Vikram Raghavan graduated from NLSIU, Bangalore with eight gold medals in diverse fields of law in the year 1997 and then went to pursue his masters from New York University. Right after that he started work as an attorney at O’Melveny & Myers, an international law firm in New York City.
Currently Vikram is currently a Lead Counsel at the World Bank in Washington, DC, and he advises on conflict, fragility, refugees, and macroeconomics. Among other things, he provides legal advice about military coups; United Nations sanctions; debt relief; and loan conditionality. He has authored a book titled Communications Law in India (LexisNexis, 2006) and co-edited a volume of essays: Comparative Constitutionalism in South Asia (Oxford University Press, 2013). His articles are reflected in The Hindu and Economics and Political Weekly.
In this interview he talks to us about:
- Choosing law as a profession and his experience at NLSIU, Bangalore and New York University;
- The art of managing life at law school and to develop interests in different curricular activities;
- His formative years as a lawyer and his time at O’Melveny & Myers, New York City.
- His early life at World Bank as a counsel and moving ahead and becoming the lead counsel at the World Bank.
What made you opt for law as a career?
Well, I was always interested in argumentation. My father was a lawyer and my grandfather was a lawyer as well. But the family profession, so to speak, influenced my decision only so much. When I was about thirteen years old, I read Prashant Bhushan’s book “The Case That Shook India.” I always wanted to do what he did and what he described about the court room drama.
However, it wasn’t an easy decision because at that time law was not considered to be a prestigious profession. The National Law School had just started and not even a single judge had graduated. So, there was a lot of uncertainty about it and ultimately, the fact was I didn’t want to do science. I had taken commerce and my only options were doing economics, commerce or something else entirely. So, law looked like an attractive idea because NLSIU had just started. I gave myself a year to see if law suited me, if it had not- I guess I had an option of coming back to economics.
Could you tell us about your life before you joined college? Where did your interests lie during your school days?
During school, I was a stamp collector first and foremost. Philately, as a hobby, shaped my interest in world events and in general knowledge. I also obtained a lot of confidence in public speaking by speaking at the South India Philatelists Association’s second Sunday meetings in Madras. Everyone who attended had to speak. So it was a nice way to get rid of adolescent stage fright.
What curricular and extra-curricular activities did you participate while being in university?
Well, it was an intense period of five years. The schedule of studies, as you would know, at any National law school is quite demanding. There are deadlines for something or the other, every other week — project submissions, moot courts, mid-terms, and end terms. So I spent most of time by trying to catch up and be on top of the different deadlines that would come.
Of course, when I was in college, there was no proper Internet. The campus itself did not have many facilities besides the library, which closed at 6.00 p.m. And you could borrow only three books. So I couldn’t say I was very productive. But during those five years, I tried my hand at different things. In my first two years, I did judo at the Sports Authority of India campus near the Law School. I tried my hand at quizzing, but there were much better quizzers at the law school than me. To be sure, there were other extra-curricular activities at NLS like sports and debates. But then again the school was filled with many talented students from the best schools in India. I simply did not have the background or training in high school to compete with them.
The incentive system in the law school was also skewed in favour of mainstream academic excellence. There were three big things you did if you wanted to be noticed: moot courts, grades, and articles. So, basically I spent those five years trying to get good grades. And you know I don’t regret those five years. What I am today is due to those five years of hard work.
Could you tell about your internship experiences? What sort of internships did you prefer and what learning experiences did you gain from it?
Well, I did four internships in those five years. The first one was an internship with R. Gandhi, which involved working on a lot of constitutional law matters. Among others, I worked with T. Sivagnanam, who is currently a judge at the Madras High Court and on the law school’s governing council as well I think. I also interned with N. Paul Vasanthakumar, the current chief justice of Jammu and Kashmir as well Ravi Chandra Babu, who is also now a judge. These judges were the three lawyers who I worked most closely with during my first internship. The second internship was in the Madras High Court focusing on criminal law under N.T Vanamamalai, a senior advocate. In my fourth year, I worked with K.K. Venugopal and in my fifth year I went to Sri Lanka to work with the Tamil leader, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam on the constitution-making process.
Straight after your under-graduation you went abroad to pursue masters at New York university. What was your experience at NYU and what all differences did you notice in quality of education at NLSIU and NYU?
Well, obviously the facilities over NLSIU were rudimentary. New York University had a lot more facilities. The library was out of this world and the NLS library in those days was still getting built. In those days, we didn’t have the internet so, you know things were different. Also American law schools are rigorous. They put a lot of effort into preparation before class. So, if you don’t read up and come to class then it would be difficult for you to follow.
Could you please tell us about the skills and preparation needed for the moots, building arguments and the way to read a judge’s mind and what are the criteria’s a judge chooses to mark the participant?
(Vikram has represented India at Philip C. Jessup moot court competition and he also served as the executive council member till the year 2011.)
Mooting is something that I strongly recommend because I think it really helps in court craft and you it helps you dig deep into a legal subject. When I was a law student there weren’t so many moots like you have today. More number of moots are opportunities for people to learn and explore. Eeveryone at NLS has to compete internally first for it, and the internal competitions were in itself very intense. These competitions conducted across the different classes, which meant you had to argue against the seniors who know more law than you do.
This was a good process, because it forced you to basically go out of your comfort zone and learn new things very quickly. Participating in the Jessup, no doubt, enhanced my interest in international law. Probably my career today is based on that experience.
You have been an associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, An International Law firm. Could you please tell us the experience there?
That was just after NYU. I spent three years at O’Melveny. I worked on corporate and transactional work and also some litigation, basically international arbitration. It was a very intense experience, because U.S Law firms practice law in a way that is very demanding. I think the main thing for me was to be able to practice law with very smart lawyers and clients.
You were the editor of NYU Journal of International law and politics. Could please tell us the role you played and what all things did you achieve during your tenure as an editor?
I wasn’t the editor. A friend of mine was an editor. I was just a graduate editor. If you look at the cover page it has many editors and editor is mostly just a title. I was involved in proof reading some of the articles. I don’t know what the editorial process is like now in Indian law school but it was certainly different from what we did at NLS. At NYU, a lot of care and attention was taken to ensure that the articles are selected properly and carefully formatted and cross-checked. It is a very rigorous exercise.
Could you please tell us about your recruitment at the World Bank and initial days of work? Is it possible for a law student to get an internship at the World Bank?
(Vikram started at World Bank as a counsel and now he is the lead counsel of operational policy at the World Bank.)
After three years at a law firm, I applied for and got hired as a counsel at the World Bank. When I came first here, I was given Sri Lanka and Nepal and later Afghanistan and Iraq. That experience was really worth in a way shaped my profile at the bank, working with conflict prone countries, and more unstable countries. I think it was an exciting portfolio for any lawyer to do because it has a mixture of law and policy. Working on a World Bank project is, in itself, a very challenging and rewarding thing. Sadly, we don’t offer regular internships at the World Bank’s legal department. Most of our interns come from institutional partners like NYU who pay the students a stipend. The World Bank does not have the budget nor can we take unpaid interns.
Could please tell us how to develop writing skills to our readers who are mostly law students?
(Vikram has authored a book on communications law in India and co-edited volumes of essays on comparative constitutionalism in South Asia, his articles are reflected in the editorial columns of The Hindu and Economic and Political Weekly.)
I would recommend students read the work of Bryan A. Garner. He advocates writing simply and elegantly. Read his work. And you will write very differently. I guarantee it.
How did you to continue to maintain the love for history, economics and law, despite such hectic schedule in life?
It is always a challenge. Every day, every minute you have to find time to do different things.
What would be your message to the young law students and budding lawyers?
Well keep working hard, and I believe whoever keeps working hard basically succeeds. It doesn’t matter what school you go to or what grades you get, your hard work helps you. Gain expertise in the subjects that interest you. Build a brand for yourself.