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The world has come full circle. There was a time when Indian law students considered it of great value to go abroad to pursue higher studies and usually privileged the UK as their destination. Now, not only are they are more inclined to choose the US, but do so mainly to acquire a specialisation, usually after having already studied and practised in India, and often with a view to return home to work.
This reversal in trend has as much to do with changes in the global economy as with a change in perception. The recent global recession has severely restricted work opportunities for foreign students while India’s improved economic status has brought in foreign firms eager to set up shop, even as Indian companies have begun to expand their presence on foreign shores.
In the legal arena, this has basically meant a need for Indian lawyers who are well versed with both local and foreign laws.
India goes to the U.S. —the U.S. comes to India
According to the Indian commerce ministry, in 2008, Indian companies invested more than $45 billion worldwide, of which more than 20 percent was invested in America.
This turned the tide of Indian law students, who used to customarily head for the UK, to now train their gaze on the US instead.
While the UK used to be a popular destination, now a majority of Indian law students opt for an LLM degree – an advanced, one-year, Master of Laws degree - and choose to do so usually in the US.
As a senior, Delhi-based lawyer explains, “There are more American than British law liaison offices in India offering advice on mergers, acquisitions and the capital market. As a result, a lot of legal work from the US gets outsourced to India generating local employment.”
Greater and better employment opportunities in India do not however completely extinguish the desire Indian law students feel to go abroad. It only alters where they go, how much time and money they are ready to invest, and what they do with the degree they obtain.
Why the American LLM degree?
The American LLM degree is a rigorous one-year study program that enables specialization in certain fields of law and paves the way for membership with the American Bar Association.
Although India does have an equivalent to the degree, it takes twice as long to get one and the quality of curriculum and instruction leave much to be desired.
As Educational Advising Associate with the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF), Vijayalakshmi Chellappa explains, a great part of the reason why the American LLM degree is widely popular is its relatively short study period. “While the study of law as a whole is a lengthy business in the US, the LLM or Master of Laws is a one year study program.”
It takes a total of seven years to qualify as a lawyer in the US: four years to complete a bachelor’s degree and three years for the first, professional Jury Doctor (JD) degree equivalent to the LL.B degree in the rest of the world.
An LLM from a British university can also be completed in one year of full-time study. However in being a smaller country, students consider their options in the UK being more limited. This, in addition to the UK having always been known to have stricter immigration laws also explain the drift of Indian law students away from the UK and towards the US.
On the whole, the quality of legal education in the US is different from the teaching methodology in India, encouraging a thorough appreciation of the nuances of law and its practice.
The reason why the LLM holds out such promise to Indian law students is because it gives them a chance to obtain a foreign degree in a relatively short time and return to India with augmented skills, experience and knowledge.
Desai says, “In the US, students are assigned readings to prepare for each new class and they are expected to have read and understood the content of each assignment before class. Professors then call upon students randomly and question them vigorously regarding the content and application of the assigned readings. Referred to as the “Socratic Method”, it is followed by nearly every US law school.”
In the UK too, the LLM study program is rigorous: seminars, lectures and tutorials are the mainstay where students undertake assignments and work individually and in groups.
The attraction of a foreign LLM degree
But the reason why the LLM holds out such promise to Indian law students is because it gives them a chance to obtain a foreign degree in a relatively short time and return to India with augmented skills, experience and knowledge.
Milind Sathe, a senior lawyer in Mumbai, India elaborates, “Many young lawyers prefer to work in India and then choose a specialized area for a foreign LLM degree. This adds value to their experience and helps them professionally in building a network and working in a global environment. The exposure also helps those interested in pursuing a teaching career in law.”
The LLM is also increasingly useful in landing a job with a foreign law firm in India. Sathe says, “Although foreign law firms are not allowed to practice in Indian courtrooms, many have set up shop here, mainly as liaison offices, and employ Indian lawyers for counselling foreign clients interested in Indian collaborations.”
Terrorism and recession: twin blows
The threat of terrorism and the recent global recession have led to the US and the UK becoming tough markets for foreign students. Security norms and immigration laws are tighter and work and career opportunities in both countries are now even more limited.
The threat of terrorism and the recent global recession have led to the US and the UK becoming tough markets for foreign students.
James G. Leipold, Executive Director, NALP (the Washington-based, American trade association for legal career professionals) says, “Today, it is very difficult for foreign citizens to find work in the US unless they have permanent residency. Recipients of both JD and LLM degrees usually qualify for a period of Optional Practical Training while still on their student visa, but in general, when that is complete, they must return to their home country.
“Some US employers will sponsor foreign law school graduates pursuing an LLM degree for a work visa. But this has become rare following the recent recession in North America.”
Desai agrees. “Due to the recent downturn in the US economy, the number of job opportunities have greatly reduced overall for all law students, but the opportunities available for international students are even fewer because many employers are no longer willing to sponsor an H1B (work) visa, due to the added cost,” she adds.
As a result, the predominant trend currently among Indian law students is to pursue a short-term, foreign course that augments the legal education they already have while dramatically improving their chances of suitable employment back home.
Aasha Gulrajani Swarup works as a legal editor in New Delhi.