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Soumita Basu on LLM in IP Law from the National University of Singapore

Founding Editor Poorvika Chandanam interviewed Soumita Basu, who enlightened the audience about pursuing an LLM in IP Law from the National University of Singapore.

(Intrigued to watch the video? Find it here)

About the guest:

Soumita is a technology lawyer working in data protection, software contracts, Fin-Tech, gaming and the Artificial Intelligence spaces. She has completed her BA.LLB (Intellectual Property Law Hons.) from School of Law, KIIT University. Thereafter, she pursued her LLM in IP and Technology Law from the National University of Singapore. She has been working with Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas as a part of their Technology, Media and Telecommunications Practice where she assisted with several IP and Tech matters. Currently, she is in the process of moving to an in-house opportunity. She is an Editorial Advisor to the Journal of Innovation, Competition & Information Law. She has experience in coding and designing Artificial Intelligence models for assistance with legal questions. She enjoys research and often writes for journals and blogs. She has published research papers on IP and Tech Law topics. She takes deep interests in Cryptocurrency, OTT, content licensing and acquisition, and other technologically advancing spaces.

So Soumita, let’s start our Live with the most asked question: Why LLM in IP? Was doing an LLM the first option in your mind after you finished your LLB?

To answer the second question first, yes, I did want to do my LLM immediately after my LLB, and I began planning for it, towards the end of my third year. My entire fourth year went into building my profile and researching what I wanted to do for my LLM and where I wanted to do it. I’d had the opportunity to interact with some of my seniors in my college. Plus, when you intern outside, you meet a lot of people and that’s what got me to understand how important it is to build your profile in a way that helps you land admissions at the University of your choice.

You obviously can’t wake up one day and decide that you want to do your masters. At least in my experience, you need to put in an effort to build your profile and that’s why I began thinking about it as early as my third year. I planned everything according to it: my internships and all the other activities that I require to convince the university of my choice to believe in me and give me the seat that I wanted. There are so many eligible candidates and I needed to show that I was dedicated to the field that I wanted to do my LLM in through my profile.

Do you think it’s better to do your LLM right after you graduate or is it better to gain some work experience and then go?

Doing your LLM is a personal choice and it’s your call to take. There are two sides to this: If you go for your Masters after a couple of years of work experience, you are eligible for several scholarships and placement opportunities, there’s more opportunity for you to get absorbed by the country for a job. You have more work experience, your will to push through is higher because you’re already in the zone, but there is a disadvantage because it’s been a long time since you’ve actually studied. So the gap there becomes a bit of a problem. But for me, when I was studying IP in law school in India, I observed that a lot of it revolves around the statutes we have, you just study the procedure.

Being an artist and a writer myself, I understand and relate to IP on a very personal level. My interests matched with the subject so I was always inclined towards it. There’s a lot more to IP than just statutes. There’s a lot that’s happening around the world that you need to know when you’re working. It’s not just about the filing and the procedures. You don’t have to be of a legal background just to know about the filing, there’s a lot of concepts involved. So I went for my LLM immediately because I wanted to gain more profound knowledge in the area that I wanted to work in.

A few more reasons are that I think I probably would’ve gotten lazy a couple of years later and would probably have not ended up pursuing my masters, and I wanted to keep my options open, in case I decided to pursue academia.

Once you decided that you wanted to pursue your LLM, the next big step was choosing your university. So, how did the process start?

There’s often a mistake that some students make, they often think that they want to make it to a certain specific university and make it their dream university. But that is not how you select where you should do your masters. It all essentially boils down to the popularity, the course structure, the papers, and the professors who are going to teach you your subject. So I would rather choose a university that’s popular for Tech Law and IP than a university that has a bigger name in the legal fraternity. So if you ask me, hypothetically, to choose between say, Harvard and NUS, I would’ve still gone with the latter only because of their curriculum. I was attracted to the papers published and to the teaching. I read their papers and profiles on the official website so you know what you’re getting into. I once had an opportunity to sit and code with a couple of engineers in an artificial intelligence paper, coming from a humanities background. That was something I was looking forward to because it linked me to my love for software technology. So don’t choose based on the university’s name or what someone told you, choose based on what you want to do in your field and how much that university contributes to that field.

So when I talk about the process of choosing a university, I went on the internet by myself, made an entire list of universities dealing with IP and Tech Law at the time. From that, I shortlisted IP separately and IP and Tech Law separately and so on. So, what was initially a list of 30 to 35 colleges was down to 8 or 9.

After you shortlisted your universities, there would’ve been certain eligibility criteria for every one of them. How did you align your CV to be a match for your university of choice?

For starters, I can never tell you for sure the reason why NUS was interested in my profile. It’s impossible to tell what captured their attention. If they chose me among so many people who applied for my seat worldwide, there must be a reason. I think the most important rule is that if you’re serious about doing your masters, your scores are very important. For me, I had a CGPA above 8 in law school. So it’s important to reach that bar for academic credibility. I know of people who’ve got into other universities with scores on the lower side, but for NUS, good scores are a must.

When it comes to standing out apart from your scores, how you align your CV is something to look into. For example, in my CV, you would’ve seen that all my important internships were IP related. I have never mooted in my entire time at law school so I can’t say that mooting is important. I did, however, have an edge in the arena because I knew how to code. That might have been a factor for my selection. Most of my paper publications were regarding IP. How you dedicate your five years of law school to the field of your choice is vital.

I would say that NUS is different here. The reason why is because you can apply for a general LLM as well as a specific LLM. When you get into your general LLM, they ask you to complete at least 40-45 credits. If by the end of your masters, you end up doing more than 20-25 papers of the IP and Tech Law subject, your degree gets converted to an IP and Tech Law specialisation.

I worked hard to align my profile and some people might say that I have become very niche, but I come from the thought process that I would rather know one thing in and out than know several subjects halfway. So it’s a personal choice. I didn’t want to work in an area that doesn’t interest me if I can enjoy my work in the field that I like.

Generally, Indian students prefer the UK or the US. Would you say that the process of getting into a Singapore university is any different? Were there any English proficiency tests you had to clear? How did you get your Letters of Recommendation? How was your application procedure?

It gets tedious and frustrating, to be very honest. The key to keeping your patience is being organised. This is important because different universities have different deadlines and every application form requires different things. You have to be conscious about what you’re doing and where it is. When you talk about the US and the UK, I would say that there are so many other universities that are popular too.

Talking about SoPs and LoRs, I speak only for NUS when I say that it’s slightly different from other universities. When you’re filling out the form for the NUS application, you don’t get to upload your entire SoP at once. It’s sort of a question and answer pattern. It’s a very elaborate form, so you need to be careful about where you click and what you’re typing. You don’t apply for scholarships separately, the same application is used to check if you’re eligible for any scholarships. There are four general scholarships and 1-2 specific field based scholarships. You get to talk about why you think you deserve that scholarship within the application form itself.

The ideal thing to do here would be to have all your answers ready and keep copy-pasting them. Moving on to the LoR, NUS has a system where you don’t get to upload them yourself, they send an email link to your reference, and they have to fill it up themselves. Here, it’s very important to give references who you can follow up on and be in touch with, because the links that are sent to your references are active only for 24 to 48 hours, after which it expires.

When it comes to the question of who you want your LoRs from, I would say that if you’re fresh out of college, the best option is to take them from your own professors. HODs and people in a position of authority are an added plus. NUS accepts 2-3 LoRs as far as I know.

If you have worked for a while and you’re applying, you can get your LoRs from your boss or whoever you worked under and have been in touch with for a good amount of time.

You talked about scholarships. Are they fully funded or do they cover only the tuition? How does that work?

NUS scholarships cover a percentage of your tuition fee. It depends on which one of the 4-5 scholarships you get. One of them could waive off your entire tuition fee, another one could waive off ninety per cent of it or fifty percent. It does not cater to your other requirements, it covers only your tuition fee.

Do they accept external scholarships?

Yes of course, they accept external scholarships. If you get scholarships pertaining to other countries, they do not apply. However, if you receive one that applies to NUS, they do accept it.

What about visa requirements? Did you get help throughout your entire application process? Did you make use of an agency?

Yes, I did work with an agency but it was not useful for me when I applied to NUS because NUS has a policy to only communicate with the student directly. On the other hand, when I applied to universities in Europe, my agency had tie-ups with the universities so it went through them. If I’d opted for those colleges, I probably wouldn’t have had to go through the visa process, but for NUS, I had to do everything on my own. The best part about this is that when you accept their final offer of admission, they issue you a student entry pass and you fly to Singapore using that pass. When you show that at the airport, you can leave for the University, where NUS conducts your visa process on the campus itself. Your visa is valid as long as your master’s program lasts. When you’re done with your LLM, they ask you to surrender the pass at the airport when you’re leaving.

As you said, the entire process is so lengthy and tedious. Sometimes it even affects your mental health. How did you manage yourself emotionally?

When you ask me, I think it’s a very vital question, because when you talk about LLM the focus is always on how you got in and what you did to get there. What we don’t tend to speak about is that it does take a huge toll on your mental health. If someone has worked for a long time and is applying for an LLM, it’s not a very big deal if they don’t get through because they always have their job to fall back on and they can apply the next year. However, if you’re applying as a student fresh out of law school, you don’t plan to work, your only plan is to do your masters right now, it’s a lot to handle emotionally. When you ask me frankly, I was a huge mess when all this was going on and I thank my family and friends for keeping me excited and cheery when I was dependent on them.

When I look back at it now, I realise that I could’ve handled it better and made their lives easier by just doing a couple of things.

I’m a very OCD person, I love having things perfect, but even if you’re a disorganised person, when you go through so many applications, my main suggestion would be to never do 3-4 applications together. Always finish one at a time. If you try to complete everything together, you will end up messing up or missing a few details.

So sit at one place, give yourself targets, and make a checklist. The biggest mistake to make would be to think that you can finish everything in a single weekend. These are not short forms, the NUS one was probably 40-41 pages long.

When one form is over, you’re practically exhausted and not in the mood to take up the next form. So what happens here is that if you have a deadline on Monday and you start on Friday, you will get bored and frustrated and you end up getting irritated. Which means you might not make it to the deadline. I would always tell you to get done with your forms within the first fifteen days. Never push it close to your deadline.

In case you’ve made a mistake, you need to contact the administration. SoPs might seem easy but it took me a month and a half. It originally took me eight hours, but the number of times I edited it, made people read it, change it to satisfy yourself before sending it to them is a very lengthy process. Students might have to get used to being organised, whereas working professionals might be used to it. So, students will have to start with their applications earlier to get them ready in time.

When it comes to the emotional journey I went through, I was very worried, there’s always the fear of not getting through. I would say that you should never make a rash decision in these situations. It’s possible that you may not get through to your dream college this year, but you should always wait, because LLM requires a lot of money. You could be from a rich family or you could be going on a loan, but either way, you should spend your money at the right place. There’s no point in doing it just for the sake of doing it.

Take your time. Just because you didn’t get through this year doesn’t mean that you should lose heart, keep your spirits up and try when the time feels right. Work that year. Do more in IP, research in IP, try to work with think tanks, go independent, get published, there’s a lot to do.

You have an entire year to think about why you didn’t get through. How is my profile not aligned to the university? How can I improve?

Work towards actually getting where you want to be, don’t settle for anything less than that. It always works out, the only thing you need to do is have patience and work for it.

The times when a student faces rejection is very difficult, so thank you for throwing light on that and for your suggestions. Moving on to your experience at NUS, how was the structure of the course?

When it comes to the selection of modules and the teaching methodologies at NUS, people who already applied and have an offer letter may have already seen the process or what it is. It’s not a thesis-based programme, it’s paper-oriented. At the end of the paper, there are different modes of examination. All papers do not have a uniform mode of examination. One might have a take-home exam, one might have a sit-down exam, you might have to submit a research paper. So, it depends on the exam mode of that particular semester in that year.

For example, data privacy is a module in the first and the second semester. I did it in the first semester and my mode of examination was a take-home exam. There were four questions and we were given a time period to submit them. In the second semester, they changed it into a thesis paper or a sit-down exam, if I remember. It depends on the professor taking the class as to how they want to do it.

Coming to the selection of modules, they offer a wide range of modules, but you need to be careful about one thing: the portal, the website and your offer letter might show several modules. But at the end of the day, they might not offer that particular paper at that semester or that particular academic year. Don’t select your college or university based on the modules you see on those sources. Make your decision only after you’re sure that your modules are being taught. If losing 20-30 percent of it is fine with you, there’s no problem. You shouldn’t end up compromising entirely thinking that a set of modules would be taught when they aren’t being taught currently. However, big papers are taught in most universities.

The question of your eligibility to get the module remains. In some modules at NUS, they describe the prerequisites very well. Read those very clearly, so read those and apply for those modules. NUS also offers Intensive Classes, where there are visiting professors who take these modules for three weeks. You will have three classes in a week continuously. On the other hand, there are non-intensive papers that happen across the year. So if it’s non-intensive, they have one class a week. If it is intensive, they have to finish the syllabus, so they keep classes for three weeks. Often, you end up having to bid for these papers. When you go there, you have 40-44 modules you have to finish for your LLM out of which 24 have to be from your particular specialisation.

So when you’re doing these classes and there are intensive papers available to you, over the 24 credits, you have another 20 credits you can fulfil. It doesn’t have to be the subject you’ve chosen for your speciality, we did use other papers also.

The professors who might come and teach you are geniuses, some of them come from Harvard too. It’s something you can’t miss. I did economy and regulation, public health, so it doesn’t have to be related to IP and Tech all the time. You can feel free to go for the other papers too. It’s a lot of fun.

Whether or not you get through those papers depends on your profile. If it’s corporate law intensive and the seats are already full, you as an IP and Tech student, might not make it. But I’ve never heard of a student being refused an intensive module. But when you find out about an intensive course you’re interested in, make sure you’re quick enough to get here and sign up.

The main course starts with general courses like Intellectual Property - I or Intellectual Property - II, what are the requirements for copyright registration, what do you need for a trademark, what do you need for a patent, etc.

So since I was a BA LLB IP Honours student, and my entire profile screamed IP, I was not eligible for those papers because they were very basic papers, for people who have never studied IP. Don’t decide on going for papers you already have good knowledge and expertise in. There are very interesting papers to take there, so why waste your time doing courses you can do on your own? NUS will offer you something starting from artificial intelligence law to fashion and art law to comparative copyright law to video games related stuff, then cryptocurrency. So why miss out on something as interesting as fashion law for something like intellectual property law - I? So do that reading yourself and pick the more interesting ones that you haven’t experienced before. Another thing is that if you choose to take the artificial intelligence law paper, make sure you have a coding background. If you don’t, it can be difficult because you’re coding, designing artificial intelligence models through which you are running legal problems. You use python there. Do a crash course on coding and statistics before you take it up.

NUS Papers cater more to IP and Tech papers than general IP papers. If you go to a different university, they’ll probably have ten different papers on copyright. Here, they’ll probably have one or two papers, as part of the intensive module maybe. If you’re someone who wants to take up general IP, you might want to take a look at that before you step in.

Tell us about your experience at the university. Did you enjoy studying? What about the professors? How was the campus?

For me, I’ve had sad moments and times where I still think we’re the best experiences in my life. It requires a lot of patience in terms of the fact that you have to study a lot. It’s nothing compared to what you’ve done in your LLB days. Even if your law school has been rigorous, NUS is another level. The expertise is on another level, the inspiration is on another level, your will and drive are different over there. I would say that the main difference is that in law school, I’ve never had to study before class. In NUS, you have to study the entire reading before the class so you’re a part of the discussion that’s going on in class. It’s not a lecture, it’s very interactive. Of course, you’ll be taught too, but that gives rise to a lot of questions in class. I’ve had to work very hard there, way harder than law school.

There’s no separate LLM class, LLB students also sit with you, PHD students also sit with you. You’re very inspired in class because of all this. So if you really want to do well, it comes from within.

For my artificial intelligence paper, I thought my knowledge of Java would be enough, but I had to sit down and learn coding in about three weeks, which was hectic. I had to stay up several nights to devote time to my friends and family in India, considering the difference in time zones.

But it’s a lot of fun there, there’s a lot of things you can do. The college promotes inclusion and diversity, so you’ll have friends from abroad, friends from India, it’s very nice. We used to go for LLM dinners, we would select Italian one day, go to the best Italian restaurant, if it was Indian, then you would get your chance to choose. You can talk to people, learn how their lives are. The best part about this is that they’ll take a couple of people fresh out of law school, a couple who have a lot of experience, they take people with 1-2 years of experience too, you have so much to learn from others. You get to communicate with people from reputable law firms, so you get to understand what it took for them to get to where they are. There is a lot of pressure, but there are so many opportunities to be happy about. When you work hard during the week and go out on the weekend to have fun, you will feel like you’ve earned it.

Did you do internships when you did your LLM or did you just focus on your studies? Did the college itself provide practical exposure?

The university itself is not responsible for your internships, but they do arrange tech meets where you can go meet people to understand where to apply. Over there, if you want an internship in December, the applications close by August and you go there by August. So you should be aware and research about all of this.

Be active on LinkedIn. It’s very important to find opportunities. There are summer internships, winter internships and part-time internships. It depends on what papers you take and how much free time you have. I didn’t have the opportunity to do a winter internship, but I already had an offer from Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas.

It’s also very important when you divide your modules, to not take too much during one semester. Spread it across according to how much you can handle.

Did you plan on applying to Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas or did you plan to stay in Singapore itself?

I would have honestly been very happy to stay back in Singapore because I love the country. In Singapore, only citizens are allowed to sit for their bar exams. So if you work there, you work as a foreign counsel or something like that. If you don’t receive that license, you will not be able to work.

Also, someone with work experience is always preferred over someone who doesn’t have any experience. So it is always easier to get absorbed when you have the knowledge that the firm prefers for someone in your position.

I happened to apply to Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas by chance. While my initial plan was to get into academia, I realised that I’d selected a very niche area for myself. There wasn’t much jurisprudence on tech law, so I wanted to create an experience for students where they understand how to apply this very niche subject to their real-life work experience. That’s when I realised that I need some work experience to understand how to apply tech law to the corporate cycle. I feel like I landed my job only because I specialized in tech law. Technically, at the end of my career, we don’t have retirement in the legal profession, so I have my options over for teaching. That’s when my entire work experience will count. But if at the end of your masters, there are teaching positions available at NUS, you’re more than welcome to apply. There are research positions open, junior professor positions open.

What would you generally say to people who want to do their LLM?

I have found myself questioning why I wanted to do that, how it helps me in my career and how it helps me at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas. When I consider these things, I come to realise something very important. You do your masters for yourself, you don’t do it for other people to feel good about you. I can say that I am a hundred times more confident because of my masters than I would’ve been just after my LLB. Also, you’re spending a lot of money on your masters, for LLM, if you don’t get into the academia line immediately, if you don’t get into your PhD, you may not be honoured immediately.

The returns for your investment in your masters is not immediate. So if you work for five years, and then do your masters, you’re of great use. But if you’re fresh out of law school and then you do your masters, you don’t get the returns for your investment immediately. You will be able to be recruited easily, but you wouldn’t get job packages with too high a salary at the beginning. It happens over a span of time. If you’re going to be promoted and five different people are competing for the same position, you’ll have the upper hand because of your masters. Your masters will make you more confident and comfortable in the area of your career even if you don’t get paid as much.

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