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Nikita Shankar on LLM in IP Law from University of Southern California

As a part of IP Matters' collaboration with TINNUTS LLP, Mumbai, Contributing Editor Sushmita Nair interviewed Nikita Shankar, who enlightened the audience about pursuing IP Law from the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law. Watch the full interview here.

About the Guest:

Nikita Shankar is a licensed attorney in India with almost five years of work experience. Starting her career, she gained extensive experience in managing the domestic as well as multinational IP portfolios of clients (both domestic and international), with a focus on trademarks and copyright. She thereafter moved to Los Angeles, USA to pursue a masters in law and was conferred with the LL.M. degree with specializations in Media & Entertainment, Business and Technology & Entrepreneurship Laws from the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law. While there, she also received opportunities to intern and assist at entertainment law firms such as Ramo Law PC and Entertainment Law Partners, which helped further hone her skills as a lawyer and gain international experience. Having moved back to India recently, she has joined TINNUTS LLP in the capacity of senior associate and works on the firm’s entertainment and trademarks practices.

Probably the most basic question- What drew you towards IP law specifically to the field of media and entertainment? I'm sure that the inclination must have been quite strong considering that you went on to do Masters in that subject.

My interest in IP and Entertainment has always been there even before I decided to pursue Law. I come from a family that was in the movie industry and the music industry. So when I decided to take up law I thought of combining my interest, and the profession that I've chosen to pursue. I graduated Law in 2015. After which I started looking for jobs that had an IP practice. And that's where I got my first job at Aditya & Associates, Mumbai. So, over there I had an hands-on experience at trademarks and copyrights, mainly on the transactional side. I wanted to do IP and then I wanted to do entertainment but I want to understand IP well. And that's what I did for about, over two years, I worked as an associate always had a plan to do masters, especially in the United States, because whatever I had gathered collected I came to know that education in the US is different from that of India. It's more on a practical basis. Yeah, I was a little fascinated by the United States. That's another reason. Instead of doing the Masters directly after the NLD, I started working for at least three years because I've learned that if you get some work experience, it helps you get admission at better universities. It also financially, maybe help you in some way not majority like a major way, or in some way can help you save up and use that savings for your masters. So I worked for a few years and then around 2017 I started preparing for my masters. Because by 2018 I wanted to try and see which university I can get, apply to university and get accepted. So I started preparing in 2017. There is TOEFL exam that you have to prepare for and it has to be in time that you apply for the law schools, but also it has to be recent as in it has to be within the two years that you're applying to the law school, because of it's validity after you have given the exam. And in the US, if you see, you know, the requirement is TOEFL over IELTS. So I gave the TOEFL exam, and I cleared it 100 score out of 120. So, you know, let me tell you a lot of universities have either a minimum score, or they don't have any minimum requirements as such, but I wanted to try and get to NYU. But they have a minimum requirement of 100 over 120 for TOEFL. And they have a minimum requirement of at least 25 points in each-speaking, listening, reading and writing. So you have to score minimum 25 each, and overall 100, but other universities did not have such requirements, and I applied in around seven universities in the US that had really good intellectual property law courses, and I did consider the geographical location of these universities because I did wanted to work there after doing my masters. I wanted to try and get good opportunities once I graduated from that university. So my focus was mainly towards New York and California. So in New York I applied to NYU, Fordham and to Cardozo School of Law, which is comparatively more recent and is getting a lot of recognition for IP. I wanted to get through NYU and even George Washington University that's in Washington DC. It's extremely good for the IP law programme. And in California, I applied to UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC which was also one of my favourite and preferable university on the west coast. But I did not get into NYU, To be honest, and having such high hopes for it, I was disappointed. But I did get into George Washington University, Fordham and Cardozo. I did get into USC and UC Berkeley had the goals that they accepted me and was one of the professional course which was just one semester. And they call it a professional track. So, I was not so keen on it, so that's why I did not accept that, but I did in fact think a lot about getting into George Washington University or USC.

An often debated question in the legal communities do you really need an LLM degree. What is your take on it?

I think I can, I'm all for it. I think so many of the information, the education that we receive in an LLM is not covered in the LLB, of course there is a general LLM and there is a specialized LLM. But having a masters degree whether you're doing it in your own country, or if you're doing abroad, it definitely enhances your profile, not just professionally but I think it helps you overall, even in your thinking in your ways and understanding the industry and understanding what having a professional edge or pursuing something professionally very seriously. When you have an inclination, having an LLM enhances and a second possibility, if you want to apply for an LLM abroad. I would say if you are really determined to do it, you should go for it. It definitely helps in a lot of ways that you didn't even understand at that point. I would say, having an LLM does help.

You mentioned that you applied to seven different universities, right, so now when you just do a simple Google search like LLM and IPR, you get so many search results that that this is already the beginning stage, this is a pre-application stage and you often get intimidated at that stage itself looking at so many options, how does one choose the right university? Tell us your experience of figuring out. How did you research, and everything?

I would say, first of all you need to dedicate a lot of time in doing this research. You can reach out to people who have acquired masters degrees from many universities not even before you decide you want to pursue, like a certain university, definitely get a better understanding of how it actually is versus what you see online what information is online because every university is going to be like we are in the top five or we offer this very unique course or we're going to offer you the best and we have a lot of scholarships and it's all credited with this or that. But understand the reality and how it actually is. I think you need to dedicate some time, you need to understand what is it that you are looking for. Are you looking to study a little further or you want a different experience or you want to live in a different country and that's how you want to get thinking of taking this course so that you can actually stay there for one year, so you need to ask yourself these questions. And these are the internal things but external things like, how good is actually the course that they are offering, how good is the curriculum and how accomplished or good are the professors that are taking this course. And, of course, ranking help at some points if you're planning to work there. And another question that comes into mind is to understand how helpful the studying from this university be when it comes to apply to jobs. And not just rank wise but location wise also. Because my one criteria that I had in mind is I want to apply on board your university that's located in a city, because that helps me access a lot of organisations, be it law firms in house, working in housing organisation or with an individual attorney. So, as I said the reason I was focused more on cities having significant universities .But you also need to see the financial aspect which is extremely important. You should also see that all these universities are offering scholarships, whether they are just an amount that, that's actually going to help you. And, these are some of the main questions that I had when I was looking for university.

Did you apply for any financial aid or scholarships of any kind?

I tried looking up for scholarships, but to be honest, I mean in India I did not get, but I did take up an education loan. And there's non-financial institution, which is good. And then in banks, I will suggest, SBI or Bank of India, mainly because they offer a lowest interest for girls. That was one thing that I liked to take advantage of. That's also another thing like to see whether you are in a position to take a loan or not. If you can cover it up, cover your expenses without a loan. If you want to go for a loan with a collateral, or where you don't want to give a collateral. If you take up an education loan with collateral, the interest rate on your loan will be a little less, compared to having a loan without a collateral. So I think these are some things that, that definitely you will want to think about. Maybe you don't anticipate that there will be so much of thinking or effort in this but when the time comes up, you think about it. You weigh the pros and cons and you try to find out what I was more suited. The other side that helped me financially was actually getting a scholarship from USC. They were very gracious to offer me academic scholarship along with the housing stipend. I was offered a scholarship from Fordham and Cardozo as well. And they were very generous like they were like really good scholarship, I would say some of the universities also do that. But it's all subjective I think it's on you whether you want to take up that even if it's an average university and whether you really want to focus on something which may not be often your scholarship but you really want to go to that univeristy. I got offered a scholarship from USC, to the point where I actually requested that they can if they can increase the amount of scholarship because I would really like to go to university, but I think it really helped me with the scholarship amount. And they did. And this is in fact informed to me by someone from the Graduate international programmes office that handles their Masters in International courses, the law school division. So, they assess your skills and everything and they're very supportive in this way. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from USC and that definitely helped. They understand how people from different parts of the world are from different financial backgrounds and how it differs, as compared to the US dollars and the country's currency and all these factors that really come into play so they they granted my request or actually including the scholarship amount and I'm really grateful to them for that.

Did you take an external help like from an agency or anything, or did you do it all on your own?

I did this observation, to be honest, I attended all these educational fairs, and I would try and go and see how they are and what would they have to see. And a lot of these did not have US or Canada, this country. So, if I would say. It's on you, if you want to go to a UK, New Zealand or Australia, I think these institutions will help. Sometimes they will charge you a fee, sometimes they don't. But I personally did not take help because I honestly had negative experience with these institutions where they told me they discouraged me from pursuing a master's in the US, saying that you're not going to get it, it's not practical and everything. So, I did not go to these institutions, and think that I'm going to take help from them, I just wanted to observe and see how they, what is that they have to say. So I did all the preparation when I say I did all the research by myself. I reached out to some people who were from my LLB batch, who did masters in the US. And all of them were really helpful. Some were senior from the people from my batch.

What are the eligibility criteria for someone to get selected for the LLM programme at the USC Gould School of Law?

You need to have an LLB degree from a credited school of your country. The other thing is, USC does not have a requirement for recommendation letters. That's one difference that I saw between USC and the other universities. So, at USC, you don't need a recommendation letter. The TOEFL score is also I think around minimum 80. I think the point was all my effort and being very genuine about my Statement of Purpose. They really may have liked my SOP and yeah I think I've seen a lot of people who have just graduated from NLP and still were accepted at USC. So, in terms of that I would say it's not necessarily that you have work after LLB and then apply to USC. But I think you should be clear and genuine in your essay and why you want to apply.

Drafting an SOP can be quite a daunting task for all law students and people often put it out to do it in the last moments. I've heard that is absolutely not advisable. So, what was your process of writing an SOP?

My dad and my family from my dad's side is in the entertainment industry. So, I can say I had connections with the industry. I do want to help out musicians and technicians who are not rewarded or were not recognized for their efforts. I wrote about it. And I also wrote about how LLM from USC is going to enhance my profile, and how studying at USC, would help me and how I'm going to try and contribute as much in the industry. So, you have to dedicate yourself to this. I spoke to a few people and I tried to take their advice, but I wrote the essay as much as I could by myself, like I wrote it with some advice.

We know that each person is unique and excels in different fields. So what if someone has not exactly excelled in academics, what can you make balance out their application.

I can definitely say that don't be disheartened, don't undermine yourself or think that, I don't have as much grades or at that level that maybe this university is going to accept and that I'm not going to apply at all. I don't think you should do that I think you should still go and still apply for it. Along with the Academics, you can work for some time, and you can show some practical experience. After you work for at least three years. If you really think that, you know, just on your academics, if you are not prepared yet to be an LLM or if you think that you're preferred university is not going to accept and maybe you can work for at least two years and then pursue masters.

You mentioned you gave TOEFL and you scored 102 out of 120. How did you prepare for the exam?

I got the TOEFL preparation book from a friend of mine and actually studied from that book. Also looked up online on how to prepare, gave some practice exams, some mock exams just by myself. I think I studied once I would be home in the evening, I have a dedicated and dedicated some months of weekends, but it was not as scary as I had anticipated. It was a good exam and not a very difficult thin., You just need to be attentive when you're giving this exam, if there is a time limit to each and every round.

The entire application process can take quite a toll on one's mental health. So, how did you keep yourself sane through those months through it?

True, it can be cumbersome, But I think what helped me was my motivation and my determination that I want to do this, I'm going to take on the efforts, I'm going to give it good time and not be in a rush, not doing something hastily, but with enough time and I was working at that time so I'm very thankful even to my home and my boss at that time who understood and were aware that I am going abroad to pursue a masters and they were understanding. I think these aspects are also very important, especially in your families. What worked for me was my motivation, and my determination that I have to try my best and apply this you're trying to get in this year, if not this year maybe the next year but at least by next year I know that this is how much effort it needs and how much time is going to take. Whether getting admitted or not is not in my hand so not to worry about that. But whatever is in my hand, we can just be patient about it. A lot of these things take time, you cannot do anything about it, except wait.

You mentioned that you did not get accepted in NYU, and you really wanted to go to that university. So how did you deal with the rejection? Because I know it would have been very difficult for you to considering it was on your top priority universities.

I was disappointed. I was really hoping that I get it. Like I told you NYU has a minimum 25 each requirement for TOEFL. I scored like 24 in one and 28 in others. It was something like that but overall my score was above the minimum that they require. That's one of the things that I did not get accepted. And I did feel disappointed at that point. I have no regreats to be honest, I mean, what we think when we're at home, and we're just thinking in our minds that oh my god, I did not get into this university. What do I do now? Should I apply or accept other universities or should I read another your and then again apply? . For me, I did feel disappointed but I was like, nevermind. I'm sure the other universities would want me. I did get into USC with a scholarship, which was grea and extremely surprising. I even got emotional when I received that email.

Another daunting stage of the procedure is the visa procedure. So getting a visa, especially in the US can be quite difficult, and quite frustrating as well, Describe your experience, the requirements and the procedure?

It was tedious, it was scary and I think at some level it was scarier than getting accepted at a university because for us, Indians, getting the student visa is a scary part and that does not mean you feel discouraged or something to apply. I think what generally people say regarding us you guys if you have another visa on your passport of another country or something that increases your chances. I don't know in what extent that is true. But I think just be prepared for an interview with all the documents, I did some reading of like, they have this question like: Why do you want to go? How long are you planning to stay back? Why do you want to come back? In the interview, just be genuine; don't really go on the Interviewer’s expressions or attitudes. Just make sure your university that accepts you is sending you the documents, which you have to take for the visa university like acceptance letter, your identity which is one of the most important documents that you should keep safeguarded at all times. So you have to carry that at the interview. They even ask how you are funding yourself. So, be ready to answer that, like, you know, how are you funding, whether you are taking a loan or you're getting a scholarship or your family supporting you or you're supporting yourself, or the company or the firm or the organisation that you're working for is supporting you, whatever the situation is just let them know they're nothing to hide, and you just say whatever it is. I think that should definitely help at the interview. And again the whole visa process is overwhelming, in all this not lose hope, to keep yourself motivated and not to give up is important.

Tell us about your LLM coursework. What were the modules? What did you study there?

They have these certificates which are like specialisations. I took entertainment law and business law. And it was just more of a happenstance that I was covering so many subjects that I could qualify for certificate on technology and entrepreneurship. I did not have to do anything extra to do that, I did not have to pay any extra money. Like I said my interest was in IP and entertainment. Some of them are mandatory like legal profession that you have to take up to qualify to get an LLM. If you're applying for the bar and the most popular bar exams are California and New York. So they have certain subjects that you choose. Now for the California bar if you're very determined that you want to be only the California bar, if you are a foreign licenced attorney, you don't have to take particular subjects or something. As long as you're doing the LLM it should be fine. But if you're planning to take the New York Bar, you need to take legal profession as well as legal writing. So, I had thought of giving the California Bar. Even now I'm in the process of preparing for next year hopefully things change and we are able to travel to the US. So even now I have, I am in recreation for it as a foreign attorney, but for New York, they still, even if you are a foreigner attorney, you need the legal writing programme, so I took it for safety because I thought, in the future I will need it for New York.

The other three courses mandatory are business organisation, introduction to the US legal system and then there are the electives. So I took contract drafting, which I think is very important regardless of what area of law you want to practice in, and I took up entertainment law, which is, we have an extremely interesting and amazing entertainment law programme. And I think the IP law programme which is also really good because they give you a basic primary understanding of the US IP laws like trademarks and licencing. If you are into patent law, they have a separate elective, and they have a separate course, even for legal technology law that relates to blockchain and artificial intelligence. A lot of electives that I chose was focused on entertainment and IP laws, and also qualified for the LLM certificates and the bar. I think it was a combination of all of this. You can actually even take a course in another school which is not law school, which can be the school of music or drama. But you need to make sure you are completing all the units that are required. To qualify for an LLM at USC, in the course of one year that is two semesters, you need to take at least 21 units. So each subject as we call, they are about two to three units sometimes they are just one unit. So I think if you take seven eight courses in one semester, you're completing 15 units. And then another six seven courses if you're taking in the next semester, then another 15.

You did your undergraduate degree from Mumbai University. How did you adjust to the new teaching system at USC?

Even though both of our systems are different but the process that we have in here, help us in understanding theirs. I did not have a thesis, I had course works. Many of the exams were MCQs, some were short answers and essays. Make sure you understand the concepts correctly. They have really good friendly professors, you can always reach out to them, you can email them directly connect with you and help you out in understanding the concepts and different topics that you have in a course. You can even reach out to them after the lecture and discuss. It's not very easy or something just because it's multiple choice questions but also, everyone will be able to grasp it. It can get overwhelming because sometimes you have the same deadline and you have to make sure you're submitting all your assignments in time and in those deadlines. So just try not to be overwhelmed because you are going to be overwhelmed. But just make sure that you're just giving your 100%.

How was your experience interacting with the faculty and the students?

It's amazing; it's a lot of nervousness and then understanding their ways. This was not as nervous or as difficult as I thought it would be in terms of language barriers. We speak English, they speak English, but we use different terms for certain things so maybe that will take some time to overcome that once you understand, what terms they are using and maybe you can adapt to them. I think everyone is very approachable. Los Angeles itself is very diverse. So people are already used to and accustomed to be with people from different cultures, different races, and that kind of actually helps. The other thing is you have people like you who are from different parts of the world, and they may be more similar than you think. Because I made a lot of friends who are from different parts of the world and we actually connected because we had this similar thing growing up, watched similar cartoon growing up and if we were working in trademarks or IP they're also doing the same thing, and maybe their language is different and the language that they practising is different, but the procedure is same and you are like wow this happens in your country as well? This happens in India too. So there's a lot of bonding and liberation, I learned so much and it opens your mind so much to so many different cultural aspects, educational aspects also, because a lot of times you're discussing and understanding how different people from different ways have educated themselves and how the education system is. And what brings you together is the LLM. It will be fun because we didn’t know that people have these common interests and USC I think is very inclusive and that we meet at least one person from a country that you have just heard off some time like Equador, Chile, Argentina, Turkey, Canada, Brazil, Serbia, Sweden, Japan, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka a lot more. You meet different people from all over the world and communities. Not everyone can be as open, right, or be open from the get go. We still have people who are from India; we have them around that you can definitely be with and maybe interact with others along with them. I think USC at least accepts an average about 10 people from India.

Was your housing a part of your scholarship? What choices you make regarding accommodation there was it on campus or away from university?

Yeah, it was the housing stipend. Basically, it was a scholarship. USC also has off campus student housing, the on campus is actually for the undergrad. For people doing Masters and who are international students, they have an option of off campus student housing, and in fact they have this residential building, and it's mainly for LLM students. And there are two options in this whether you share it, or you have your own room and you're sharing the apartment. Their rent is average for a LA rent prices. Other option that is a little higher but it's still worth is called Lorenzo, which is not affiliated with USC, but a lot of USC students, international students stay at Lorenzo. And if you have a certain budget and that does not fit into the student housing, like the off campus housing or Lorenzo, there are other apartments and houses and places where you can stay. And that will fit in your budget. USC has a huge campus so you have a lot of places you can stay, as a student.

Are there any internship or job opportunities available on campus?

There are two things. One is the campus job when you are doing your masters, because you are not allowed to do an off campus job when you're doing your masters or even an internship. So, what you can do to help yourself financially, you get a job on campus as a part time job at the cafeteria. Or if you plan to apply for a driving licence there and get a driving licence, you can drive around. Yes, we have these vehicles to pick up and drop students in around campus, so driving for them and, you know, working part time that really will help you financially. Another major benefit that you get is when you apply for this, and you get a job, they gave you the social security number, which is a very important ID and document in the US. So that way, as a student, this is what you can do to financially help yourself. If you're looking for a job after your masters, then you have to apply to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and you cannot work before getting that approved. And once you get your, you're given employment authorization document, which is called a EAD, which is valid for a year. So, if you really plan to work there after your masters, you get a one year OPT, and you get an EAD, which is the authorization document. We have to have all these in place so that you can start working there.

On getting a job there, to be honest, during your OPT is not difficult, because there are a lot of jobs out there, but when you find someone that wants to employ and sponsor you. So, that's the hard part that even I had a lot of difficulty, experiencing and trying to get. So, I did as much as I could during my OPT and trying to find myself living expenses to start paying my EMI for my educational loan. I did all of that, during my OPT. And once it was over, and also because I did not get an employer who would sponsor me for my H1B visa, I finished my OPT and I came back because they do not extend your OPT. You have a window of 60 days after your OPT is over to leave the US, because you don't want to face any problems in the future if you want to visit the US again. Then all of this comes up at that time.

Does an LLM degree improve your prospects of getting a job?

If you want a job in the US then yes very much. A lot of undergrads look at us as a threat because they feel we have done a JD and we are doing masters. They feel they are competing with us and even if it's not exactly why you go there. I would say I'm a little disappointed that once I came back and I was applying for jobs here, a lot of the people did not see that LLM as an enhancement. They would call me a new graduate and have comparatively less experience, especially since you graduated in 2015. And I would say, I have dedicated a year on masters, and that is definitely a degree of positivity, and, you know, in that way some of these places, have disappointed me or organisation, but there are still people who value it and understand its value. And definitely consider it a benefit, and they will offer you a good job. So, do not be discouraged by the rejections. There are people out there who, a lot of times they themselves have gone abroad and done a Masters, and really understand your situation. And a lot of them are not done masters from abroad are still open minded and liberal and understanding enough to will understand your situation and they will be ready to take you. I did a job for a short time after I came back, and then I joined TINNUTS. Different organisations have different reactions so maybe you can just be ready to take some reaction or not lose heart.

So now we come to the last segment of the interview, what general advice would you like to give to the prospective LLM candidate?

Just don't lose heart, like I said, if you really feel like you want to do an LLM, please do it. Don't become negative or something at some stage does not work out and you have to do it all over again or something is taking longer than the genuine timeline. If you keep going, it's definitely going to happen. What you see online, what we see in pictures, what you see even in testimonials is one part. But what experience over there is another part, it's completely personal to you, your own. So enjoy it whole heartedly. Having an LLM degree, or getting an LLM from a foreign country not just enhances your profile, professionally. I think it enriches you as a person overall, I think I've seen a lot of change in myself, in my thinking, in my way of working on things that I thought would take a lot of time, now I do it efficiently. That is because I did an LLM abroad, and everyone's journey, or the whole process is standardised. But everyone has a different experience. Everyone face some different situation or the other, no one else has faced, and you're going to be the only person that you know, that has experienced that journey so if you see someone else doing something that you are not doing, don't be discouraged. The struggle of finding a job here or there exists. You have to face rejection, you're going to face acceptances and then people change their minds for some reason. So that's going to be there anyway, and once you get a degree once you come back, you're going to see things differently, even back home. And definitely, professionally, get some more maturity.

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