With years of experience in litigation in fields such as maritime law and constitutional law, Mr. Sunip Sen is a luminary in his field. Striking the perfect balance between work and his personal life, Mr. Sen takes out time every month to travel and be lost in the beauty of forests, while also managing to do humanitarian work in his time in the city. Despite his vast knowledge and work experience, Mr. Sen is extremely humble and approachable, and has taken the time to patiently answer the common doubts of all law students.
Having numerous years of experience in maritime law, what are the various courses or co-curricular activities that students could participate in, in order to become more eligible to pursue an LL.M. in maritime law as well as construct a career in the same field?
When you are studying maritime law or law in general for that matter, you will come across a few nuances. Things slightly different from the set standard but broadly it is always going to be basically the same law. In maritime law, there are some special and different practices in the trade, which need to be learnt specially. You need to have a sound knowledge about the technical aspects of shipping, sailing, the trade and its types. One needs to learn about these things by interning with a shipping or a broking firm.
Another thing students can try is doing some courses. There is a small course on broking where you learn the topics and about the trade practice. Those are helpful. The UK offers a few correspondence courses as well. One of the reasons why English law or English education is useful is because they are not as statute based as we are. They are common law based and common law stems from the trade and practice, so you know where the root of it lies and that helps in understanding concepts much better. For example, when we study contracts, we delve into English law, what the problems faced were like at that time and we understand how particular laws came into being. They essentially come from an independent base and knowing that is useful.
Broadly learn the terms and things that are associated with it. Both the UK and the US are very strongly shipping and trade oriented. Almost everyone knows things there that we don’t know here so it’s useful to know the terms.
Having worked in the United Kingdom for a few years, were there any obstacles that you faced while resuming your practice in India?
Not really. I was going to Court even while I was studying. When I was doing shipping in the UK, it wasn’t the sort of Court litigation here. I was handling litigation around the world, in Brazil, Spain, etc. That was actually a very good exposure.
Do you feel that practicing in India after pursuing an LL.M. abroad gives you an edge over those who have not? Would you recommend students to pursue an LL.B. abroad over an LL.M.?
I am not sure if pursuing an LL.M. from the UK is a very useful thing. An LL.M. from the US may be better. It is useful if you want to have a broad-based understanding about things but it is not really specialised. It is more suitably designed for international students to gain knowledge and to get an exposure to English law or international law. I would personally recommend students to intern or work. That would give students far more exposure in my opinion.
Coming to the second part of the question, pursuing an LL.B. abroad will always be better because it serves as your base education. It will be much more useful because you are actually also doing a much broader course.
How does the Indian legal system compare to its British counterpart?
They are much more organised and they definitely used to be more professional but that is breaking down now. The systems there are breaking down as well. For example, barristers now directly entertain clients.
In your experience do you believe that having a master’s degree from a Foreign University gives students an upper hand as compared to pursuing one from an Indian University, such as the Mumbai University?
Not really, I don’t think so. It depends on how you approach your own education. People have done very good LL.M.s here as well. You take some interest and the teachers take interest in turn. I went abroad and got bored. I had done three years of very intense shipping while I was with my aunt who is a solicitor. So, when I went there, I saw it was rather basic. But it gives you a very good overview of things if you have not really seen the legal side of things. Or it does prove to be useful if, for instance, you have done a general LL.B. and you want to have an in depth understanding of what Intellectual Property Rights or Human Rights are but if you have already done an intense three years course on Human Rights then there is really not much point in then going and doing an LL.M., unless you want to. The degree always helps.
Sir, adding to that, usually people go for an LL.M. abroad and study subjects like International Relations or International Affairs. How relevant would that study be for Indian students today, considering we don’t really apply a lot of international law in our usual litigation approach. Do you think studying such subjects based on the cases of those countries would be helpful for an Indian student who wishes to come back to India and practice here?
If you’re coming back to India and working in shipping or general litigation, you might not use that knowledge. However, if you’re working in say customs or excise, it would be entirely different. The world is entering a structure of negotiated regimes, like we didn’t have GATT and other such laws, which have come in later. These form a mixture of international relations and international law. Once this is mixed and you apply such new laws in this country, you have to now look at a lot more of international law. For instance, we now look at English private international law and apply it in India. However, private international law is not based on the English law anymore, it is based on the European law, which should clearly not be applied here. That is the structure which is coming in across the world. Public international law, as opposed to private international law, is something one will never know unless you study it. Once you know it, it definitely helps a lot, such as in the case of diplomats.
Today we see that a lot of law students are posed with the major question of whether to choose litigation or corporate law. What would be your advice in helping students make such a decision?
The options are very vast. Within corporate law itself, there are so many options. In litigation, we see the option of solicitors, counsels, firms, people who do a general study as opposed to those who specialise in a particular field. Broadly, depending on a lot of circumstances and what one likes doing, litigation is perhaps the more satisfying aspect of law. However, I don’t think it is the thing of the future anymore. Especially considering the rise of alternate dispute resolution methods and the cases pending in courts. It’s just not the same structurally.
What in your opinion, is the importance held by a solicitor’s degree today?
The reason why pursued a solicitor’s degree and why it was famous, was primarily the ethics that came with this study. However, ethics has become a thing of the past now, with most of us. It was important because you were taught the very basics such as how to do account, how to maintain client’s accounts, your obligations towards a client, etc. Also, solicitors follow a different approach to work altogether. It’s a straight and simple way. With the Indian system moving so fast towards the American system and the rise of corporates, the importance of the degree has reduced now. In litigation today, there is such a long gestation period that most people are losing interest it.
Sir, would you say that it is easier to get a litigating job when you’re in an international market, say if you’re working in the US or UK, or is it easier to work in a corporate firm?
It’s always easier getting a job in corporate. Second to that is working with a solicitor in the US or UK. Being a litigator on your own abroad is a tough thing to do.
Given the vast difference between the theoretical aspects taught to us in college and the practical aspects of law and its utilisation that we see in the courts, how do you think a student should bridge this gap?
There is no solution other than work experience. At the end of the day, some things just cannot be taught and sometimes, the bookish knowledge given to us does not apply in cases or answer our questions. These kinds of variables can be only seen when you put yourself out there and work. Thus, learning with a senior is important. Interning helps garner this knowledge, but only to the extent that you don’t lose your youth. One must learn to work but not lose time for other things. I, for an example, primarily work only for 10 to 15 days for a month, and for the rest of the month I prefer to travel into the forests. For some people, work is the end of life, and I’m not criticising it, but for me that’s not the case. A balance between work and life is very important, though it may be very difficult to draw. You will probably have regrets wherever you go in life, but that’s just something you have to accept.
Would you recommend the students who are in the three years and five-year law course to intern with a firm or with a counsel or a solicitor or does it depend on which field of law they want to pursue?
These are graded things. People go and start-off with famous senior counsels, but you’re not going to understand half of the things they are doing and they will not have the time to tell you. You have five years, so don’t be in a hurry. In the first two years, find your feet.
I would also suggest students to start by interning at a small litigation firm that practices various fields of law such as labour, tax and general litigation. That way you get to see bits and pieces of everything. They may not be the best and you may not have learned everything but you would get to see everything. Then you go to a firm that does what you like and want to a build a career in.
Build your base first. That is paramount. When I came back, I had taken the whole AIR manual, all of it, and I read it from top to bottom. But, of course, I was not interested in, for instance, tax and labour and so I skipped them and you will find it isn’t that much.
Extending on that, do you believe that students who intern from the beginning of their time at law school have an advantage over those who have started later on in their lives?
There are no advantages. In law, I personally think that if you start too late, it might be a little problematic because your attitudes are already formed. Law is also about your personal attitude towards it. Some people still make very good lawyers even if they start late. But usually that’s not the case, I wouldn’t advise it. I think you should start early but it is actually a question of training, exposure and building yourself up. Law is an approach. Somebody may know judgements but may not know how to apply it or someone may know how to apply it but may not remember the judgements. So, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and their approach is different. There is no single thing to acing law, it’s a massive eclectic thing.
What would be your recommended reading list for the next generation of students pursuing law?
See it depends on how deeply you want to go into something and what you are interested in. First of all, the more you know about law generally, the better off you are. You need that base. A lot of general reading is very useful. Books based on concepts of justice or biographies, stories and tales, everything helps. You can also do this one thing that I used to do. You can go to the old judgements, go to Privy Council judgements and you will actually be reading history. You will find it interesting. It is like reading a novel and you also get the base knowledge of a lot of law as it developed through. How has it changed? What has happened? All that can come later.
Which area of law do you think is showing the greatest potential in terms of growth and innovation at this point of time, in India as well as well internationally?
If you look at general commercial law, it is changing. Intellectual Property (IP) is changing. Everything changes. And growth in terms of professional growth is up to you. In a stagnant field, you will grow.
In your opinion, what are the best sources of information and learning for law students apart from the regular college curriculum?
I am a very big fan of old judgements. A lot of them can be read as stories. It is voyeuristic also because you are looking into someone else’s private life. But it is interesting.
Do you think that moots help you to develop the skills required to enter into the field of litigation?
Moots definitely do help you in developing confidence. They are fun; however, they do not teach you the real thing because that’s a different kettle of fish and in the real world, you will be hit by various different things from five different sides.
Do you have any advice which you would like to give to law students reading this blog and law students in general?
Don’t be too serious but be serious. That’s all.