, I am now looking to work with some of the partners I worked for (deliberate emphasis on the words with and for) which means I’ve come full circle!

I always tell this story when I speak about my journey. When I started applying for jobs in Australia, I was told that my Indian degree and experience was not worth much. Recruiters said that it was unlikely that I will get a job at a top-tier or a mid-tier firm, so I should apply with smaller firms. A well-wisher told me that overseas qualified doctors were driving buses, so I shouldn’t get disheartened. Some went to the extent of telling me to give up my profession and start something afresh, even work at a call centre.

My first job was a top-tier firm. I then moved to another one, having rejected an offer from two other mid-sized law firms. Ironically, I got a call whilst there from a recruiter who had predicted I would never get a job with a top-tier and he said he had an opening at a boutique firm. When I told him, I was at [the top-tier firm] Minters [Ellison], he nearly collapsed.

I got a call whilst there from a recruiter who had predicted I would never get a job with a top-tier and he said he had an opening at a boutique firm. When I told him, I was at [the top-tier firm] Minters [Ellison], he nearly collapsed.

So, networking is important and finding a direct route works better than going through recruiters. Also, being proud of your heritage and confident in your background always holds you in good stead.

In the same interview, you also spoke about the highly competitive environment of law firms as one of the reasons you moved out of private practice. Do you see either Australian or Indian firms addressing this issue? Say, for instance, the mental health problems faced by lawyers?

I don’t think it is in the interest of law firms to address this issue. They are seeking to maximise revenues by using as little resources as they can and with market sizes reducing, particularly in a place like Australia, it is unlikely that they will do much to address this. In fact, in my time at the big firms I found that competitive behaviours were encouraged. This has led to isolation, depression and high rates of suicides in lawyers.

In my time at the big firms I found that competitive behaviours were encouraged. This has led to isolation, depression and high rates of suicides in lawyers.

I am now on the Board of the Law Institute of Victoria which is the peak body that governs the profession and one of our main concerns is the health and wellbeing in the professions, also for judges who are often under too much pressure. We also encourage law firms to address these issues. A lot of law firms have internal policies to address these issues and also free counselling services available, however practically I do not see them having much effect on general health and wellbeing. I also do not see much support systems that exist and I would like to see more being done in this space by law firms.

You are the Vice President of the Asian Australia Lawyers Association. Given that the legal profession tends to be a high-inertia one, how easy or difficult has it been to increase diversity in the legal profession and the judiciary? And any advice that could be used in the Indian scenario?

I have been a strong advocate for diversity in the profession not only because I want to see more lawyers from diverse backgrounds appointed to the bench or become senior lawyers in law firms but also because having that diversity is important for securing justice for litigants coming from these backgrounds. It is also imperative that judges are across cultural and cross-jurisdictional issues so that, like the old adage, justice is not only done but is seen to be done.

However, it is not an easy task to have achieve diversity in the legal profession, including the judiciary. The unconscious bias that people of diverse backgrounds face often translates into virtually no such people in the senior echelons of the legal profession. From the Australian perspective, diversity is not valued in the legal profession as compared to other professions or in indeed Australian society as a whole. Being different means that you had to try harder to prove yourself.

From the Australian perspective, diversity is not valued in the legal profession as compared to other professions or in indeed Australian society as a whole. Being different means that you had to try harder to prove yourself.

The legal profession in most Commonwealth countries has traditionally been the domain of the privileged. This phenomenon becomes pronounced in counties where the population is diverse and the under-representation of the changing demography leads to the perpetuation of the bamboo ceiling. There is much work for organisations like the Asian Australian Lawyers Association to address these issues and we do it through advocacy, lobbying with the Government, providing support and opportunities to lawyers of diverse backgrounds and constantly pushing our agenda.

In the Indian scenario, it plays out differently. Diversity is still an issue but it is more from the class perspective than people of different cultural backgrounds. Law is still a profession of the privileged and people who are from a ‘legal family’ are still likely to do better than those who are not, though with bright lawyers coming out of National Law Schools, things are changing. However, the profession still has a vast divide in terms of the highest paying lawyers, lawyers who are in the corporate sector and lawyers who practice in the lower courts and struggle to make ends meet.

To address this, there needs to be more homogeneity in the legal profession in India and the quality of legal education needs to improve as well. It should not be considered as a profession of last resort for people who cannot get into any other professional courses. The standards need to increase and there has to be compulsory Professional Development units that lawyers need to do every year to keep their practicing certificates.

To address this, there needs to be more homogeneity in the legal profession in India and the quality of legal education needs to improve as well. It should not be considered as a profession of last resort for people who cannot get into any other professional courses.

You mentioned that you always wanted to do an LLM but never really had the time. Would you recommend a foreign LLM to Indian law graduates?

I always did want to do an LLM when I was practicing In India and from an overseas jurisdiction, but I never could find the time to take a break from work to do it. However, I did an LLM from Melbourne University when I moved here, and I have to say it was the best thing that I have done in my life.

I enjoyed it thoroughly and I would recommend it to everyone. But I think it is useful to do an LLM only from a good university and after a few years of working in the legal sector because then you really get the most out of it. Also do it on a topic that is of interest to you.

I have also noticed that good Indian firms and corporates now prefer lawyers who have an LLM from a good university from overseas.  Of course, I have a bias towards Australia as I think it has some great law schools but doing an LLM degree from any good university overseas will definitely increase your job prospects in good firms both in India and overseas.

Of course, I have a bias towards Australia as I think it has some great law schools but doing an LLM degree from any good university overseas will definitely increase your job prospects in good firms both in India and overseas.

The Amicus Interviews: Dhvani Mehta on Indian legal education, LLMs and more (Part 2)

Dhvani Mehta, VCLP

Dhvani Mehta

In the second part of the interview (you can read Part 1 here), Dhvani talks about focusing on academy and research in Indian law schools, the kind of lawyers that VCLP is looking to hire, and a whole lot more.

 

 

How do you encourage academic research in Indian law schools?

One [way] is to have good professors themselves. If you see someone who is vibrant and dynamic and can think differently, that kind of motivates you to pursue that kind of work yourself.

[Another way is] showing students what the value of good academic research can be. A good idea in a law review article can perhaps someday be the basis of a legal argument before a constitutional bench or lay down the foundation for a new law.

Thoughts on how legal education can improve in India?

Perhaps a more rigorous clinical legal education may also have helped. We were required to do some internships in a district court, keep a journal of court proceedings. But everyone copied the journal from the previous year, no one actually went to court.

I had a series of internships all through the five years, but I don’t think I knew what it meant to be a practicing lawyer. Now that I think about it, I wrote a thesis on how the Supreme Court decides environmental cases without ever actually having been in court during an environmental case [hearing] ever.

Of course, you can write a purely academic thesis that dissects the jurisprudence and that is what I did. But it might have been so much richer if I had a pulse on what was happening in India.

Is that what got you back?

Definitely. As I said, the DPhil was such a difficult experience and perhaps made me realize that legal research and academia was not the path I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.

Why?

I just did not enjoy that kind of research. To me, it is an experience that is intrinsically important – you must encourage academia for the sake of it because that is where new ideas come from. I would be the first person to support any type of academic endeavour irrespective of whether it had a tangible outcome or not.

You must encourage academia for the sake of it because that is where new ideas come from. I would be the first person to support any type of academic endeavour irrespective of whether it had a tangible outcome or not.

But for me, that was not enough. I was not sufficiently engaged with the intellectual exercise of it. I needed to do something that had some sort of “instant gratification” if I had to put it that way.

What are the kind of lawyers VCLP is looking for?

[We look] for people who want to engage. I am not saying you should not have strong ideological positions, of course you should, and you must. But we are also looking for people who understand the importance of talking to different stakeholders, engaging with different actors, and understanding that law making and policy making is sometimes, or most often, a question of compromising. Of figuring out the best balance between competing interests.

If you could speak to your 18-year old self, would you tell her to study law?

No. I always wished that I had done medicine and I still wish I had. Not because I don’t find the law rewarding or intellectually satisfying. It is all these things for a lot of people just not for me in the way I had imagined it would be.

I don’t find legal problems intrinsically exciting. It is not my thing.

Which is why the work I do at VCLP – health and environment – involves a lot of interactions with people working in that field. Non-lawyers. I am more interested in what I can do with my skills as a lawyer to change actual outcomes on the ground.

I didn’t expect that at all.

(grins) I love my job here, and I love the work I do. This is a purely personal [opinion] that could just be something to do with my bent of mind. Which is why I really think that law shouldn’t be something you do after graduating from Class 12.

I really think people should seriously consider doing a 3-year course rather than a 5-year course if they are not entirely certain about the law as a career. You get a degree in either arts, or commerce or science, and also a better chance to explore what you really might be interested in. And then if you still think that law is the answer for you, you always have the option to do the 3-year law degree.

I really think people should seriously consider doing a 3-year course rather than a 5-year course if they are not entirely certain about the law as a career. You get a degree in either arts, or commerce or science, and also a better chance to explore what you really might be interested in.

Any advice for those interested in an LLM?

One I would say, think about waiting a little bit after you have graduated from law school. Work, figure out what it is that you are really interested in, and apply accordingly.

Also, obviously we have our set of Ivy League schools and Oxbridge but if there is something in particular that you are really interested in, and it is taught at some not very well-known law school, that is okay. Do your homework and go to the place that you think is able to provide the most to you.

 

You can also listen to the interview here:

No NET for Assistant Prof. post if you have a foreign PhD from a top-500 University

For those Indian law graduates looking to join academia, here is a development that ought to be of interest. As per multiple reports last week, the University Grants Commission has allowed foreign PhD holders to be directly recruited as assistant professors. Most significantly, this does away with the requirement of the National Eligibility Test – a factor that has discouraged many in the past.

This development can actually be traced back to July last year when the UGC published the succinctly titled UGC Regulations on Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and Other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges and Measures for the Maintenance of Standards in Higher Education. [pdf]

Amongst other things, the Regulations state to be eligible for direct recruitment to the post of Assistant Professor, you can either go through the established route of the NET (although there are some exceptions to this) or have a PhD from a foreign degree that has,

“obtained from a foreign university/institution with a ranking among top 500 in the World University Ranking (at any time) by any one of the following: (i) Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) (ii) the Times Higher Education (THE) or (iii) the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Shanghai).”

These regulations have been notified in October last year so I am not sure why this has been picked up only now. In fact, this particular provision (of PhD from a foreign university) was mentioned in this news report from June of last year.

Whatever be the reason for the recent reports, what this effectively means is that Indian law graduates can consider different pathways to entering Indian academy. And, also, the NET is no longer a mandatory requirement for becoming an Assistant Professor.

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