I was an eyewitness: I saw the Lehman Brothers sign being taken down,” says Apar Gupta, recalling a memory of the US recession that followed the September 2008 collapse of the Wall Street investment bank.
Gupta was studying at Columbia Law School in Manhattan, pursuing a master’s degree with 14 other graduate students from India, many of whom had worked at the largest Indian law firms. But after completing their master’s programme, not a single one found a job with a comparable US law firm through campus placements, he says. Most didn’t even get a rejection call.
Research conducted by 2011 Columbia postgraduate Rohan Kaul of Indians studying for a master’s degree in law in the US reveals that there has been a slight recovery since 2008 in the prospects of landing a job with a respectable law firm. But the study also showed that opportunities remain sparse and tuition fees for foreign students keep increasing.
Waning returns: A file photo of students at the Columbia Law School studying for an exam outside Philosophy Hall on the Columbia University campus in New York.
Some 60 Indians did their master’s at some of the top law schools in the US: Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School, Columbia Law School, NYU School of Law, University of Chicago Law School, Berkeley Law University of California, Penn Law School University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University Law School and Northwestern University Law School.
Of those 60, some opted for alternative careers or academia, but only around five found jobs with top US or international law firms.
“Post-2007, there has been a huge reduction in the number who got such jobs,” says one 2011 Berkeley graduate. “Ninety percent of guys didn’t get a (US) job for sure, I know that.”
He was part of the fortunate 10% and managed to bag an offer from one of Wall Street’s most elite legal firms.
“The market conditions in 2005 were very favourable,” remembers Shishir Mehta, who was at Columbia in 2004-05. “I think pretty much everyone who wanted jobs in 2005 and 2006 got one, from what I know—there was at least a 70 to 80% strike rate (for US jobs) in prestigious law firms.”
“Those years were fantastic,” says Gupta, “You hear stories from there. Everyone got (job) offers.”
By then, there was also a “critical mass” of Indian lawyers in New York, says Mehta, which meant firms were less apprehensive about hiring qualified Indian lawyers. Mehta himself went on to take a job at White and Case LLP in New York, having had previous experience in London, and in 2010 he returned to India as a partner at Khaitan and Co. in Mumbai.
That story has become a bit of a template—practice law in India for a few years, do an LLM and get a job abroad, then return to India a few years later with a career boost. There are dozens of Indian lawyers with similar resumes. Some who went abroad never came back, and became pure play foreign lawyers.
Apart from politicians such as Kapil Sibal, who went to Harvard for an LLM in 1977, a generation of corporate lawyers was inspired by two of AZB & Partners co-founders: Zia Mody (1979 Harvard Law School LLM to Baker and McKenzie) and Bahram Vakil (1983 LLM at Columbia followed by Debevoise and Plimpton).
Vakil says that only he, Mody and at most six other Indian lawyers worked in New York at that time, but they would meet almost every week. “I think now it’s over 800,” he estimates the number of Indian lawyers in New York.
The connections one can make at a US law school remains a major draw for applicants.
“Above and beyond the teaching,” says Gupta. “There is a huge emphasis on professional networking dinners.”
An LLM at Columbia Law School in 2011-12 cost $54,932 (around Rs 27 lakh) in tuition fees, coming to $77,000 including New York living costs for nine months. In 2008-09, the total cost at Columbia was more than 10% lower at $68,000, confirmed a college spokesperson.
Spending a year elsewhere is not much cheaper: tuition at Harvard Law School’s LLM programme in Boston costs $47,600, rising to at least $72,800 including accommodation and other living expenses.
The easiest way to pay off those debts quickly, unless well-off relatives are funding the education, are jobs with US law firms where starting salaries for the most junior lawyer can range from $125,000 to $160,000 per year. Many partners at Indian firms do not make this much money in a year. The appetite for these jobs remains almost undiminished. Several US LLM graduates of the past years recount how everyone attended the New York legal job fairs and a majority hoped to land a gig at a corporate law firm, recount several US LLM graduates of past years. But the chances of even getting a foot in the door of such big law firms has become “tremendously grim”, explains 2011 George Washington University Law School graduate Areej Faiz, who has since joined Virginia-based IT consultancy firm DISYS.
To blame are the state of the economy, difficulties in getting H1-B visa sponsorship and only one intense year in which to develop local networks. “Job opportunities have decreased,” says Faiz, “but then this holds true for everyone, not just Indian LLMs.”
That much is true to an extent—the US legal trade press has been flooded with headlines about lay-offs, mass unemployment amongst law graduates and large firms deferring hiring as the world’s biggest economy struggles for recovery.
Last year two US law schools were sued for more than $200m each by former students, claiming they were misled about job prospects by the colleges.
But according to Gupta, who ended up starting his own law firm in India later, that is not the complete picture. “Surprisingly, if you look at other jurisdictions, particularly the Brazilians, they still got job offers,” he claims. Some US and international law firms are hiring Brazilian LLM graduates to work abroad for a year, and then send them back to their booming offices in Brazil later, he says. The possibilities for Indian lawyers to move back to India within a foreign law firm are all but non-existent because of restrictions on such firms operating in India.
The numbers have not suffered over the years. Mehta’s Columbia batch of 2004-05 had no more than six Indian lawyers. In 2011 there were at least 11. At New York University there were 14 Indian lawyers and Harvard welcomed eight.
“LLM programmes are increasingly becoming a cash grab for law schools,” claims Elie Mystal, US-based editor of online legal website called Above the Law. “While they still offer some help for foreign law students, law deans are more concerned about the money they can make from desperate foreign law students, as opposed to making the programmes something employers value. But the larger question is: why would you want to come into the faltering, struggling US legal job market in the first place?”
Spokespersons for Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School declined comment.
While the number of Indians opting for an LLM programme in the US have increased, the job market has been difficult for the last three years or so, said an Indian lawyer who is now working with a top New York firm.
“It is certainly not something for you if your sole agenda of pursuing the LLM is to break into the US legal market,” he says.
But the lure will remain. Even in 2011, US law firm Sullivan & Cromwell advised on $393 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions (M&A)—single-handedly more than ten times the size of India’s entire national M&A activity the same year.
Indeed, the appeal of the so-called Big Law career option in the US, however slim that chance has become, is unlikely to diminish, meaning Indian lawyers will not simply disappear overnight from US LLM programmes