Hey everyone! As a part of our Interview Series, I spoke with Rishika Sahgal of the fifth year, from the batch of 2015. To be very honest, it’s quite intimidating to casually chat with someone whose next destination is either Harvard or Oxford for an LLM, but I managed to bravely survive the onslaught of her maturity and cheerfulness. So here goes. Read on to find out about how law school was like for her, what she plans to do in life and the advice she has for her juniors.
- Tell us a little about yourself. How has law school been?
For me law school only really started in the third year. First year was just about experimenting with everything possible. Second year was very restless because I realised there was absolutely nothing to do and I found that very disconcerting and disappointing. I expected a lot more out of law school. In our third year, a lot started happening because we got Dr. Aparna Chandra, Dr. Mrinal Satish, Dr. Anup Surendranath and Dr. Chinmayi Arun and I jumped into everything that came my way. Suddenly there was a field of possibilities opened in front of me as to what I could do with the law and I found that extremely interesting.
- What inspired you to pursue a post-graduate degree?
In my first two years there wasn’t really much to study. It’s only when I came to the third year that I really started understanding what it means to study the law. Jurisprudence, Constitutional law and Labour law were fascinating to me. I realised that I really enjoyed studying the law and that I hadn’t gotten enough of that in my five years here. This formed one of the reasons why I wish to pursue further studies. Also it’s contingent on the kind of things I want to do after law school. I want to get into human rights, I really enjoy Constitutional law and want to study it further. So for the sort of things I want to do later on in life, an LLM makes a lot of sense for me.
- What were the co-curricular activities that you were involved in while in law school?
In my first year I was mostly involved in debating, and Aaghaaz. The Aaghaaz project was started by my seniors during the years when college was still being constructed. The labourers and their children would live on campus itself so the students decided they would teach these children. Since there were only four-five seniors willing to teach at that time, they asked a couple of us to help out.
Third year we started INSAAF. It was a very busy year for us as we were involved in re-drafting the Delhi Anti-Beggary law. We also got involved in a project related to the Railways wherein we would go to the Railways Court in Old Delhi Railway Station. This Court primarily handles cases of violation of the Railways Act. These arise if, say you pickpocket on the trains, or enter into a coach without a ticket or peddle your wares on the trains, which is the most common offence for which you are likely to be picked up under the Act.. At first we’d go to the Court and see the kind of offenders who were being picked up. We realised these were mostly vendors who would sell their goods on the railway platforms because it was their only means of sustenance. They revealed to us the system of exploitation at whose mercy they existed. They would have to regularly pay bribes to the Railway Protection Force and if they refused, they would be arrested, taken to the Railways Court, and be forced to pay a fine and then the cycle of vulnerability and exploitation would begin again. This was the sort of work I was doing in my third year.
Then in the fourth year, the Death Penalty Research Project began and I got involved in writing a chapter with Dr. Surendranath on the Right to Life and Liberty. I was reading dozens of cases on Constitutional law and it finally felt like law school had begun for me.
- How did you balance them with academics? Where did you seek to place more emphasis?
It may sound very fancy to talk about balancing academics with co-curriculars in law school but our academics aren’t very challenging, except in the third year. There’s enough time in the day to engage in extra-curricular pursuits. In fact, in my second year, all I had was time and nothing to do, so thereafter I took up anything that came my way.
But doing all this does mean giving up on other things. It does mean that if there are Diwali celebrations for instance, sometimes I won’t be able to make it; if my friends are going out, I won’t be able to go. I really enjoy travelling, but there are so many trips that I’ve had to skip because I was busy with work. At the end of the day I’m able to do that only because I think that the work I’m doing is meaningful enough for me.
- How did you go about college applications? Where all did you apply?
I applied to only five places. Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Columbia. I got admitted to Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford. The application process was very gruelling. You begin with your Rhodes application in August, wherein you need six letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose. It’s probably the first time you’re actually writing one so you’re just lost. What do I write? How do I put down everything that I’ve done in 21-22 years onto two pages? How do I say everything I want to say? The first draft is invariably rubbish, you keep tearing it away and writing afresh. But as the deadline approaches, you’re able to write something, hope it’s good and send it off.
Everything was spaced over a couple of months for me. After the Rhodes application, came Cambridge in September. You’d then get a call back for your Rhodes application for an interview. In mid-November was Yale and Harvard. Finally Columbia in December and Oxford applications in January. But during those months, I was constantly stressed, thinking about applications and whether I’d get in anywhere. It’s easier if you’re not doing a lot of other things so you find time for your applications. This all happened for me in the ninth semester, the beginning of fifth year.
- How was the application/interview process?
The interview process was basically about everything that I’d written in my statement of purpose and the sort of things I’d done. These are usually standard things like my extra-curriculars etc. But essentially your interview depends on what you have said you’ve done and where you want to go next. And then it’s just a conversation about what you think.
- Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford! Have you decided?
I’m still undecided. I’ve taken a deferral for Harvard i.e. I’ve asked them to postpone for a year. I’m waiting for my scholarship money, so let’s see where that goes. But it’s most probably between Harvard and Oxford.
- What are the courses that you have applied for?
All the universities I had applied to offer general LLM degrees. In Oxford the post-graduate degree in law is called the Bachelor of Civil Law, whereas it’s called the LLM at Harvard and Cambridge. At Harvard you are required to pick enough courses to make 24 credits a year. In Oxford, you get to pick four courses of your choice. So everything depends on what you want to do in your future. I’ll mostly pick human rights courses and Constitutional law courses. For example, Oxford offers Comparative Equality law, Criminal Justice, Security and Human Rights, Constitutional Theory, etc.
- Any advice for your juniors and other LLM aspirants?
Our law school is an extremely exciting place to be in right now. We are spoilt for choice in terms of the number of research projects currently being conducted by our teachers, and I would encourage students in our university to make the most of this. Engage in as many activities as you can as that will point you in the direction in which you want to go. Engaging in projects like Insaaf and the Death Penalty research project helped me grow immensely as a lawyer and as a person. I was able to understand how the law can serve as a tool of marginalisation and exploitation, but also that it has the potential to be used as a tool for empowerment. You can’t come back from a field visit without being deeply moved and inspired. I’d hope that more students make use of the wonderful resources available to us to embark on a similar journey.
As for LL.M. aspirants, while grades do matter (and it helps to be in the top 5 – 10 percentile of your class, at least for universities like Harvard and Oxford), it is also immensely important to have done things in law school that show what you’re interested in, and make a convincing argument about what it is that you want to do after you graduate. I’d also say that be clear about why you want to study further, and I’d hope it’s for reasons like the joy of studying the law, or wanting to do something meaningful with one’s education.