Master of laws programmes are expensive and as the accompanying story shows there are few jobs going in the US. Nevertheless, the career-related question I have been asked the most by young lawyers has been whether they should do a master’s at some point. Why this fascination with LLMs in India?
In a survey of 25 overseas LLM students from India graduating between 2009 and 2011 carried out by Columbia Law School graduate Rohan Kaul last year with Legally India, 40% said they felt their legal education would be incomplete without an LLM.
Partly to blame is the state of India’s legal education landscape.
The LLB, particularly at the top national law schools and a handful of others as documented in the Mint story on legal education on 13 January, has come a long way and arguably achieved its aims of preparing young lawyers for professional lives, whether at corporate law firms, litigation or elsewhere.
A file photo of lawyers outside the Supreme Court
But common gripes remain about the format of teaching and the emphasis on rote learning, as well as the average quality of faculty teaching at even the top domestic law schools. Wages for teachers, which were increased to fairer levels under the latest Pay Commission recommendations, are still low compared with private practice.
At an undergraduate level, this gets balanced by a corpus of the brightest students that moot, debate, write papers and intern with almost pathological enthusiasm throughout their five years.
But the Indian postgraduate programmes in law have often been described as an afterthought to the LLB that does not offer much in the way of academic rigour or supervision.
Research published by Legally India in October 2011 revealed that out of 118 top school LLM graduates, a majority opted for academic careers, while only five got a job with law firms or corporates.
“We really do not recruit LLMs from national law schools,” confirmed one recruiter at a national Indian law firm at the time. But those who take an LLM abroad after a few years of work are given the option to return, the recruiter said.
The LLM survey data backs this up.
A majority of respondents felt that it would be easier to get a job with a top Indian law firm after completing an LLM and a sizable number of LLMs also want to return to litigation in Indian courts.
So what does an LLM provide for up to $70,000? “It is not just the cash you are leaking,” as one successful LLM graduate said, “it is also the opportunity cost of not earning that year.”
The following statistic may be a key parameter: 68% of the sample said they went for an LLM “for the exposure, multicultural diversity and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and network with people from all over the world”.
That part is true at several different levels.
Call it ennui, if you will. There are a fair number of practising lawyers in India who feel that they have reached a dead end in the natural road of career progression; they may be stuck in court or in a law firm with few realistic paths of advancing to greater heights. Or, they may be having an early mid-life crisis.
An LLM provides an acceptable avenue of mixing things up a little and hopefully returning a little wiser. And one grad joked that a Harvard LLM can even increase your marital prospects.
More practically, if the destination is one of the more popular law schools, the alumni network abroad, and increasingly back home, can help in unexpected ways.
Or maybe it is something altogether different. If you look at the UK, it has become de rigueur for many graduates or high-school leavers to take a so-called gap year before starting work. Activities can range from volunteer work away from home to travelling the world. The phenomenon has even been lampooned in a viral online video called Gap Yah about the travails of an over-privileged and crassly ignorant British youth on his alcohol-fuelled cross-globe adventure.
But in a country that has culturally always placed a high value on education, is the LLM abroad, or by extension the MBA, the Indian equivalent of the gap year?
Certainly, studying in a place like New York, Boston or elsewhere can provide its fair share of entertainment and so-called life experience, as the British Gap Yah kids like to call it.
For any youngster, going abroad in and of itself certainly brings a change and some personal growth beyond what learning about some specialist area of law ever could in and of itself.
And that is perhaps what is and always will remain the greatest draw, irrespective of whether you’re swotting up on US tax law or building a well in sub-Saharan Africa on a gap year.
Therefore, my final advice on whether to do an LLM abroad or not is simple. If you can afford it, want to experience living abroad for a while and are passionate about a legal subject, a foreign LLM may just be right for you. If none of those apply, the best bets for your career may lie much closer to home.
Kian Ganz is a lawyer-turned-journalist based in Mumbai, from where he publishes legallyindia.com.
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