Interviews

Mohit Khubchandani, Judicial Fellow at the International Court of Justice, shares his learnings and experiences from his practice of International Law

This interview has been published by Ayush Verma.

Before we take a closer look at your career, could you share some insights from your law school journey with us?

I pursued my Bachelors in Arts and Law (BA. LL.B.) degree for 5 years from Amity Law School, Delhi, affiliated to Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi and graduated in the year, 2015. At the time when I joined law school, there was this trend of distinguishing between National Law School graduates and graduates from other law schools, which is now on the decline. So, the moment I entered into law school, I knew from the word go that I will have to work out of my skin to prove myself and be on the same pedestal as someone coming from a “non-NLU” (as they called it). I always had the innate belief that I had it in me to go the extra mile, and if I really manifest excellence, I would reach wherever I desire to be.  It wasn’t easy, but the joy of achieving your goals as an underdog is inexplicable. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

For me, the reason behind getting into law school was to be able to practice international law. So I was very clear since day 1, as international affairs always interested me. When I saw that these pseudo-distinctions between NLU and non- NLUs exist (which shouldn’t exist at all), that’s when I decided that I’m going to focus my law school journey on moot court competitions, primarily international law moots. These are rather helpful for anyone coming from any law school and any country because they place you on a level playing field with the best of the best. Once you are in that moot court simulation, you’re all analysing the same subject-matter. Of course, there might be some inherent difficulties in terms of access to resources, but such experiences expose you to the entire world. Moreover,  competing in such competitions also instilled in me faith and belief that these pseudo tags that exist don’t hold much relevance; what matters is how hungry are you to really make a mark; that’s what I did all throughout my five years. There were some obstacles in terms of trying to find good coaches because sometimes coaches also want to spend their time and energy towards teams coming from more reputable law schools. However, in hindsight, whatever I learnt from them and whatever merit I achieved in those moot courts helped me get publications in the field of international law and gave me the necessary step into the door of international law. I am fortunate that I now get opportunities to serve as a judge in all the moot courts that I took part in as a student. Life comes full circle and one should not really feel bogged down by where they are in a particular moment. It’s just about turning adversities into opportunities. It is important to remember that we’re in a marathon and not a sprint, and your only competition is you and no one else. So pace yourself accordingly. 

Coming to my publications, I did focus on them, but I was strategic about it. I didn’t just want to be published at any and every opportunity I got. Something I constantly told myself and continue to tell young lawyers is that: publications can come to you throughout your life. Law school is a time and space to do other activities which you cannot do once law school is over. In fact, having published work slightly later in my career helped me get published at better places. So, I first built my profile and my credibility before starting to get most of my publications. 

You have completed your Masters of Law in International & Environmental Law from Stanford Law School. How did you develop an interest in Environmental Law and how was your experience at Stanford University?

As I mentioned earlier, when I got into law school, I was certain that I wanted to practice international law. At the same time, I did realize that when you’re going out in the market and trying to sell yourself, you are more likely to receive recognition or appreciation when you sell yourself as a specialist. 

As a child, I loved going to the zoo, and looking at plastic and other waste not being disposed of properly always irked me. So, that’s the moralistic aspect that led to my choice. Secondly, I thought that if I pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Law, it will open a lot of doors for me. I said to myself, “If you return back to India, then how would this degree help you?” So, I considered practicing before the National Green Tribunal in India. This is one field where we see younger lawyers going there and international environmental law can be argued at the NGT.  See many international concepts being argued at other domestic Indian courts. Environmental Law is still at a nascent stage and therefore relies a lot upon customary international law. So, it was clear to me that this degree would help me whether I am practicing in a domestic context, or, of course, in an international context.  Another attractive aspect of Environmental Law is that it is one such field within international law that perhaps has the most number of interplays with other fields of law (Human Rights, Humanitarian Law and Trade Law to name a few). So this way I get to practice various areas of International Law while also working in International Environmental Law. I would thus like to believe that I am a generalist International lawyer with an environmental lens; because of this toolkit, I can sell myself as a specialist and a generalist at the same time. 

Coming to your next question, I think when I went to Stanford, the best part about my experience was that the university doesn’t have a grading system; there are no grades or percentiles which reduces a lot of toxicity. It facilitates healthy interactions amongst your peers as well as your professors and you are really there, for the sake of excellence and learning. Scores are inconsequential. Luckily, I was also one of the youngest people in my program because they need a minimum of two years of work experience to apply for that LLM and that is exactly what I had. So, not only did I learn from my professors but also from my peers.

You started your professional journey at the office of Mr. Mukul Rohatgi, the then Attorney General of India and Mr. Nikhil Rohatgi, Advocate, Supreme Court of India. What were some of the key learnings from that experience?

Before graduating in 2015, I was doing an internship at Mr. Mukul Rohatgi’s office and immediately after that, I  asked for a job and fortunately, I did find that position. I had two options then: either to join that office or to join a Delhi High Court judge as a law clerk. But I chose to work with the former because the Attorney General’s office by its very nature can get engaged in international law cases. While working at that office I had a very balanced experience because not only was I working with Mr. Mukul Rohatgi but primarily and quite importantly, working with Mr. Nikhil Rohatgi. So, I had the perfect balance of looking at trial cases in the district courts, visiting the Delhi High Court and other tribunals as well as the Supreme Court of India. 

What I really want to underscore here is that while it is great to chase bigger offices, it is also very important at the same time, especially early on in your career, to have an experience of working in not just the Supreme Court of India, but also in lower courts, because that is where you can draft pleadings. It takes you a long way in terms of learning the nuts and bolts of litigation, rather than just assisting a senior counsel wherein you may not get the chance to draft or to argue before courts.  

Did you always want to practice international law while working in India or the plan was to move abroad?

I am trying to charter a path of a natural transition. For any International lawyer, it is important to be well-versed with how municipal litigation operates, since that is from where general principles of international law emerge. To date, it helps me in my current work at the ICJ. Therefore, I wanted to very consciously work in India first, and when I realized that  I have derived what I could from perhaps one of the very few offices that does international law centric work in India, that’s when I thought that now is a time to move further; even after that I worked with the Permanent Mission of India (affiliated to the Foreign Ministry of India) in New York. I was working for India outside of India too. Eventually, I moved into the UN and now going further, I do not crave to be only at the UN. I would absolutely love the opportunity to also work at international law firms and/or even pursue a PhD. Who knows? I’m still traversing.  

What are your plans for the next five years?

Especially in a pandemic, making such plans is extremely hard, especially for international lawyers whose careers don’t necessarily proceed in a linear upward direction. One thing that I can tell you is that I have only been at the UN for three years, but in these three years, I have been lucky enough to see New York and the Hague and all the organs of the UN. I would like to come back to the UN, but I am also actively looking for positions at international law firms right now. My conscious and constant endeavour has been to try and experience international law, which is absolutely beautiful in as many ways as is possible. I also never fail to underscore for people that the UN is only the tip of the iceberg. One can get such great work at international NGOs and international law firms. Law firms also do pro bono-work human rights and environmental work, and that’s also what I may try to do. 

What are your day to day responsibilities as a Judicial Fellow at the ICJ?

Working as a Judicial fellow is exactly like working as a law clerk to any judge in any court of law. It can involve assisting the judge with speeches that are out-of-Court work and any academic writings that they’re working on. But the primary responsibility is to assist the judge in preparing research memorandums on the cases currently being litigated before the Court. Those memorandums can pertain to factual analysis or on legal points. Essentially, just making your judges life easy and in turn learning a lot.

In a span of six years, you’ve had the honour of working at all the 6 official organs of the United Nations. What has been the driving force behind these achievements?

There are miles to go and I hope it’s a progression. I did not chase these six organs and nobody can plan it this way. I certainly did not tell myself that I want to achieve some rare feat in a record time. I also must tell you that working at the General Assembly and the Security Council can be done by working for a government and then I worked for the UN Secretariat and now I’m at the ICJ. But the remaining two, which are the ECOSOC and the Trusteeship Council, are not exactly organs where you can find jobs, they just exist at the UN and as part of your daily work, you end up going there for a few meetings. I would not glorify this thing more than it deserves. I was applying to the UN and international law firms all at the same time and landed up here. At the end of the day, it’s really important, especially for people coming from India, to realize that the opportunities are very limited and it’s just a matter of grabbing what you’re getting. I am still on that path and a very uncertain path if I may say so. It is only incidental that it is coming up the way that it looks. But behind that, there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of setbacks. 

How can a law student who wishes to carve out a similar professional path do so?

The first thing that I had in my mind when I entered into law school was to try and pursue LL.M. from a prestigious university. In order to get to the ICJ as a Judicial Fellow, you cannot be applying as an individual. You have to be sponsored by your law school. It is absolutely imperative for you to have a prestigious LL.M. degree, especially if you are a student coming from India because, generally speaking, Indian law schools do not sponsor the ICJ fellowship program. Also, the pedigree for such an application shows a long demonstrated interest in the field and not just something that you develop suddenly prior to an application. For me, it was a very natural application to make because I knew since the very beginning of law school that I wanted to be at the ICJ. Therefore, doing Moot Courts, Model United Nations (MUN’s), writing publications or participating in ICJ specific competitions can give you an edge over other applications. I think I had worked a lot pertaining to the ICJ and not just international law, that it could have stood out in my application and then of course, French is something that is important and for me, it is still an ongoing process. But I must mention that I only got this position after 3 successive applications. So being tenacious is very important. 

Did you have any mentors in your legal journey to guide you through all of it?

Yes, there is one person besides my parents who I’ve looked up to throughout my journey. His name is Rahul Dravid. He’s a cricketer from India and is not even from my field of work. Everything about him, from his tenacity to his work ethic towards the milestones he’s achieved despite not being lucky, makes me relate to him in another dimension. What makes Dravid stand out to me is that he achieved success, not on the basis of some innate talent alone, but sheer hard work through which he’s grown over a period of time. I was not one of the brightest students, in school or college, but I have an immense hunger like him. Even after his retirement, the kind of work he’s been doing for the cricketing community by training younger cricketers instead, while being given the option to coach the Indian team is a reflection of his generosity. I try to follow similar principles in all my professional pursuits.

You believe that in a parallel universe you’d be acting and dancing in movies. How do you make the time to inculcate and indulge in such interests outside of the legal profession?

I still dream of making it in the entertainment industry to this day! Contrary to popular opinion, I think it is quite complementary to what I do. Litigating in the Court was a time where I especially thanked my involvement in theatre. It rendered me useful tools like voice modulation, the poise or appropriate pauses and the confidence to speak; all of which I owe to the theatre. I still crave it and I also enjoy dancing. It helps me maintain my mental balance. It has become a mode of reviving my self-confidence, so if I put on a few songs and dance to them, I get re-energised and then get back to my work with more focus. Wherever I go, all my colleagues are introduced to Bollywood music; there’s just no escaping it!

Coming to my hobbies and interests, while I am not able to do everything everyday, what I do try to actively do is to better utilise my vacuum spaces. So, if I am commuting between work and home, I will talk to my family or I might have a professional audio call while I’m cooking or cleaning. Even when it comes to dancing, if I’m exhausted after a day’s work, I give myself 5-10 minutes to dance before hitting the bed. It doesn’t interfere with my work, rather it helps accentuate it . 

How has the pandemic affected you professionally? How did you maintain the right balance during these difficult times?

Before the pandemic, I was in New York for a consultancy which I had to leave and come back to India. I had prospective leads that were generated from this consultancy but all of them were diluted. I had to take up a position that helped me get to the Court but it didn’t pay me. At the age of 28, despite all my work experience, I took up a position with a Member of the United Nations International Law Commission and it was a remote unpaid position but I made sure that there were no gaps on my resume. What I am alluding to is that I’m always chasing intellectual learning rather than money. Simultaneously, I have to recognise my privilege because I had a family that could support me when I chose to work with the ILC instead of applying to a domestic law firm that had nothing to do with international law but might have paid me a great amount.

I was at a crossroad where I had to make that choice. I could either continue to pursue international law or just shift bases due to the lack of opportunities created by the pandemic. I decided to work towards international law and I got to work towards a session of the ILC which worked out great for me. I kept myself busy by writing articles and ultimately, I ended up at the Court. I had nothing else to look forward to if not for the Court since this was the last application for me. Not here, I don’t know where I would be. It was a situation where I was hanging on the ledge, like it has been time and again for me, since I had no backup and I just looked forward to the future while crossing my fingers.  

How have you maintained your mental health in the times of the pandemic?

There’s this philosophy I follow: it is called Nichiren Buddhism. It’s not exactly a religion, but a way of life. We’re familiar with concepts like: thinking of someone else’s happiness before yours but they just hit us when we’re surrounded by dire situations. Whereas in this practice you are constantly reminded of such life ideals. I also actively try to see opportunities in adversities by following a notion they always discuss, known as ‘changing poison into medicine’. Meditation and chanting have been two ways that have helped me feel stable in dealing with uncertainties. I also constantly ask myself: ‘What is the worst that can happen?’, which instantly boosts me. I have come to realise that things might not come to me when I wish for them, but I manifest that they will come if I tell myself that they have to come to me, come what may. Something I do want to tell anyone who’s feeling anxious owing to the pandemic, whilst not finding a job, is that: if you don’t end up in a place you had planned for, there is nothing to be afraid of.  No one saw this pandemic coming and no recruiter should make you feel bad about taking a break on your own, or least of all, being forced to take one. So, I want to put this across as a sense of collective reassurance that all will be well. 

After having worked internationally and domestically, is there anything you would bring to India or something that you would take abroad?

I think Indians are very hardworking along with being street smart which is one thing the world can learn from us. We crib less if we have to work on weekends because somehow that is how it is in India. Ironically, this is also exactly the thing I would like Indians to unlearn from abroad. I think only when there is an imminent need, you can step up your game and work hard to get the job done. However, it should not become a habit and this extreme measure should only be used when required and should not be inculcated as a part of our daily work culture. The focus needs to be on effectiveness at work and flexible work spaces and work hours. At the UN in New York, there was in fact training wherein the focus was to show that there’s something wrong if you can’t finish your work within 8 hours and have to work overtime. So, I believe that this kind of approach, transfused with the Indian hardwork is the right balance. 

According to you, what is the irreplaceable quality or skill that every legal professional must possess to achieve great heights of success like yours?

Last month, I unexpectedly lost my maternal grandmother to the pandemic. There is one thing that she always said to me which has stuck with me to this day. She said that you have the nerves of steel to survive. I at least try to live by those words. I’ve learnt how to fail with a big heart and stand up upon a fall immediately. I have told myself that you’ve got to be Rocky Balboa! Over a period of time, anxiousness has transitioned into excitement for me as I worked towards my endeavours. Fail big or win big is a mantra I believe in: that is because you can fail a 100 times but you just need that one win to change it all. This may come off as a cliche, but I believe it really is the magic formula, at least for me. 

In terms of professional skills, people sometimes fail to value professional empathy and sympathy or interpersonal professional communications. You need to come off as a human first and then a lawyer. You need to understand that you’re talking to another human being and trying to solve their problems. Let’s say that you’re giving an interview and you’re talking about your vulnerabilities; it’s okay to display your human side and say ‘I am sorry but I don’t know what this is’. You need to see the line between being a strict professional and giving due regard to situations and using this side when need be. Also, being a lawyer does not mean to win points, but in fact to bring everyone to consensus. So, I think humanistic and moralistic virtues along with professional skills are really important to come across as your most genuine self. It is my innate belief, that at the end of the day, you are remembered the most for the kind of person you were and how you brought happiness in people’s lives more than anything else. 

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