Notes From A Foreign Field
This article has been written by Abhinav Sekhri (Batch of 2014). It captures some of his experiences of pursuing an LLM from Harvard and provides some food for thought. We, at Quirk, wish the best of luck to those applying for an LLM and hope to hear about your experiences too!
Law School, like much else, is a place of endless loops and cyclic events. Or, to put it more simply, it is another place where the same shit keeps happening over and over again for most parts. One of these cycles is the thought that we get either in Fifth year, if our grades are respectable enough, or later, if too many of our friends have done, is to go abroad and get a second degree. This most often is the LLM (Or the BCL if you prefer). I fall in the latter category of persons who went after too many friends had done it. As I write this, I am sitting in my slightly-bigger-than-Cauvery 207-left cube-single room at the NLS of the West, wondering what to do with my life next. For the time being, I thought the best thing would be to write an article for Quirk that fits not one, but two whole categories in that mandate (to make sure that I get my piece in, obviously). So here, in this slightly long-winded piece, I thought I’ll give some food for thought on the idea and allure of doing an LLM from abroad.
Calling out the BullS**T
The LLM, as one of my seniors told me at the time, gave her more in a year’s education than what she got in five at NLS. After having spent that year studying myself, and having spoken to a decently large group of others who have done so as well, I am confident that she was making a fool of me. I know I’m not saying this for everyone, but in my case, the five years at NLS were frankly not atrociously bad. In fact, some of it was surprisingly good even *shudders*. Given that this sales-pitch often comes at the start and is very effective to someone at the end of five years at NLS, I thought it best to start with debunking this particular myth about doing an LLM. In fact, “you will find” (brownie points for getting the reference) that all educational institutions share some similarities. One of these is that everywhere, there is good faculty, there is not-so-good faculty, and there is the kinds that we do not speak of. The same goes for your peers. Avoiding the last category in both is down to a mixture of smart choices and dumb luck. Much like at NLS, you will find that your returns from doing the LLM will be closely linked to the amount of time and effort you invest in doing your bit studying etc. Again, this is one of those fundamental laws (like the faculty / student rule) that stays the same everywhere. It was funny to see how many people here “bragged about” barely studying and then “complained” about not really learning much through the program. I remember the same sentiment prevailing at NLS, when there used to be that one person bragging about how much s/he has left the night before the exam, expecting a mixture of adulation and reverence at her ability to not be freaking out. If you ask, s/he often didn’t give the exam #NotReallyFirstAttempts.
Which brings me to the parts that are true. First, you might hear that the LLM is necessary for career advancement. This is true if you are thinking of pursuing a career in law outside of India either as a practicing advocate or as an academic (although the UK Bar would not need you to have a foreign LLM degree). But if you plan on sticking around in the motherland, the LLM in all likelihood will make you overqualified: like the proverbial plumber with a Ph.D. You’d rather save that money and time to get better at your job. The other thing you might hear is that the LLM offers an upgrade in the content of what you learn. Here I don’t claim to speak about the BCL experience, but in most of the U.S. based universities, the focus on context while teaching the law is amazing to help place things in perspective. The idea of law and society being intertwined was at the heart of the idea of NLS. But in my five years at least, I can hardly recall professors contextualising the law to help make students better understand what might have led to certain legal rules coming in. For instance, we spent all of constitutional law without touching either of Granville Austin’s two books. Today, I’d go so far as to call that a crime. Learning about the law in this manner for the past year was great. But honestly, it convinced me that the gap in what we study at NLS and what we can learn in the LLM is far from insurmountable.
Together with the academics, a lot of the allure about studying abroad comes from what I’ll call the argument about “experience”. I know people who did an LLM only because of the “experience” of studying at one of the elite universities. Undoubtedly, being in Oxford or Cambridge (either the real or fake one) is fantastic. These are University towns brimming with ideas and amazing people. In one way, this was a massive upgrade from NLS. I remember the first weeks at Nagarbhavi went in me just appreciating the national diversity of my class. That now becomes an international diversity, and only makes the experience more fulfilling. The upgrade analogy works in another sense as well. A problem with the typical National Law School / University model is that it creates islands, rather than have the law school as part of a vibrant academic culture. Being part of a real university (and not a School University) you really see that matter besides the coffee-table conversations you might have. For instance, at Harvard, you get the opportunity to cross-register for courses at MIT, HKS etc. that really help to broaden your perspective on how you think about issues. Having an economist in a class full of lawyers on global anti-corruption makes you see problems in a whole new light. Or, you might see entirely new issues – take a class in coding, or introduction to literature, or racial consciousness in America. Not having made good use of this cross-registration process is one regret that I will leave Harvard with.
Focusing now on the LLM program more specifically, I must say a bit about being an LLM. I found it was quite like a case of what goes around comes around. The LLMs at most of these places in the U.S. are treated just like how we treated LLMs back at NLS – as the “Other”, excluding them from most college activities and harbouring a culture that viewed them as inferior. On multiple occasions the LLM Class discussion groups here would whip up a frenzy over the unfairly exclusive behaviour of the J.D. students or teachers, (the American equivalent of the LLB) towards the LLMs. Usually, LLMs are part of the same classes as JDs, and several episodes where my LLM classmates would complain about feeling discriminated against because their names were difficult, or because they weren’t getting the inside jokes based on American pop culture. I remember a particular episode when we found out that LLMs could not apply for editorial positions in the Harvard Law Review owing to their policies. For me, each of those conversations had a past parallel at how the LLM classes were treated by the LLBs (including me) in my time at NLS. And looking back, I found it even more absurd than the treatment here. In the U.S. the LLMs were part of the same classes and they could validly point to our foreign-ness and lack of American legal training to justify a measure of difference. But what made us so superior to the LLMs back home? Having a degree from NLS, a place which we bitched about to no end?