Rohini Sen graduated from GNLU, Gandhinagar in 2011 and thereafter she went for an LL.M to University of Leeds. Presently she is an Assistant Professor and teaches at Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat.
In this interview we speak to her about:
- Studying B.Sc.LL.B from GNLU, Gandhinagar
- Pursuing an LL.M. in International Law from Leeds
- Experience as a teacher at JGLS
Tell us a bit about your work life, your dreams and aspirations.
I must congratulate you on this rather interesting and enterprising endeavour. SuperLawyer is very informative for those who need a form of guidance to see them through five years of law school and has a relatable touch to it as well. I am always on the lookout for such creative ideas and that is a good place to start when it comes to me. I am a big believer of constructive communications, collective problem solving and creative dialogues and, academia allows me to experience all of them. Through my academic journey, I hope to bring about some relevant changes in the Indian legal education system. Rote learning has eroded our ability to synthesize information and be mindful of their significance. I want to facilitate the process of independent, interdisciplinary thinking and help students integrate into a knowledge society with ease (I include myself in the student category because I learn new things almost every day through the lessons). I also hope to be able to contribute substantially to international law someday – global identity and perspective being my reference frame.
Do you reckon any incident that motivated you to choose law as a career?
No special incident as such, but to bring a perspective I should mention that I come from a family of academicians and have grown up amidst books, liberating discussions and topical debates. Having spent the better part of my childhood and adolescence questioning norms, I always believed that I would be an author and write profusely to make emphatic statements. I knew I wanted to be heard and be famous but I was never quite sure how that might happen! The idea of doing law never crossed my mind until my father picked up a form for GNLU and sent it my way. I was in that indecisive transition stage when he told me about these national law schools and that GNLU’s was the only entrance examination left. Three days later, I wrote the exam and the rest, as they say, is history. It was only when I started college did I realize that others prepare quite meticulously for such entrances and doing law is serious business. Well, law is a subject that requires you to stay on top of things all the time and ensure that any information you possess is absolutely updated. As a result of this constant input, lawyers seem to be generally (I don’t endorse generalizing though) more aware about things and events. This definitely gives you an edge.
Tell us about your time at GNLU.
Summing up my time in GNLU in a paragraph is nothing short of sacrilege! I have learnt so much from my time there. My five years of law school have taught me to think like a lawyer when the need arises, be tolerant to contrary opinions and ideas (as long as they do not represent ignorant/harmful practices), to nurture my fondness for creative thinking and diverse subjects. I have learnt something from each and every individual I have met in GNLU and cherish the collective experience. I have several interesting stories and highlights from my GNLU days. But one that stands out the most was winning the Henry Dunant Moot Court Competition at the national and international levels (we won the national and South-Asian rounds and were runners-up in the finals of Asia-Pacific). The moot helped me realize my immense fondness for International Law and IHL and set an invisible marker for the general direction my career would take. I also made some incredible memories and friends in course of the moot –people across the globe who have helped me grow as an individual.
Can you tell us about B.Sc. LLB course and its advantages?
That is an interesting question actually. As you correctly pointed out, the Indian universities are yet to pick up that trend. I was a student of science in school and that made B.Sc a fairly natural choice. I was (and continue to be) of the opinion that one can read the BA subjects simultaneously or subsequently, but, B.Sc allows you to have an added edge. The course consisted of the three basic science subjects and interesting law-related additions that possessed bio-chemical and forensic components. As far as I am concerned, this intensive science degree always gives me a well-rounded perspective on things. It allows me to engage deeply with certain topics of IHL (such as weapons, their nature and use, strategic international conflicts/disputes) and environmental law (science-based procedures and mechanisms) because of the technical components. I do think that it is essential to understand the background and context before delving into the law and my B.Sc LLB degree allows me to do that with comparative ease.
How did you balance academics with mooting?
(Rohini has been part of the winning team of the 8th Henry Dunant Memorial International Moot Court Competition.)
Well, as I already stated, winning Dunant was momentous for me. It pretty much drove me to where I am today. We put in a lot of effort for the moot and that, coupled with our natural flair for the subject helped immensely. We were very determined to win and spent hours in the ISIL and ILI library reading books for background and references (something that few moot teams do these days). This is a practice that all mooters need to inculcate and something I tell my students as well. If you know your subject and its background well, you will have answers to even the most obscure questions.
The confidence that you gain from reading and good oratory skills will see you through the rest. Balancing academics and mooting is not very difficult actually. I’d recommend that one takes it with stride. The minute you think of these as something that you must balance, it looks a lot more daunting than it really is. My advice would be to instead think of it as something you like doing and devote time to it as you would to any other hobby.
Any incident which is stuck in your mind from Henry Dunant?
Actually, there is something interesting that I took away from the experience. Right from day one, our only goal was to win and we would psych each other up by saying so on the occasional bad days. The power of this brand of thinking has impressed itself upon my mind rather well.
Tell us how has being associated with committees helped in building your personality and shaping your career?
Oh yes! Being an active part of committees and societies is very integral to one’s overall development. It teaches you teamwork which is often dismissed as a clichéd skill but, is very useful when you enter the professional domain. It also teaches you how to network –a skill that is terribly underrated in India and often relegated to the status of “unfair” simply because you choose to use your communication skills in addition to your talent. Of course, one must make the distinction between networking and seeking undeserved favour. And this is something the institutions can teach our law students.
In GNLU, I was associated with committees that conducted university related activities as well as committees/clubs that involved a lot of social and cultural engagements. The quiz club was a particular favourite and continues to be of immense interest. All these activities were a good blend of work and fun and helped me stay updated and motivated.
What prompted you to choose the University of Leeds from the plethora of options available?
The decision to do an immediate LL.M was made a long time ago, but, Leeds happened through some serendipitous and some pragmatic engagements. When I was a child, I had met a Barrister from Leeds and something about that reputed, old world, charismatic and Anglian intrigue became a part of my system. Leeds is one of the oldest and top universities in the UK and when the time came to make applications, it was but a natural choice (The only other university in UK I applied to was Edinburgh). Another important thing to remember is your subject of choice and to pick an institution that offers the subject and is reputed in that domain. When the offers arrived, I had to make a tough decision between NYU, UCLA, Chicago, Edinburgh, Leeds and Pace and Golden Gate. The American universities were expensive and the scholarships afforded by them were far from sufficient. I was fresh out of college and determined to get into academia post my Masters and these factors played an important role in my university selection. I was very reluctant to take a student loan because I wanted financial mobility after graduation. Academia is not really a money making profession yet and I did not want to be stuck in a job just to ensure loan repayment.
Having eliminated the American universities, Leeds was a very easy choice. I understand that brand name is often a concern for most people. But, having undergone the process and being where I am today, I can safely say that it really is not very relevant. At the end of the day, all that matters is how well you have done and how enterprising you can be.
Tell us about your time University of Leeds.
I loved my time in Leeds. Given my academic family background and previous travel experience, I was not unfamiliar with global education practices. This helped me ease into my LL.M program well. Indian law schools do not encourage independent thinking or intense research at the undergrad level.
At Leeds, I was exposed to a system that takes its readings very seriously. It was both liberating and challenging. As a Masters student, we were required to not just read hundreds of pages every week, but, to also ruminate on them. I enjoyed this practice very much and it has allowed me to hone my writing and teaching skills in the process. We engaged in seminar style discussions with each other and the faculty instead of lecture style classes and found that particularly refreshing and valuable. This is a practice that the Indian higher education system should definitely try and emulate. In a Masters class, there is a diverse presence of people from all kinds of backgrounds and age groups who have a lot to share. Everyone, especially the faculty, can learn a lot from this exchange.
In India, we overemphasize the faculty-student distinction much more than the necessary. In the UK, there is a lot of ease and the faculty make themselves a lot more approachable. So yes, the systems are different, but the difference is not daunting. If you are considering a LL.M you must be prepared to read and think – habits that can only stand you in good stead. Also, a traditional yet innovative university like Leeds takes its dissertation and research very seriously. This emphasis on quality has allowed me to make my work comprehensive and publishable. A year of studying abroad is necessary for everyone for several reasons. It helps you grow as an individual both professionally and personally. And while you figure your way out through the lessons, it is extremely important to have a lot of fun as well. Immerse yourself in travel, cultural exchange, sports, parties and meaningful conversations. You will be surprised at how much you can learn from a mere five minute exchange!
How did you manage funding and expenses for the LL.M?
Scholarships for LL.M are quite hard to come by actually. There are merit scholarships as well as need based scholarships, but the numbers are limited. I was given a partial merit scholarship by the university and the rest of it was paid for by my parents. Studying outside the country is an expensive process and I would advise all those who wish to pursue their LL.M to be very judicious in their decision making and take into account all possible scenarios post LL.M. There are some competitive scholarships available within and outside the specific universities. You can apply for the university scholarships while making your applications. If you don’t qualify for the merit scholarship, you may make an application requesting financial needs and stating your reasons for the same.
The universities will consider your request and grant you aid accordingly most universities follow this pattern. The external scholarships, such as Commonwealth, Chevening etc. are extremely competitive and merit based. But there are few others along those lines and you can keep your eyes open for as and when they come (I missed the deadline for all of them). Also, organizations such as Rotary, Ford Foundation and TATA provide scholarships for prospective graduate students in relevant areas. You just have to be enterprising and be on the lookout for such opportunities.
What prompted you to choose teaching as a career?
I have wanted to be an academic for as long as I can remember. Coming from a family of academicians made it a very easy choice. I have grown up observing some of the most brilliant professors, liberal thinkers and inspired individuals. This exposure constantly helped me to be my own person and think of a way to transfer some of what I have learnt and loved to others as well. Academia was the perfect vehicle to do that.
Tell us about your teaching methodology.
I would like to believe that my teaching methodology is fluid and anecdotal. I try to simplify the subject as much as I can and attempt to bring in relevant and contemporary references. As a teacher, proper communication of ideas is very important to me. I strive hard to make sure that most (if not all) have understood the very basic concepts.
Having been a student in the recent past, I try to think from the student’s perspective as much as I can. They sit through a variety of lectures all day and the mind tends to get saturated and distracted. Keeping that in mind, my goal is to make the classes interesting and informative, while keeping the subject structure intact. It is not easy and I try to think of new methods to do so as often as I can. As teachers, we often forget what it was like to be a student. And having seen both ends of the spectrum, I think that academics should never forget the trials and challenges of their student days. This perspective helps in making the lessons more relatable. I am also not a fan of this emphasized distinction between faculty and students. This is a personal opinion of course. I try to soften the barriers in order to make room for better exchange.
I do not encourage taking notes, but, I am comfortable with the idea of jotting down skeletal points of importance interest. I do ask my students to read and come so that a conversation is possible and try my best to engage them in debates, discussions and other class activities. I also send them any reading that I think is interesting or vaguely connected to the subject. I am afraid I am quite the spammer in that department! I am extremely happy when they ask questions or take interest in a topic. Through these questions, I get to learn new things from them.
Could you give our young readers certain tips on excelling in academics?
I really don’t like the idea of quantifying academics and comprehension of subjects. The best way to excel is to read voraciously (all kinds of books), be interdisciplinary and always take time out to reflect on what you have read. This is my overall mantra to doing well. As a teacher, I would recommend spending time with what one has read in order to absorb the basic ideas and concepts. This is very important. If you have understood the essence of a topic or an article, you will be in a position to write a skeletal answer and build upon it from memory or references. Last minute rote learning may help you get the grade, but, if you spend a few more days with the subject you might grow to like it as well. In addition to that, be lucid and simple when you write. If your opinion is contrary to the teacher’s do not hesitate to share it and justify it.
What do you feel about the Indian legal education system?
The Indian legal education system is intense but relies unnecessarily on rote learning in some subjects. To be fair, my Indian undergrad helped me stay ahead in my LL.M class all throughout. We cover an impressive spectrum of topics and subjects. However, barring a few instances, the teaching methodology needs to change. Asking students to memorize sections of Bare Acts is redundant since as a practitioner, you will refer to it anyway. Also, it is not at all helpful in simplifying concepts. Instead of such teaching methods, we need to generate more discussions, be more contemporary, practice oriented and analytic.
Having said that, I must state that the quality of discussions/debates in an Indian classroom is no less than reputed UK or American universities in any aspect. We just need to find a way to channel and hone these diverse minds and interests. We need young academics, a blend of old and new ideas and we need to dismantle bureaucratic practices in the legal education system.
What would be your message to our readers?
Read, travel and meet new people. Education is just one of the many components that help you grow and it is much more than a means to employment. Allow it to enhance you and not stifle you. And I’d encourage more law students to join academia in this time and day. Some of us braved it despite the comparatively less financial incentive while others had to settle for more lucrative prospects, despite an academic bent. Do not let that stop you. We are on the road to make change.