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Deborshi Barat, Counsel at S&R Associates In a Discussion With SuperLawyer On Current Demands And Importance Of Practical Skills In The Legal Profession

This interview has been published by Prabhjot Singh, Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

What motivated you to take law as a career and how has been the decision so far?

Law was appealing at the level of ideas when I was young. In law school, like at NUJS, said ideas tend to get affirmed (absent extraordinary circumstances). For those of us who didn’t grow up with lawyers in the family, some self-selection invariably occurs. Since law wasn’t part of the Indian board curriculum in my time, certain proxies, such as affinities for logic, language, argument, etc., informed the decision-making process. I’m not sure if these proxies are useful, let alone representative, but we do rely on them disproportionately at that stage of life, given informational and experiential scarcity.

It’s been a pretty good journey so far. I’ve lucked out over time with regard to being able to dabble variously, and I enjoy diverse aspects and manifestations of the law. I look forward to more learning.

Your internship experiences are filled with renowned firms and other reputed people, was there any roadmap for the same or all did was in flow? How would you guide students in choosing internships?

I suppose these things are part of an organic trajectory, perhaps steered by a latent sense of purpose. Things do happen in a flow, but we ultimately end up navigating viable paths. Curiosity helps. I see students these days choose internships based on niche interests and very specific practice areas. I admire such clarity, especially at that young an age. While it’s difficult to know yourself completely in law school, elimination is useful. However, I still think that sampling from a large spread is a good idea before marrying into the unknown.

Could you shed some light on your journey in the topmost university, Fletcher? I’d love to know the flashbacks.

Fletcher was a cherished destination. Even when I first joined S&R Associates (where I currently work), I had an idea that I might want to explore a specialization later, preferably in a different country. I liked Fletcher because of many things, but most of all for the flexibility and eclectic environment that it offered. The crowd is truly diverse and international, and my ways of looking at the world changed fundamentally when I came out.

The best memories are perhaps the simplest ones, the quiet neighbourhood, the bucolic surroundings, the redbrick buildings, hours spent inside the ‘Harry Potter Room’, trudging to Harvard amidst the first snow of winter, and endless cups of coffee with friends. Add to that, the opportunity to genuinely engage with people from various walks of life, from various parts of the world, from contexts wildly different from yours: that kind of exposure is irreplaceable.

Deborshi, among all the specialisations, i.e., in MALD, LLM, and Ph.D. Fletcher’s programme, what do you find the most interesting to you? How far did you use all this expertise in your practical areas of work?

I liked the Master of Arts in Law & Diplomacy (MALD) program because it gave me the chance to keep law as a base and build on that substratum by adding disciplinary layers to it, including those involving public policy, political economy, international relations, comparative politics, global history, research methods, national security, foreign policy, international organizations, transnational business, and others. The MALD remains Fletcher’s keystone graduate program, and for good reason.

Also, it’s a 2-year program, as opposed to the 1-year LLM. I’d heard from others before me that a year’s duration often feels too short from a learning perspective, and I wanted a more immersive experience.

I received two awards as a student under the MALD program: the William L. Blue and Joan R. Blue Scholarship, and the Alfred P. Rubin Prize – awarded by the Fletcher law faculty to the ‘outstanding student of international law’ in a given year. Other than my core specializations at Fletcher, I also cross-registered with the Harvard Law School (HLS) for a semester-long seminar on law and politics.

Accordingly, I decided to apply for the LLM thereafter. The LLM is a distinctly curated program, comprising smaller cohorts, a very close-knit community, regular exchanges with faculty and peers, periodic events and updates, and some amazing international law professors.

The career trips to New York and DC pivot away to interactions with partners from global law firms, rather than with policy thinktanks and international organizations alone, such as in the MALD. For instance, Prof. John Burgess, then partner of WilmerHale, was the Director of the LLM program during my stint there.

His insights on international M&A and cross-border financial intricacies were deeply valuable. At the same time, cross-listed faculty like Profs. Jeswald Salacuse and Ian Johnstone brought with them multi-disciplinary perspectives on investment law, arbitration, the UN, the World Bank, along with constructivist approaches and sociological constructions of the law.

The PhD, of course, is a very different animal. It’s a self-driven process, especially after you finish your coursework, clear the comprehensive exams, and defend your proposal. That’s when the real research begins, and it’s easy to get lost en route. Besides, life happens. Managing things and people in the course of the PhD – which, in a US curricular perspective, remains an immensely trying, albeit templated, process with several discrete milestones – is one of the bigger challenges.

Going through your background information, it seems you’re always up for learning something new. Even though you worked independently in the Calcutta High Court, after obtaining MALD and LLM degrees, you indulged yourself in teaching a self-designed elective course in “Law and Public Policy.” So, Deborshi, was that challenging or thrilling for you, and how?

Being from NUJS myself, I wanted to offer a course there. This was before my PhD coursework began. However, by that time I’d already decided to adopt a more ‘law and policy’ approach to work. That way, offering such a course at NUJS was a culmination of many things, including my interest in weaving together miscellaneous disciplinary paradigms into mainstream legal analysis.

How about your experience with Harvard LIDS, Boston, and working with ? What do you think is the most exciting part you would like to share with our readers regarding the same?

From the perspective of personal evolution, these stints were hugely significant, where I wanted to push myself to try new things, especially in the context of applying my learning to situations on the ground. For instance, ‘law and development’ was one of my main focus areas. Working with the Law and International Development Society (LIDS) at Harvard thus provided a great opportunity in respect of putting to use some of the theoretical constructs I’d learnt across real-life problems and circumstances. We worked with the secretariat of Transparency International about the possibility of reparations for victims of ‘grand corruption’ in international criminal proceedings.

Further, ‘international negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution’ was one of my other specializations. I was taking a course on mediation with Prof. Eileen Babbitt. Around this time, I joined MWI, a company in Boston working in the ADR space, specializing in dispute resolution for companies through ombudsman, negotiation, consulting, arbitration, facilitation, and mediation services. I worked with instructors at the Harvard Negotiation Project of HLS, learning from their experience of negotiating with Fortune 500 clients and vendors. As part of my training, I mediated a few cases in Massachusetts district courts as well, particularly in south Boston.

Similarly, I was working with Prof. John Cerone on matters of international criminal law and humanitarian law, which culminated in representing Fletcher for the Model International Criminal Court Moot held at Krzyżowa, Poland; serving as editor for the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance; and joining the Fletcher Human Rights Practicum, pursuant to which a small group of us had the opportunity to collaborate on drafting amicus briefs for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the corresponding treaty.

This last experience came in handy because I’d already been working as Supervising Lawyer with Femin Ijtihad – Strategic Advocacy of Human Rights (SAHR) – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Accordingly, I continued working with SAHR until 2017 as its Global Legal Counsel using lessons from such experiences.

As Global Legal Counsel at SAHR, I developed best practices and drafted model laws for the purpose of legislative reform, designed judges’ and lawyers’ training workshops, and advised individuals, organizations, and local lawyers/judges in various jurisdictions, including in the US, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria.

Later, during the formative stages of my PhD, when I first got interested in the legitimacy of dispute resolution, I worked with my advisor, Prof. Salacuse – an ICSID-empanelled arbitrator and a leading expert on negotiation theory – with the Judicial Leadership Project conducted by the National Center for State Courts at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

I also taught a lot during this stage and worked on several consultancy, research, and training assignments, including in terms of: taking foundational classes on International Law for undergraduate students of the Political Science Department at Tufts University; teaching introductory courses on American Politics, Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, and Globalization & Social Change under the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University; updating Prof. Salacuse’s book on “The Law of Investment Treaties” (3rd edition) for Oxford University Press and another book on “International Business Planning: Law & Taxation (U.S.)”; coordinating and teaching a course called “Debates in Economic and Political Relations” conducted by the Horizon Academic Research Program, New York for exchange students from mainland China; and serving as coordinating instructor for the Tavitian Scholars Program in Public Policy – conducted by Fletcher for diplomats and officials from the Foreign Service of the Government of Armenia.                    

So far we’ve seen lawyers not focusing on their mental health because of work pressure and tight deadlines. Please shed some light on this issue, any tips that can make the situation better?

We develop our own coping mechanisms over time. If there is meaningful work to be done, there will be appurtenant pressures and timelines within which one needs to deliver. I can’t speak for others, but I like to treat work as an extension of self. Accordingly, it’s very important to me that I enjoy the work that I’m doing, to be really invested in it. When that happens, I think a couple of things coincide: you end up being better at your job, and the pressure stops being a bother. In fact, the pressure might become a thrill in itself.

I’m deeply aware that mental health is an important issue for all professionals, including for lawyers. Modern-day work ends up creating high-pressure situations for everybody. We ourselves as clients and consumers in quotidian contexts demand fast, efficient service. It’s not so much fun, perhaps, when the boot is on the other foot.

Work-life balance is what everyone talks about, presumably as an ideal. I’m not big on that myself. I don’t mean that we should sacrifice life, or the pursuit of happiness, at the altar of work. But when work goes beyond a set of itemized chores, or when work means more than something one has to do out of a sense of compulsion or duty, it starts creating a balance of its own. Life gathers around work. Personally, I like that kind of life.

If, on the other hand, work starts feeling like a lot of work – an ordeal, a terrible burden, etc. – then maybe one needs to move things around. I realize that this view reeks of some kind of privilege that many are ill afford to harbour, on account of variegated factors ranging from family, finances, health, and sundry responsibilities. Having said that, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable and debilitating autoimmune disease, in 2006 when I was in my third year of law school. At that time, I had no idea what MS was, or what to expect from it over the long-term.

I remember thinking that it sounded pretty awful when the neurologist looked at my MRI and pronounced his verdict. Some other doctors suggested that I leave studies altogether and focus on maintaining my health, let alone maintain hopes of building a career, legal or otherwise. It’s been an interesting journey ever since, for sure. I’ve had incidents of relapse during internships at JSA and NDA. I’ve been tempted to give up many times, because simple things that others take for granted, or tasks that ‘normal’ people do on an everyday basis, get very difficult to complete at times. Since I have the relapsing-remitting kind of MS, there are good days and there are bad days, and some phases of relapse, along with a progressive accumulation of disability over time.

With that qualification, however, I know that I have been very lucky to have had the kind of support from family, friends, doctors, physiotherapists, gym instructors, peers, colleagues, bosses, and employers that allowed me to continue – be it at Tufts, Fletcher, AQUILAW – where I worked during my PhD, Jindal, or S&R.

We have to reach out for support when we need it. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to do. This realization itself goes a long way in taking care of oneself.

We have heard that most law schools don’t focus on practical skills, and the current demands as well, what are your thoughts on the same, and how law students and other professionals can upskill their game?

I was teaching at the Jindal Global Law School before re-joining S&R Associates as Counsel. I think that educational institutions (and the wider pedagogical culture that such institutions uphold) undergo some learning over time and adapt themselves to new dynamics, especially in order to remain competitive and relevant. Compared to my time as a student, law schools these days need to, and do, focus a lot more on practical skills, including actively seeking out legal practitioners to conduct sessions where stories from the trenches are shared to give students a better idea of how things work in the real world.

At least that’s what my first-hand takeaway was, from my 3-year stint at Jindal – where as an Associate Professor, I offered courses on contract law, investment law, M&A and PE, etc. I myself used case-studies and real-life examples to familiarize students with the commercial law aspects of the courses I taught. The idea was to provide a holistic and ‘practical’ learning experience for all students. The Bar Council of India, too, has introduced various new curricular requirements that focus on such practical skills in keeping with the times.

Lastly, any 5 best pieces of advice for our readers?

I honestly doubt that my ‘advice’ will find resonance across the board. Nevertheless, here goes:

1. Make plans. These are building blocks of your future.

2. Expect said plans to go awry. Bad things happen, none of us is special. Be prepared to improvise.

3. Keep an open mind, and keep learning. Staying relevant and curious is half the battle.

4. Stick to your strengths and build on them.

5. If possible, have fun meanwhile. Life is short. No point making it more painful than it needs to be.

Get in touch with Deborshi Barat-

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