This post was first published on December 19, 2019
Nikunj Kulshreshtha is a practising lawyer based in Delhi. He graduated from Law Centre-1, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi in 2018. He then completed his LLM in Criminal Justice from Queen Mary University of London in 2019.
His areas of interest include Criminal Law, Medical Negligence Law, White Collar Crimes, Forensic Science and Gender and Law. Apart from law, Nikunj has a keen interest in geopolitics, military and strategic studies and diplomacy.
1. How was your law school (UG) experience?
In one word ‘Intense’. I had read somewhere that only the disciplined are truly free. Well I can vouch for the same. My law school schedule was like clockwork consisting of attending lectures in the evening while doing internships during the day. Even during semester breaks, I was pursuing various ancillary courses. I had some of the most dedicated teachers who were not only brilliant in teaching, but also took pains in helping students in non-law school related activities such as moot, further studies etc.
2 What are the activities/internships that you did in law school (UG)?
I pursued a lot of internships during my 3-year LLB. I completed almost 13 months of internship experience in various criminal litigation offices. Most of the offices I worked in were handling pretty high-profile matters arising out of the Coal Block Scam so I ended up developing some really fine-tuned research skills which helped in my LLM as well.
I also pursued some ancillary courses related to my field of interest such as a course in Cyber Law for better understanding of cyber-crimes. I further completed my long overdue desire of doing a course in forensic science which really opened me up to a variety of forensic methodologies used in criminal cases. These kinds of ancillary courses arm one with certain intricacies of law which helps one distinguish oneself from the crowd.
3. When and why did you decide to pursue LLM?
From the start of my law school journey, I was clear that I wanted to make a career in criminal law. After interning in various offices engaging in criminal litigation, I developed greater interest in criminal law, particularly in white-collar crimes. Pursuing an LLM from abroad seemed like a natural progression in-line with my career aspirations. By the time I completed my 5th semester, the decision to pursue a specialised LLM degree was cemented. The idea of doing an LLM was to gain specialised knowledge in the areas of my interest. At this point I was unsure whether I should first gain some work experience before applying, but given my substantial internship experiences, I decided to go for it right after LLB.
4. What were the reasons behind choosing an LLM abroad than India?
First of all, the Indian education system typically focuses on quantity rather than quality. Secondly, I wanted to get some global exposure so I opted to study abroad than in India. UK emerged as the natural and preferred choice of location. North America is very expensive. Singapore is a hub primarily for commercial laws, Europe has a different legal system with a foreign language and Australia did not seem coherent with my life goals.
UK had an excellent reputation for higher education in law. Most lawyers and political leaders of our country have studied there and we derive our legal roots from the common law system. These factors made me choose UK for pursuing my LLM.
5. How was your application experience? How important is approaching a consultancy?
The experience was very intense and overwhelming considering that it was pretty late when I started applying to universities, and I had to do a lot of work within a limited amount of time. I meticulously researched for weeks about the course content, modules, faculty experience before I decided to apply.
After extensive research, I realised that there were only eight colleges in the UK which taught jurisprudence of substantive criminal law to LLM students. Out of these, I was interested in applying to only five because there were not enough subjects of my interest that were taught in the other three. Out of those five, LSE admissions had already closed, and University of Birmingham did not offer me admission. However, I got conditional acceptances from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), Sussex and City University.
The importance of guidance and review from a professional cannot be overstated. I spoke to at least 2-3 alumni of every law school I applied to before making a final decision. Right from knowing which university to apply for, understanding what course to apply for, how to go about the entire process, writing an effective statement of purpose, applying for relevant scholarships, customizing the approach to each individual university, and various other steps, a steady guided approach can be extremely helpful for a student.
Quite frankly, hiring a consultant makes sense considering that one spends a fortune on this degree and it would make sense to take the benefit of somebody`s experience. However, there are some pitfalls of which one should be careful, such as knowing the difference between hiring a consultant and hiring an agent. An agent is typically a university representative who gets commission for every student admitted. On the other hand, a consultant is an external expert who have gone through the process themselves but have no say in the admission process itself.
For example, agents often have an incentive to persuade students in certain ways, whether that course is relevant or not because they get a very hefty amount as commission; this often reduces one`s chances of getting a scholarship because the university has to bear the agent commission expenses. Also, there are times when agents can misguide students, for example IELTS is an English Language test that is a necessary requirement for admissions in UK universities; however, most agents take it very lightly by saying that one can get a waiver by submitting medium of instruction certificate.
This certificate may or may not be accepted by the university. These and many other subtle but important nuances are essential for students to know which only a professional consultant can help with.
6. What are the major things one should keep in mind for a foreign LLM application?
Considering the significant investment required and the impact of this decision on one`s career in the long run, one need`s to have answers to the following questions before embarking on the LLM Journey:
- Why LLM? How will it serve my life goals?
- What branch of law am I interested in? Have I done any internships in that field?
- What sort of lawyer do I want to become? Whether appellate or original litigation? Litigation or Advisory? Why?
- Have I done any research in finding the right course?
- What is my aim -settling abroad or coming back?
- Which country am I interested in? How much money can I afford?
Further, clarity of thought process in the Statement of Purpose and clear expression of one`s aspirations goes a long way in gaining admission at a foreign university.
7. Did you secure a scholarship? What are the requirements to secure a good scholarship for a foreign LLM?
I had applied for admissions quite late in April by which all scholarships deadlines were over. However, if one wishes to apply for them, it helps to to have a stellar profile consisting of strong academics, internships, moot courts, research papers etc. The statement of purpose has to reflect the goals and objectives of the scholarship. One must always look out to apply for multiple scholarships.
8. What differences did you find between law schools in India and abroad?
The primary difference is the Indian education system’s focus on quantity rather than quality. There is very little freedom for experimentation by universities on their own accord. The UGC directive for one-year LLM programs is too specific with respect to the subjects one can offer, in every specialisation.
Further, the number of subjects taken in a year are 10 or even 12. In the UK, Cambridge and Oxford universities have only 4 subjects in their LLM programs, while others have a maximum of 6 subjects. USA and Australia have 6-8 depending on the university. This focus on a smaller number of subjects ensures academic rigour of students graduating from the university. Further there is no importance attached to research- based degrees in India such as MPhil, one of the reasons for such low focus is due to lack of reliable local academic literature which creates a catch 22 situation.
9. What are the job prospects after a foreign LLM in India and other countries?
One of the prospects for an LLM graduate could be to find a job abroad. However, securing a job in the foreign country may not necessarily be that easy. For example, you will need a sponsor, a work visa and significant prior work experience. One also needs to clear the relevant jurisdiction’s bar exams or maybe even do complete courses like LPC/BPTC in the UK. Having said that, students who pursue subjects like corporate, business, taxation, ADR tend to get placements much more easily compared to traditional branches such as civil, criminal or family law.
In case one wishes to come back to India, LLM can be of tremendous value as it completely changes the way in which one interprets the law, by getting into the very roots of how it is derived. It polishes you in multiple ways. A foreign LLM degree particularly holds significant value in appellate courts, though it may not be too relevant if one wants to exclusively focus on trial courts. It is no coincidence that most of the legal luminaries of this country have pursued higher studies abroad.
It is my personal view that leaving aside the economic value, there are three types of gains one can derive from a foreign LLM degree: Knowledge, networking and goodwill. Networking with professionals of different cultures, jurisdictions, and environment brings out a different class in you. During my LLM, I was lucky enough to meet prosecutors from Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Jamaica, Australia and Uganda, judicial officers from Bangladesh, Egypt and Mauritius and other professionals from across the world. You tend to develop a worldly view shaped by different perspectives.
Finally, doing a foreign LLM brings respect and recognition among peers and raises one`s own confidence and self-esteem. You also gain substantial goodwill from your clients and seniors.
In a globalised world coupled with corporatisation of the legal arena, an LLM degree opens doors to multiple avenues. It should be considered as long-term investment which reaps benefits all through life. One is likely to get preference over competition whether it is in academia or higher judicial services or law officer in any corporate and it creates a good first impression. But if one decides to pursue it solely for the purpose of return on investment, this may not be the best approach, especially if one pursues non-corporate related subjects.
10. What is your specialization? Should students pick a general or specialised LLM? Pros and Cons of both?
A specialisation is an area of law where one wishes to gain expertise in. A student should ideally work for a few years or have substantial internship experience to decide on their LLM specialisation. Some of the Pro/Cons are:
Pro- Allows you to do an LLM so you could have the freedom of choosing to learn whatever you like. Further if one wishes to take equal number of subjects for two different areas of law which is not possible in a specialised LLM then a general LLM can be opted for.
Con- Recruiters will tend to move away from your profile considering that you do not have relevant expertise. Further the point of doing a master’s degree is to specialise and gain deeper perspective into one area of law.
Pro-Helps one get a better understanding of the subject at hand.
Con- Choosing a specialisation without knowing anything about the practical use of the same can result in a person being eliminated from certain opportunities.
11. What is your advice for students who want to pursue LLM abroad but have financial limitations?
Not having a foreign LLM does not mean that it is the end of the world. Also, as far as litigation is concerned, an LLM does not hinder the prospects of Trial Lawyers in anyway. However, if you still wish to pursue the same then take the help of a consultant who can plan things out for you following which you can pursue your LLM after working 5-7 years in the industry. After working for 5-7 years in the industry one would be eligible for various scholarships, loans and would have also saved enough money for self-financing.
12. Parting advice to our readers
Patience, Perseverance and believing in oneself will take you a long way. We can only strive to work hard; gains of our labour are not assured and are not within our power. There are multiple factors that lead to achievement, you can only be sure of your efforts; results not so often. Do not look at an LLM degree as a pure financial investment, look to learn at every single point in time.
Finally, don’t let the opinion of others drown your inner beliefs and convictions. I may sound a bit dramatical here but I have always believed in the beauty of dreams. Here is a personal experience to lift up your spirits- I was really gung-ho to join Queen Mary as it checked all boxes for me, but my confidence was low because of my marks and not so bright academic record. I had a discussion with a university representative to assess my chances, who upon hearing my marks told me not to even consider applying. I was heartbroken because I really wanted Queen Mary and my confidence reached an all-time low.
I went against her advice and still applied, while focusing heavily on showcasing my non-academic credentials through my statement of purpose, letters of recommendation and my work experience. That was May 2018 and now it is December 2019 and I will be graduating with an LLM from Queen Mary University of London with a Distinction (70%) in my Dissertation and Merit overall (67%).
Let me sum up with two quotes:
Don’t ever let somebody tell you… You can’t do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period– Will Smith as Christopher Gardener in Pursuit of Happyness.
You are the sole creator of your Destiny– Nikunj Kulshreshtha