First Person Accounts: Ameen Jauhar on an MSc from University College London

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. Understandably, the majority of Indian law graduates choose to pursue an LLM. However, this does not mean that an LLM is the only post-graduate option for today’s law students. In fact, a non-law focused master’s may be of greater value.

Ameen Jauhar

Ameen Jauhar

In this edition of the FPA, we get talking with Ameen Jauhar, a graduate of NUJS (Class of ’12) who recently completed an MSc  in Systematic Reviews for Social Policy and Practice from the University College London.

Ameen has made a few interesting moves since he graduated – from working at a national law firm, to joining Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy before embarking on a non-LLM master’s course.

(Edited excerpts)

Even before your master’s, you made a couple of interesting career decision- what was the thinking behind making the jump?

The idea behind moving from a law firm to Vidhi was quite fortuitous. I had a conversation with a friend who had interned in a policy firm in the United States. She  told me how that internship had translated into a second internship at the Ministry of External Affairs.

Honestly, that was the turning point for me – I found policy advocacy as this novel space which had the advocacy element from litigation, research, and policy impact – it was an exciting combination. That drove me into investigating this space more over the next few months, and eventually I decided to move out of the firm.

What prompted you to look at UCL in general, and the MSc in particular?

When I moved to Vidhi, I was no longer contemplating an LL.M. I had this conversation with a senior partner at my law firm before leaving, and he articulated a relevant question – If you want to venture into the policy space, away from conventional legal practice, why do you want to go back and read things they taught you to some extent in law school?

If you want to venture into the policy space, away from conventional legal practice, why do you want to go back and read things they taught you to some extent in law school?

The question stuck and between 2015-16, through my work at Vidhi, I realised that my work required research and solutions based on interdisciplinary approaches, and not just the legal perspective.

It made a lot of sense to pursue something like a Masters in Public Policy, to better understand evidence-based policy in theory and in practice.

What were some of the bigger learnings during the one-year course? 

Inside the classroom, my biggest learning has been the use of research designs in conducting proper empirical research, a skillset law school does not impart.

Outside of class, my big takeaway was how people with a legal background, and an understanding of policy processes, can have ample employment opportunities – in research think tanks, government orgs, international bodies, or even as university academics and researchers. Policy, like law, is all pervasive, and its understanding facilitates a unique entrepreneurial sense.

Policy, like law, is all pervasive, and its understanding facilitates a unique entrepreneurial sense.

Did you apply for any sort of financial aid?

I did qualify for the Chevening interview but had to drop out for some personal reasons. However, eventually, Vidhi funded a substantial chunk of my tuition fee. I want to clarify that this was not a bond I signed. My return to Vidhi was mutually agreed and premeditated (much before they decided to sponsor me).

What were the more challenging aspects of the MSc? Was it the dissertation?

The dissertation was definitely a rigorous process. Writing 12,000 words (after extensive research is tedious). For me, I think it was quite tough in the winter term (between January and March) because I had ongoing submissions from my last term, while attending lectures, and finishing readings/assignments for the ongoing term.

I think between January 8 – May 30, I wrote one essay per week (roughly 2,500-3,500 words). By the end of that phase, I felt quite exhausted, and desperately needed a break – Edinburgh sounded (and was) fantastic!

Now that you are back to work at VCLP, what are the ways in which your MSc is shaping your own research and writings?

I think coming back to Vidhi, I am seeing our endeavours at evidence-based policy in a whole new light. I feel (especially in Judicial Reforms) there is a great scope to talk about this, introduce this approach in the prevailing discourse, and conduct some meaningful research and advocacy work in the process.

How do you think Indian legal education could encourage interdisciplinary research and scholarship?

Honestly, I think legal education can’t be extremely interdisciplinary. I mean the whole B.A./B.Sc./B.B.A. LL.B. programmes are duplicitous – they don’t really teach you arts subjects, or sciences, or business administration.

I do feel, it is an interesting combination for law students to consider pursuing at the Master’s level. However, as some law schools are now introducing public policy programmes (like NLSIU and Jindal), I hope they do realise that legality of policies is not the only relevant question.

Policy decisions (be it public, social, or even judicial) are political, based in societal contexts and subjectivities, and therefore, need understanding of social perspectives. The use of evidence cannot only be limited to constitutionality and legality. So a holistic, interdisciplinary approach is imperative. That said, I don’t believe law programmes will deliver it. Hopefully policy programmes will, or else, one could go for a more diverse master’s programme

Policy decisions (be it public, social, or even judicial) are political, based in societal contexts and subjectivities, and therefore, need understanding of social perspectives. The use of evidence cannot only be limited to constitutionality and legality.

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.

The Amicus Podcast Episode 05: Dhvani Mehta (Oxford University, VCLP)

Dhvani Mehta is one of the founding members of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. The Rhodes scholar has spent a considerable amount of time at Oxford University; after her BCL, she went on to complete an MPhil and then a DPhil in law from Oxford. In this podcast, she talks about legal education, her time at Oxford, the life of a researcher and a whole lot more.

You can read edited excerpts of the podcast here and here.

 

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:

The Amicus Interviews: Dhvani Mehta, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy (Part 1)

Dhvani Mehta, VCLP

Dhvani Mehta

Dhvani Mehta has been on the list of people-I-must-speak-to for a while now. For many reasons. One, she is a Rhodes scholar. Two, she is one of the founding members of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a think-tank that has really pushed policy work as a viable career option for Indian law grads.

Three, it is high time that academy and research is given more attention, and information on academic careers be made more accessible.

In the first part of the interview, I get Dhvani to discuss her own experiences at Oxford University as a BCL student, an MPhil and then a DPhil. She also talks about, what I consider, the lesser known facts of research.

Without further digression, the first part of the two-part interview:

So, I know you always wanted to study outside the country. Why?

Primarily just for the experience of living in another country and also, perhaps, having the chance to be tested intellectually in a way that I wasn’t at [Government Law College Mumbai]. I am not saying that I had a bad legal education – there were several things that were very interesting and informative about [GLC]. It gave me a lot of opportunities to do other kinds of non-academic activities that I may not have had the chance to do if I was in a fully residential 5-year law school.

Having said that, I did not have the chance to do any proper legal research in college or do any serious legal writing. So, one of the reasons why I wanted to do an LLM abroad was to see if I would match up to that kind of environment.

I wanted to see what it meant to really think in a rigorous way and be taught by people who weren’t really interested in seeing what the right answer to a multiple-choice question was.

[I wanted] to see what it meant to really think in a rigorous way and be taught by people who weren’t really interested in seeing what the right answer to a multiple-choice question was. [People] who make you think more about what the law should be and not what it was. I had a vague idea that’s what an LLM abroad would equip me with.

Do you think you were right?

Yes, I would think so. In going to Oxford, my expectations from the BCL were definitely matched and then some. It was one of the most exciting courses that I did. It was unlike any style of teaching or examination taking that I had ever been used to.

When you mean teaching style, are you talking about seminars?

Yes. The seminar style of teaching meant you had to do a lot of reading before class. I was taken aback in the first few weeks to know that my classmates had detailed notes on everything they had read [before they came to class]

Oxford also has this tutorial system where you write an essay and discuss that one on one or in a group of three: you, a fellow student and the professor. You have the chance to critique the other person’s work, hear critique of your own work, defend it, conceive some points and get some very detailed feedback on your writing and thinking.

You stuck around at Oxford for quite a while. Any surprises along the way?

After the BCL, I was in for a general shock as far as coping with what writing a thesis or doing a research degree meant. I did not have a very clear idea of what that would entail at all.

I would say that perhaps Oxford does not do the best job of orienting its research students about what it is really going to be like doing an MPhil or a DPhil.

And what is it really going to be like?

It is going to be lonely. It is going to involve a lot of self-motivation. Your experience is going to vary depending on the kind of supervisor you have. You are going to enjoy it only if you are really passionate about the subject you are researching. I think it is a lot about finding your own way.

How do you do that?

I suppose trial and error. Perhaps I was unduly harsh on Oxford [earlier]. Of course, we had a legal research methods course, and we had support groups for DPhil students – it helps but ultimately it is something that you have to figure out on your own. I had a very supportive supervisor, and I also had a good college advisor.

It always helped to generally talk about your woes with other DPhil students, so we would go discussion groups, everybody would moan about the stage in which their thesis was. Everyone would learn not to ask each other how their thesis was going.

We would go discussion groups, everybody would moan about the stage in which their thesis was. Everyone would learn not to ask each other how their thesis was going.

The mental health of PhD scholars is a serious issue.

I would say that there was a time when I was doing the DPhil that I was definitely depressed. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the DPhil or I was just generally fed up of spending a miserable winter in Oxford yet again.

Again, there is support from the university, there is counselling that you can go to. You can take a sabbatical. There are a lot of systems in place that allow you to find your own pace, but it is still hard.

Apart from your research, you also worked with Oxford Pro Bono Publico (OPBP)

OPBP provides legal research assistance to other NGOs who are pursuing human rights cases across the world or made submissions to parliamentary standing committees or other governmental bodies. We would help draft amicus briefs for lawyers, again, fighting human rights cases.

I won’t say I saw it as an escape from my thesis, but yes it helped having something different to do and something that had a more tangible outcome. You know with the DPhil, you can’t really see the end in sight and it is very frustrating to go to the library every day, sit there for eight hours, and have a hundred words to show for it. Which you will probably erase the next day.

What is a day in the life of a DPhil scholar?

It depends on what kind of thesis you are writing. If your thesis has empirical research or a fieldwork component, then you are not in Oxford for some time, and you are out there doing interviews or gathering data from archives or whatever.

But most legal theses are not like that, so you are just usually sitting in the library, making notes, substantiating your footnotes etc.

What drove you?

Getting the “Dr” prefix before your name. I couldn’t be a real doctor, so this seemed to be the best way to do that (smiles). No, but I suppose what drives you is that [a PhD] is the highest academic qualification that you can get. And to anyone who is somewhat nerdy, that is a good goal to have.

And like I said, for people who are really passionate about the subject matter that they are pursuing or have a real interest in an academic career, a PhD is basically sine qua non– you can’t advance without a PhD.

I suppose what drives you is that a PhD is the highest academic qualification that you can get. And to anyone who is somewhat nerdy, that is a good goal to have.

Listen to the entire conversation here:

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