Academics, Researchers & International Organisations

Aman on pursuing BCL from Oxford, working with International Organisations and getting higher grades

aman-cb-4Aman, a graduate of National Law University, Jodhpur, of the 2012 batch, talks about his spectacularly awe-inspiring journey as a Law student. Not one to be charmed by the glamour of law firms, as most University-toppers admit to be guilty of, Aman chose to pursue his academic instincts further, by completing his BCL degree from Oxford University, with a focus on International Law, and then moving onto complete a prestigious internship at the International Criminal Courts, The Hague. All set to join Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, he shares with all Law Students, the following :

  • What went into winning the Trilok Chand Mangilal Sancheti Gold Medal.
  • The importance of balancing academics, moot courts and extra-curricular activities
  • The significance of choosing the appropriate internships
  • Why one should choose to pursue higher education
  • The experience of studying at Oxford, and of interning at the ICC.

 

Most of our readers are law students and young lawyers. How will you introduce yourself to them?

I am yet to figure out a good response to this question! Anyway – going the conventional way – I finished my undergraduate studies in law and policy sciences from the National Law University, Jodhpur in 2012. Pursuant to that, I proceeded to Oxford where I completed my BCL with a focus on Public International Law, Equality Law, Jurisprudence and Political Theory. Post Oxford, I had been interning at the Trial Chambers at the International Criminal Court, The Hague till March this year. I am preparing to join an organization called the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza this month.

 

How did you gravitate towards law? What interested you most about the subject at the time? Is that interest still intact?

I have grown up in an environment – both at home and school – where I have been exposed to and sensitised about various social issues. I wanted an education that helped me do something about such issues. Law was one such option (along with Medicine and Journalism)! However when I decided on pursuing Law, I did not have a very clear understanding of how the study of law would be directly instrumental in working towards the issues that motivated me. It was perhaps the interest in gaining more familiarity with social policies and laws; the attraction of the inter-disciplinary approach to legal education that the five year law schools promised; and discussions with a few people who studied/were studying law that convinced me to pursue it.

The motivation is intact today (though the focus is on fewer issues!). In fact, the interest is much stronger since I have grown to know how the study and the practice of law, through litigation, policy and academia, help in dealing with a variety of problems plaguing the society.

 

You have won the Trilok Chand Mangilal Sancheti Gold Medal. Surely a lot of effort must have gone into coming first in BA.LL.B (Hons.). Please provide us with some actionable tips on how to get good grades.

To be honest, to top the class was never a primary motivation and the effort was never directed towards that. I really enjoyed what I did and, possibly, that was the reason I put in effort in making projects, working on court room exercises, and making assignments/presentations. There were also moments where I did not sit for tests, missed classes (and consequently lost marks that used to be allocated for classroom attendance in the first few semesters at law school) to work on things/participate in events that I enjoyed! Though it did cost me a few grades, I don’t regret it. I just feel it’s best to put in effort and explore the things that we enjoy – the results will automatically follow!

 

How did you keep your law school life exciting? Share some memories with us.

Luckily, I was involved with a lot of things in law school and never really sensed the monotony some of us complained about. Besides dealing with regular tests and assessments, extra-curricular activities like mooting (both as a participant and as an advisor), debating kept me busy. From my first year, I was involved with college committees and editorial boards which also kept me occupied. With time, the responsibilities in these committees also increased! I also found myself actively involved in the organisation of intra university sports fest, literary fest, and cultural fest and moot court competitions at the University. There were also a couple of initiatives by some of us – some of which I had to discontinue my association with because of the time crunch! Basketball was an excellent source of recreation – especially in my fifth year! I also enjoyed taking part in the regular cultural, literary, sports events organised in college.

 

You have participated in moot competitions as a participant, advisor and even as a judge. How do you feel a student should go about a moot in order to reap the maximum benefit from it?

From the time I had been introduced to moot courts, I found it to be an excellent learning experience. Not only does it help one in getting a good grasp over the area of law on which the moot proposition focuses but it also helps one develop researching, drafting and advocacy skills. It won’t be incorrect to say that being a participant at moot court competitions was probably the most rewarding experience! It is perhaps the things that I picked on the way as the participant – through my experience or the wisdom of others – that helped me serve as an advisor or judge moots now! Even as an advisor or a judge I continue to feel the same about moot court competitions and still find it to be a learning experience for me!

As to how students should go about moots – I am not sure if I am in a position to suggest anything but I always felt that one should take up a competition if they are really keen on mooting. It is definitely not something that has to be mandatorily done in law school. However, if one picks it up – it is essential that one takes it up with all sincerity and gives the proposition the due time it demands – for research, drafting and oral practise. By my experience, I also feel that having someone to guide you in the area of law, drafting and for the oral rounds also helps a lot.

I also did a bit of debating and played a bit of basketball.

 

As an undergraduate student, you have done a variety of internships. Did these happen by chance or did you consciously choose to pursue such internships?

No, all of the places were consciously chosen. However the guidelines of the placement cell (i.e. to work with X institution at the end of Y semester) was kept in mind. HRLN was an obvious choice when I was looking for NGO options to work around home at the end of the first semester. The internship here introduced me to the MGNREGA. The legislation sparked a lot of interest in me and was the reason that I participated in the said survey under the supervision of Professor Jean Drèze and Dr. Reetika Khera.

At the end of my third semester, I was keen on working with an advocate practising in appellate courts and ended up working with Mr. Prashanto Sen in New Delhi. The choice of a relatively small office was again a conscious one – it helped me get exposed to a variety of matters and be directly involved at every step. Despite my age back then, the internship helped me gain a great familiarity with the work of a practising lawyer.

I was also keen on working with a judge at an appellate court and hence the clerkship. Since I stay in Allahabad, the working of the Allahabad High Court was also something I wanted to see.

 

You had worked as a Student Teaching Assistant and later with Professor Jean Drèze. These were definitely a bit unconventional. How did your experiences at these places help with your skill development and shaping you as a person?

I was always very keen about teaching and have given it very serious thought as a long term career option. In fact, the revival of the Student Teaching Assistant Programme in college was with the efforts of some of us. I really enjoyed the experience of teaching public international law to my juniors. This also helped me realise some of the challenges one can face as a teacher in a law school like mine!

Working with Professor Jean Drèze again was very rewarding. Post my internship with HRLN, I had developed an interest in the Right to Food Movement. After law school when I got the chance to work on a study related to Pubic Distribution System (of food grains), I readily took it up. This involved a field study on the drawing up and the management of BPL lists used for distribution and also focused on the problem of the leakage of grains. This greatly helped me understand some of the problems at the ground level; and the reach, working and the shortcomings of PDS in dealing with hunger. This is one area that I really wish to continue working on!

 

When and how did you decide to pursue higher studies?

I was very keen about pursuing higher studies right from the beginning of law school. I had heard that it opens more avenues – which I later found to be true. Like most people, I was also attracted to the prospects of studying in some of the dream institutions! However, it was only by the end of my third year that I gave it a very serious thought. By then, I had a discovered my inclination for public international law and some areas of public law; I also had some sense of what I wanted to do in life (academics, policy, diplomacy, politics and developmental work). These factors necessarily led me to consider higher studies. By this time, I also had an idea about which institutions were reputed for the courses I was eyeing.

 

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What was your motivation behind pursuing BCL? Would you say the purpose was well served?

As I pointed earlier, I was very keen on developing stronger foundations in the areas of law that interested me. Oxford was definitely one of the places high on my list considering the extensive focus BCL offers in the four courses one chooses to study through the year. This was a great motivation and I was very happy to have studied courses like equality law, international law and armed conflict in such detail. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I was looking at postgraduate course with the hope that it would openavenues that were not open or visible to me otherwise. This purpose was also duly served as I do not think it was possible to know of/get internships at the ICC or the PCHR without Oxford. In fact, grants/awards by Oxford Law Faculty also helped/are helping in funding these internships.

 

Many law students would want to pursue higher studies from abroad. What would be your suggestions to them?

If one is interested, I feel it’s good to start considering the LL.M. option at the start of the penultimate year of law school and also take a call if one wishes to apply in the final year (or subsequently). A good way is to talk to seniors who are pursuing/have pursued higher studies abroad and read about the Universities one wishes to apply to. This gives a good understanding about i) the law school – renowned faculty and courses, prospects pursuant to an LL.M from a particular University; ii) what the selection entails and how should one go about the specific application for a particular University; iii) any specific requirements like TOEFEL etc.;  iv) and even scholarship opportunities.

As for what it takes to get in – it’s difficult to give suggestions! Every LL.M. candidate I met had different experiences and approach towards the application. Perhaps the connecting factor would be a good academic background! Speaking for myself – besides maintaining decent grades, I put in effort in doing all the things I enjoyed all through law school.  I tried to reflect the same through my application. I guess, broadly, every person tries to do the same.

 

Does Oxford provide students with scholarships? Are there any other institutions which provide scholarships?

Oxford offers a couple of scholarships – some are offered by the University, some by the Law Faculty and some by the Colleges at Oxford. A list of such scholarships is available on the website of the law faculty (click here).

Besides the ones by Oxford there are a few other funding avenues. The popular ones like Rhodes, Felix, Inlaks and Commonwealth are known to all. There are a few less known options which give partial scholarships/ soft loans which one should also explore. These include – KC Mahindra Scholarships for Postgraduate Studies Abroad, Aga Khan Foundation Scholarship, Narotam Sekhsaria Scholarship, Oxford and Cambridge Society of India Scholarship. One must research more on these funding avenues – especially the smaller ones!

 

Did you undergo a rigorous academic schedule? How was that different from your under-graduate course?

Yes, BCL was very demanding. Unlike most classes during my under-graduate course, one had to necessarily prepare for the classes which involved completing a reading list assigned for the said class/seminar. It is difficult to appreciate, and at times follow the discussions in the class hours if one does not complete one’s readings (thus making the limited amount of class hours futile). Besides the regular preparation for the seminars, we also had tutorials spread through the three terms. These were sessions beyond the regular class hours where students discussed their essays/ specific topics with their tutors and a small group of students who had also taken the course. Though it was difficult to work on these tutorials along with the regular readings for class, these tutorials were academically rewarding. Also, unlike law schools back home, Oxford grades depend solely on an end-of-the-year, closed-book examination which makes the preparation for it quite rigorous. In fact, I never felt that there was a concept of a break – as one is busy with reading during both term breaks!

 

Oxford is well renowned for its brilliant faculty. How was your experience with the faculty?

One of the primary motivations to study at an institution like Oxford was to get the chance to interact, and even brainstorm with some of the most renowned scholars in the areas you are studying. Besides the interaction in classes, I greatly benefitted from the one-on-one interactions during tutorials, or the feedback received on my work from my teachers like Dr Dapo Akande, Prof. Sandra Fredman, Prof. John Gardner, Dr. Nicos Stavropoulos, Dr. Tarunabh Khaitan and Dr. Antonios Tzanakopoulos. It was also great to see how they received my ideas and encouraged me. Some of the faculty members had also helped me take some career decisions!

 

How difficult was studying abroad in terms of finding accommodation, finances and settling in?

Not to sound intimidating, but all three were indeed a bit difficult for me.

I had not got College accommodation and was slightly apprehensive about finding a place in the beginning. Eventually, I did manage to find a great place offered by the University Accommodation Offices (the next best alternative to on-site college accommodation) before the start of the term, but it was slightly far off from the Law Faculty.

Finances were another issue. Since I could not manage a full scholarship, I had to rely on a student loan.

Settling in was not that big a problem as compared to the other two. However, it took me some time to adjust with the academic pressure, weather, lifestyle, and also to get used to cooking etc.

 

What difference did you find in the pedagogy of Oxford relative to an NLU?

There is a huge difference! As mentioned earlier, one was expected to read extensively for the seminars – which were more discussion oriented. At NLU the focus was more on class room lectures as opposed to discussions. However, I find the comparison a bit unfair. Though I have my reservations about the way legal education is administered in many Indian law schools, I feel the focus of undergraduate education is to develop an interest in law and should involve more lecturing and it’s not very wise to expect all students to read as much for classes as we were expected to at Oxford. A postgraduate course like BCL is designed on the premise that the candidates have an interest in the study of that area of law and aims towards developing an advanced understanding of the chosen area. That said, it would be nice if the reading component is given some focus which is largely absent in many law schools today.

 

How do you think the BCL programme will help you in your career?

It is difficult to predict how it will help me in my career! I can just say that I feel that I have developed a stronger foundation in some of the areas that interest me and will definitely help me if I am to pursue a career that involves an understanding and application of these areas. BCL has also helped in developing my analytical and writing skills – something that will be useful in whatever I choose to pursue. Besides academic foundations, I also feel that Oxford has made visible, and, in situations, accessible, options that were not visible/accessible otherwise – be it international firms or international courts and originations. For example, it would not have been possible to get an internship at the Trial Chambers ICC without BCL, where I had taken up specific courses on dispute settlement and armed conflict.

 

There has been a recent trend amongst Indian law graduates to pursue higher education abroad. Why do you think this is happening?

Another tough one! There could be multiple motivations. However, I feel that to some extent it’s a result of the exposure that students get these days. A few years back, pursuing LL.M was not really a well-known/advertised option. With more people opting for it, a lot many get exposed to the prospects of an LL.M, and now think of it as another feasible option after their undergraduate studies. Also, the breaking of the myth that an LL.M. is necessarily for those who wish to pursue academics has led many to aim towards specialisation in their practise areas. Many of my friends intend to take up higher studies for this very reason. Some are also interested in exploring opportunities abroad.

 

You have recently completed a clerkship at the International Criminal Court, Hague. How did you get it and what prompted you towards it? How was the experience?

I had applied for this clerkship while I was at Oxford. Desirous of building a career in international dispute resolution, I was looking at some international courts/tribunals back then. Besides the ICC, I had also applied for the ‘ICJ Traineeship Programme’ that is offered to graduates from of a select few universities around the globe (Oxford being one). However, I was unable to get the final offer despite making it to the final shortlist from Oxford. The other option was the ICC. Having taken up a course on International Law and Armed Conflict at Oxford, I was especially keen on working there.

For the same, I had to make an application which involved completing the application form available on their website. I was also required to send a sample of my written work, a statement of purpose, a copy of my resumé and arrange for two referees who had to send their recommendation letters. This was followed by an interview by the Judge who I eventually worked with.

I really enjoyed my stay at the ICC. I worked with Judge Eboe-Osuji (Trial Chambers) and the set of legal officers assisting him. While I was at the Court, I assisted the Judge in drafting a number of decisions and separate opinions; prepared memorandums; assisted in the preparation of witness summaries; and helped the judges and the legal officers in other trial procedures. Besides the feedback on my work, I greatly benefitted from the discussions with my judge and the legal officers.

 

You have recently taken a series of lectures at NLU, Jodhpur in the subjects of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law. Can we say you may gravitate towards an academic career in the future?

I am quite keen! As I mentioned earlier, I was always very keen about teaching and have given it very serious thought as one of the options I wish to pursue in future.

 

You are joining the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. Tell us something about this.

The Centre is a non-profit company, dedicated to protecting human rights, promoting the rule of law and upholding democratic principles in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It also supports all the efforts aimed at enabling the Palestinian people to exercise its right of self-determination.

I am expected to be assigned to the International Unit at PCHR which has experts on international law, fundraising and advocacy. The Unit supports other Units of the PCHR in carrying out their work as well as producing reports, position papers and press releases.  Staff in the Unit are often involved in conducting field-visits as part of their advocacy programme or field-research as part of the research programme, and are involved in building relationships between Palestinian, Israeli and international NGOs who work on human rights issues.  The International Unit also produces interventions to international bodies – including the UN. Interns are involved in all these tasks. Considering the small size of the organisation and my background, I am informed that I might also be involved with the work of the Legal Unit (composed of a team of lawyers who give free legal aid and counsel to individuals and groups, especially Palestinian prisoners in Israeli or PNA custody), Democratic Development Unit, Economic and Social Rights Unit and Women’s Unit.

However, things are still in the pipeline. Though I have been offered the position, I am still waiting for all the clearances that are needed to enter Gaza. I hope things work out soon!

 

What are your long term objectives? Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

It is very difficult to say whereI see myself in 5 year’s time! I am quite keen about pursuing a career in a number of areas and am not blocking any option at this stage. However, if I am to broadly categorise – there is a good chance that in the long run I will be associated with academics, policy making, diplomacy, politics, developmental work, international/domestic dispute settlement or even a combination of a few of these. A lot depends on the opportunities that come my way!

 

What would be your message to law students who want to pursue a BCL from Oxford?

There is not much that I can say to people who wish to go to Oxford! They probably know about the place and all that it has to offer. I suppose it is best for this motivation to stay alive (right till the application stage which can be pretty daunting!) while one continues doing whatever they enjoy doing, with all sincerity!

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