Notes From a Foreign Field - The Sequel
This article has been written by Megha Mehta (BA LLB 2019). The illustration is by Anshita Agrawal (BA LLB 2023).
A few years ago, BA LLB 2014 alum Abhinav Sekhri had published a piece in Quirk about his experiences during the Harvard LL.M. program. The article made three observations, all of which I now know to be true, and which I shall paraphrase for your benefit. First, the intellectual experience at Harvard, though definitely rewarding, is not necessarily mind-blowing or life-changing in the way former alumni often paint it to be. Second, being part of an actual ‘University’ environment spanning ten different schools (and campuses) broadens your horizons and social networks in a way that a singular law school campus cannot replicate. Third, as a LL.M. you will often not receive the same level of respect as your J.D. peers, much in the same way we treat graduate students and non-NLS peeps in India.
I must admit, at the time (I was a fourth year, and part of the Quirk team) I did not take the article very seriously. To be fair, Sekhri’s piece is a lone discordant note in a sea of voices telling you that studying abroad is one of the best experiences of your life—if you have the privilege to do so. Having completed the LL.M., I can now say that doing a Masters degree is like many of the other overglorified experiences (e.g. mooting) that are ‘marketed’ to us during our time at NLS. It is certainly life-changing, but not necessary to your development, either professionally or personally.
Of course, the intuitive response to pieces like Sekhri’s and mine would obviously be ‘Ya easy for you to talk, after having gone abroad.’ I recently attended a talk on the political economy of studying in the Global North by NLS alum Rahul Rao in which he astutely observed that studying abroad can be a crucial marker of social mobility, and even an escape hatch, for someone facing oppression in India. Even for those of us who aren’t particularly disadvantaged, the LL.M. may be important for getting a job abroad or as an entry point into academia. I am well aware that a Quirk article is not going to in anyway diminish the attractiveness of an Ivy League LL.M. (and perhaps it is in my own professional interest that it stay that way). This piece is only intended to be a warning, and dispel some of the information asymmetry and myths surrounding the U.S. LL.M. (Also I haven’t written anything non-academic in a year, so well).
First, legal education institutions, domestic and international, are often similar in their structure and functioning to law firms/corporations. This means they only see value in you to the extent you churn out output for them and bring credibility and fame to their brand. Therefore, your return of investment on the LL.M. largely depends on what you take out of it—the university will not give you much without you asking for it. This is largely in consonance with the U.S. culture of self-reliance and individualism generally. It is up to you to decide (like in NLS) if you want to spend your LL.M. partying and taking ‘chill’ courses, networking, or doing rigorous academic work. If you choose the last option, do not expect it to be some kind of dream sabbatical where you spend hours leisurely poring over scholarship in the beautiful Harvard libraries. It’s like doing a corporate job without being paid for it. In fact, you’re the one shelling out foreign currency to burn the midnight oil, with no expectation of reward.
The emphasis on self-help also means that you should not keep any grandiose hopes of mentorship or institutional support when it comes to job searches, course selection or thesis writing. Like in NLS your ‘success’, academic or professional, often depends on how ‘smart’ you are about taking advice from seniors (in this case previous LL.M. students), and ‘connecting’ with peers and professors.
This brings to me to my second point. The U.S. LL.M. experience is much more focused on networking than the LL.B. at NLS is (unless something has changed since I graduated). Arguably, one can have a reasonably good time at NLS and get a well-paying job by dint of hard work and decent grades without having to know (or be known by) the entire law school or be best friends with every professor. The LL.M., on the other hand, puts constant pressure on you to socialize and put yourself ‘out’ there given that you only have 9 months to achieve your goals, be it getting an interview with a foreign law firm or sourcing potential supervisors for a doctorate.
It is noteworthy in this aspect that an environment like HLS does not reward qualities like kindness, empathy, or sincerity. I suppose this is true of the legal profession as a whole, even in India. What it does reward is typically masculine qualities such as being the loudest voice at the table, being competitive, taking charge, and all in all, selling yourself as someone who is Cool/ Useful to Know™. Perhaps HLS is not solely to blame here-maybe it’s do with the general social conditioning today where success is measured in terms of your ability to assimilate into power structures. This ‘hustle culture’ is a common feature even in politically ‘woke’ spaces. As is common in such spaces, if you are experiencing alienation, homesickness or general mental health issues you are unlikely to receive much institutional solidarity except for empty platitudes.
Moreover, unlike in NLS where you at least have five years to discover yourself (and other people), the LL.M. is all about first impressions. As an introvert who is used to letting her work speak for itself, I found the pressure to ‘connect’ exhausting. However, I suppose in that sense the LL.M. experience was useful because it taught me that just ‘hard work’ is not enough, and that adulthood, and joining academia, does not magically bring maturity and focus. In the discourse on working conditions in the legal profession, academia is painted as a haven compared to law firms and litigation chambers. Yet, even within Harvard, there was the same NLS-esque (if not practically high school level) professional competition and insecurity, pressure to be part of a ‘clique’, petty inter-group and intra-group dynamics, and even relationship drama. There is also the sad realization that even within the academic community, a lot of relationships are dictated more by strategic utility than genuine liking, and your ability to discover resources depends on forming such relationships of convenience. A friend once remarked to me on how nobody told her ‘office hours’ with professors was a thing before the LL.M. If you are looking to transition to academia in the hopes that it involves less drama and sycophancy, you might want to be mindful of this fact.
All of the above is complicated by the fact that a student of color from the Global South, you are often subject to micro-aggressions in your interactions with Global North peers over which you have no control. There is also the hiccup of having to forego socializing opportunities simply because you don’t have the money or the time to spend every other day at the local nightclub. I would strongly advise people going abroad for further studies to consider deactivating Instagram or not checking batchmates’ social media updates for their own sanity.
Finally, and this is something that perhaps even my batchmates who have had better social experiences will agree with, the intellectual spaces at U.S. law schools can be quite insular. I’ve realized that Indian scholars often glorify Global North jurisprudence notwithstanding glaring errors in their doctrine, but the academics there are not always equally interested in taking insights from other jurisdictions, even though we are better in many respects. Regardless of what a superstar you were in your home country, as a LL.M. student you will be treated on par with a first-year law student and judged for your ability to perfect U.S. doctrine. Whilst this can be a humbling experience, it also means feeling left out and discredited in U.S.-focused classroom discussions which are dominated by J.D. students. Moreover, it’s not so easy to make the ‘scam-legit’ binary with regard to faculty. What one notices is rather a ‘great scholar but bad teacher’ conundrum, which is harder to navigate given that it involves a trade-off between meeting your dream professor and being dissatisfied in the classroom.
Of course, this is not to say that the LL.M. experience is some kind of Dante’s inferno of doom and darkness. If you have the energy to disassociate yourself from the cliques and the competition, there is plentiful knowledge and inspiration to be found in meeting people from other jurisdictions. I will certainly miss having the opportunity to interact with such a diverse cohort. There is also the option of learning from people in non-law disciplines across the University—though again, as mentioned earlier, the burden is entirely on you to take out the time and effort to cross-register for courses in other schools and reach out to students there because you will not be given any institutional incentive to do so (especially given the red tape associated with course selection). Leaving that aside, one has to admit that First World spaces are better from a quality of life perspective. The flower-lined avenues of Cambridge are a pedestrian dream compared to the narrow, crumbling, poop-infested footpaths of Mumbai, not to mention safer for a woman. If you’re a culture person, at any given moment there is always some concert, talk, art exhibition, etc. happening in Harvard Yard, which you can simply walk into at any time without even planning for it—if you can make time that is.
In conclusion, the point of this article is not to say that don’t do the LL.M. or don’t go to Harvard. It’s simply that don’t make the mistake of thinking something is better simply by virtue of being located abroad or having a certain branding (much in the same way that a law school is not a utopia for being the top ranked in the country). In many ways the LL.M. is like a compressed version of undergrad. You will make the same mistakes, enter the same ‘rat race’ for padding your resume, and suffer the same heartbreaks, all in the span of nine months. For those who have left their college days behind as a sweet, but distant memory, it would be advisable to proceed with caution.