Academics, Researchers & International Organisations

Megha Bhagat, Independent Consultant, Human Rights in the non-profit sector, on a career in research

Megha Bhagat graduated from Army Institute of Law, Mohali. She pursued an LL.M in Human Rights from NLSIU, Bangalore before going on to work at NASSCOM Foundation. She has received a Certificate of Recommendation from HRLN for extraordinary participation in the National Convention on Human Rights and Mental Health, a Certificate of Recommendation from the Supreme Court Bar Association and a Certificate of Appreciation from Amnesty International. She currently works as an independent consultant in the non-profit sector.

In this interview, she talks about:

  • Law college experience at Army Institute of Law, Mohali.
  • Masters in Human Rights from NLSIU, Bangalore.
  • Interning and working at the NASSCOM Foundation.
  • Being an independent consultant in the non-profit sector.

 

Please introduce yourself to our readers. How did you decide to take up law?

I grew up as a typical military brat with schooling all over the country. This probably formed the foundation for making career choices that varied over the years since I got to meet different role models while moving schools. I can never answer “how” or “why” I decided to take up law but I distinctly remember saying to my history teacher back in the 9th grade that I will either be a lawyer or a journalist. I think the need to know how systems work triggered the decision to study law.

 

You graduated with a BA.LLB from Army Institute of Law, Mohali. How was your law school experience? Looking back, what would you do differently?

When I got into law college I was another 18 year old who had just gotten her first sense of academic freedom. The first year was about figuring out what was it about the subject that really fascinated me and this also typically meant not being a student who scored high grades. While the style of academics remained pretty much like school system, I started exploring the practical world of law and started embarking on internships and legal workshops. Since the college provided the option of specialising in human rights, corporate law or litigation in the 4th year I started building my understanding of what I really wanted to do.

For the first 3 years I interned at all forms of legal offices- be it criminal lawyers in Punjab & Haryana High Court, Khaitan & Co for the corporate experience, district courts in Lucknow or Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi. This was to ensure that I knew with absolute certainty what kind of law inspired me to work in a particular sector. By the time 4th year happened it was clear that I wanted to study human rights law and interestingly I was the only student not only in the college but the complete university that opted to pursue human rights law! I spent the last two years being on my own (no faculty, no peers), not only studying the intricacies of law but also working on workshops and seminars outside the academic circle. That built my overall exposure to the various facets of options I had set for myself and created role models from the sector.

I gave up on the idea of mooting pretty early in law college and that is one thing I would love to go back and change for myself! I think being a law student, it is a critical skill to evaluate yourself as a court room lawyer, so it’s something I missed out on.

 

You received extraordinary accolades while still in law school. Please tell us about these.

I received a Certificate of Recommendation by HRLN for extraordinary participation in the National Convention on Human Rights and Mental Health in October, 2004, a Certificate of Recommendation by the Supreme Court Bar association in April, 2005, and a Certificate of Appreciation by Amnesty International in August, 2007.

One thing I was clear about was that I wanted exposure beyond academic life and therefore remained very active in social circles beyond law college. I worked on making long lasting professional connections at the internships I pursued and I was able to get access to opportunities that existed outside college. Since human rights was already my preferred area of expertise, I was able to find mentors very early in college who groomed me in the sector and that led to participating in sector-specific work with organisations like HRLN and Amnesty.

I was involved in curating content for the mental health convention and leading a panel on mental health discourse. With Amnesty I was involved in working on the campaign against death penalty in India and wrote a paper on the same while at college. The Supreme Court Bar Association organises an annual conference which nominated students also attend and I was nominated by the college to take part in a discussion on changing trends in human rights discourse globally.

 

You interned at the NASSCOM Foundation while in law school and were offered a job there upon finishing your studies. What should one do to get noticed in a large organisation during a short, month-long internship?

It is very important that you are clear about how far off you see yourself in an organisation when you intern there. This gives you clarity in terms of your role in the organisation as an intern and leads you to make a better impression. In a large organisation it is critical that your interview has already hallmarked you as a different intern over others. For me, that has been my absolute strength- to have distinguished myself with specific skill sets over other interviewees. This impression is typically shared by your supervisor with other seniors in the organisation and that also defines the kind of work you will be doing as an intern.

Secondly, it is important you join an internship with an inherent zeal and capacity to learn and unlearn. While the “interns fetch the coffee” mechanism may apply at most places I find that most organisations are looking at an intern as a nimble footer who can move between projects easily and effortlessly. I actually joined NASSCOM Foundation and before that GMR Foundation on program management roles which had nothing to do with law at all and yet I entered with a simple mantra of “it is never too late to learn new subject matters and skills”, this trait was duly recognised at both the organisations.

You have to ensure that you have made a few solid skills of yours noticed and recognised. You can be a good researcher, a fantastic orator, a fabulous report writer, an awesome draftsman- you need to ensure that your work has made this known to the supervisor and also senior folks. They hire you back for skill sets they believe are missing in others and you have to figure that out while you are a part of the team. Lastly, socialise with the organisation! I have always believed that anybody is a person first and bosses/colleagues/peers later, so they are looking to know your working style as a person. Create/use opportunities to meet the seniors in the organisation, have personal conversations with them giving them a peek of where you come from and why you are working with them, pick up a few projects that are outside your work role and talk about those projects to the folks in the organisation. While at NF I was handling various projects from very varied perspectives and I had made my relationship building skills known to the organisation for them to hire me back to lead programs.

 

You pursued an LL.M in Human Rights from NLSIU, Bangalore immediately after graduating. What were your reasons for doing so?

I personally think it is an individual choice to pursue higher studies and their motivation to do so. My motivation was simple- I had deep dived deep into human rights studies during my under grad period without any faculty or guide support and I was deeply interested in rigorously studying the nuances of the subject under able guidance. I went on to pursue an LL.M immediately because I did not want a break in my studies and went on to specialise again in human rights at NLSIU. For me it was the best decision I ever made simply because I spent the next two years dissecting closely the working nuances of various human rights mechanisms and gathering more experience through trainings etc.

 

Is it better to work for a couple of years and then go for an LL.M or do one immediately after graduating?

Every law student should prioritise their 2 year plan right after law school early on. If you are interested in getting on with the job, then by all means pursue work immediately after law school. If you are interested in an LL.M adding specific specialities to your resume, then you should have either figured out by your final year of under-grad what subject excites you (through internships) or you can work for a few years and figure out what speciality makes the most sense to you. And of course if you are a learner like me then join an LL.M to explore what else you can extract from theoretical knowledge about the legal systems.

 

You were a Research Assistant for a period of ten months on the topic of “Common Resources of Mankind”. Can you tell us the experience of taking part in this conference?

This was for a Conference on “Commons” held in January, 2011 under the chairmanship of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. This was a huge opportunity that came along while I was pursuing my masters at NLSIU. We were chosen to participate in the research for the conference and the papers that would be presented thereof. I was a part of a small working group that was collecting global evidence of the “Common knowledge” and sharing growth stories. We worked on putting together data that indicated that not only were resources to be shared amongst nations but also that knowledge shared across nations was more conducive and relevant to the globalised world order.It was personally a very exciting and fulfilling experience since it added to my overall learning growth under such an esteemed academician.

 

After graduating, you joined the NASSCOM Foundation, New Delhi as a Business Responsibility Officer. What was your work profile like? What were your main tasks?

My work profile included program management for CSR, research and publication on relevant CSR subjects and support for the Disability Program of the organisation.

In the first year I was tasked to build regional industry forums on Corporate Social Responsibility. I was leading 3 regions: Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, and building working groups from within the IT industry to lead social impact projects within the cities. It was an interesting space to work in since it meant that I had to become well versed with all the IT/BPO companies in those regions and curate projects based on the skills that each company possessed and also work with CXO levels to change mindsets around CSR and social impact footprint of the industry.

In the 2nd year two changes took place- I was handed the responsibility to set up operations for the organisation in Bangalore and also handed the Program Management responsibility for an internationally funded project by the Rockefeller Foundation. I moved to Bangalore to successfully start the Foundation’s south regional office and also worked on new skills of writing funding proposals, managing an international donor and pretty much moved towards program management work. I did stay in touch with the law with the Planning Commission’s work on the 5 year plan where Iwas representing the industry on the change in the disability schemes and law. Similarly, I stayed connected with policy making work while working with the Karnataka government on amending the policy for Rural BPO’s within the state and creating more inclusive policies for small entrepreneurs.

 

After two years at NASSCOM, you joined the Fellowship Program at The Rockefeller Foundation. How did you secure your appointment as a Social Innovation Fellow? How was your experience there?

The Social Innovation Fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation was a nomination led process. All 18 fellows were selected and nominated by the Rockefeller Foundation based on our areas of specialisation and backgrounds. I was at that point of time also leading a project for the Foundation in India and working on creating a report for the global BPO industry.

Like most fellowships this was a life changing experience. I was one of the youngest fellows in the cohort and this was especially exciting since I got to learn from very inspiring senior folks from the social impact sector. We were travelling every 3 months to a new country to look at social innovation on the ground and to learn theoretical tools from our faculty from University of Waterloo, Canada and Stockholm Institute of Resilience. The travelling diaries made the beautiful countries seem so much more closer and catered to the travel bug in me.

It was riveting being amongst social change makers and witnessing NGO’s on the ground that were implementing social impact on a large scale and under various dynamics. At a personal level it made me introspect about my vision for myself and what else I wanted to do to change the world. I not only went on to make great friends but I’m also still inspired by the passion for social change that these amazing social innovators carry. I moved on from NASSCOM Foundation at the end of my fellowship program and started my own journey of creating social impact via various projects and organisations instead of limiting myself to one organisation.

 

Please tell us about your current occupation. What do your main tasks and assignments include?

Presently, I work as an independent consultant in the non-profit sector consulting with the International Institute of Education and Advisor at Education for Development, a non-profit organization in the education sector. I started consulting for non profits and start ups earlier this year. I currently lead operations for IIE’s new project called We Tech (Women Enhancing Technology) and led the foray of the program in India. I primarily work with the IT companies on mentoring high school girls to enter the coding space. The program is just going into its second year and I am working closely with the industry to scale the program.

In my role with E4D I am working with a very inspiring youngster who graduated from college and decided to change the way learning systems run in the country instead of taking up a plush job. E4D set up a “maker space” on the outskirts of Bangalore and provides an alternative learning system to anybody who wants to learn from making. I work with the start up on business development, outreach to partners and organisation visioning.

 

Your interest areas have been education, policy research and business strategy. How did you pursue these interest areas while still in law school?

I have always been interested in pursuing different subjects and gaining new skills through that exploration. While at law school I was involved with various research organisations like HRLN, Amnesty, etc. and worked on research papers for various human rights subjects including education. I had a lot of time on my hand to write articles based on changing policies and utilised my professional circle to gain access to opportunities to present the research or work on new and developing research. While I interned with foundations of corporate houses I picked up the nuances of business strategy by working closely with the corporate, business development teams of the parent organisation. I was always interested in how one could integrate social responsibility within the DNA. The wide range of exposure got for myself gave me ample playing field to pursue my interests.

 

You have been commended by your previous and current employers for being a people’s person and building strong working relationships. How important are social skills for a lawyer and how does one cultivate them?

Personally I am a typical military girl, which means I am used to forming relationships where ever I go. Add to it the fact that all through my seven years of legal education I dabbled with varied institutions and organisations thus leading to an overall understanding of different industries and professionals.

As a lawyer, I think social skills are extremely relevant if you want to grow out of your shell at a regular desk job! If you are looking to grow further up in the legal field or diversify later into varied sectors you need to socialise beyond the circle and form learning relationships with various professionals. It is important to go out of your comfort zone and interact with professionals in different fields, to have a childlike curiosity to learn something new and if there is one thing every human likes it is the opportunity to share knowledge. In my experience forming people relationships is an important component to grow as a professional and seeking out collaborators is useful in the long run. Whoever you meet through work should connect with you at a personal level too and that goes a long way in staying on as strong professional networks.

 

It is a common belief that working in the areas of human rights and policy research doesn’t pay well or at least as much as a law firm does. How true is that notion and how much of a hindrance is it for people joining this area of work?

Unfortunately the social impact sector does not have pay grades like law firms. This grim reality has led to keeping fresher level talent away from this sector. The growth in the sector takes place after the initial 4-5 years and “social work” “policy research work” haven’t picked up as mainstream skilled professions leading to much less people joining the sector. The other side of the coin is that the growth is phenomenal if you stay put for initial 3 years and learn the sector well enough. The sector requires nuanced expertise and once you have created a network for yourself and become a subject matter expert it doesn’t take much to grow from post to post.

 

What are your plans for the future? What advice would you give to the students reading this interview?

I intend to keep working in new subject areas and utilise my skills to work on solving varied social problems. I would hate to stay put in a specific area and therefore I see myself drifting from education to technology to urban development challenges to art and literature as forms of ending violence. The variety in the subject matter keeps me excited and thus will move from one project to another keeping my insane urge to travel also satisfied.

I would say to the students that: Don’t restrict yourself to one particular field of study just because you entered a particular sector. Figure out for yourself what excites you the most and then pursue that ambition with or without law. There are amazing opportunities that exist outside the framework and as a lawyer you are already well equipped to be a rockstar in most of the nuanced sectors! Pursue a particular field because that is what inspires you every day otherwise you will just end up being another lawyer in the country!

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