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From Dreamer to Believer: Shilpa Sai's Inspiring LLM Journey at UCLA Law




Shilpa Sai is a lawyer with a Master of Laws degree in Media, Entertainment, and Technology Law and Policy from UCLA School of Law (2022). She holds an integrated honours undergraduate degree in Law and Business Administration from the School of Law, Christ University, Bangalore (2020). She is also an advocate enrolled with the Karnataka State Bar Council and cleared the All India Bar Examination. Shilpa is a self-starter and a highly motivated individual. Her main area of interest is commercial IP – including copyright, trademark, and contracts – and she is also interested in labor and employment issues. Shilpa co-founded m e r a k i Consultancy, an LLM consultation service that aims to help individuals pursue their higher education dreams in the field of law.

Today, Shilpa discusses her LLM journey with us at CollegeIt Talks.


So, Shilpa, could you tell us a bit about yourself?


I am a first-generation lawyer and a dreamer aspiring to work with the biggest entertainment companies in the industry. It might sound crazy, but everything starts with a dream. My dream took me from undergrad at the School of Law, Christ University to one of the best programs in the world for media and entertainment law: UCLA Law. Following my master’s degree, I had a brief stint at a top-tier boutique law firm in Los Angeles working on some very cool Hollywood projects with some very cool Hollywood people. That’s when this dreamer became a believer. No dream is too big; no dreamer is too small. (James Truslow Adams) Yep, I’m a tad dramatic. I guess that’s why the entertainment industry and its issues really appeal to me. 😂


Apart from UCLA, what other colleges had you shortlisted, and what factors did you consider while making your list?


Very honestly, UCLA was my goal. It was the only university I had seriously considered. However, I was advised to have backup colleges and options so as to not put all my eggs in one basket. In that process, I applied to UC Berkeley and the University of Miami. I also applied to New York University, but for a completely different specialization.

 

My thought process when selecting other universities primarily included considerations on specialization ranking, location, and alumni network. UCLA and Berkeley obviously stood out for their IP courses, as well as the other factors I was taking into account. University of Miami, although not as highly ranked, seemed like a good bet because of the curricular structure offered for media and IP laws.

 

I applied to NYU for its business law offerings, as it was ranked highly in the field. New York City is also a hub for corporate and transactional laws, so I thought that would be apt. I ultimately received admit offers from UCLA, Berkeley, and the University of Miami, and was waitlisted at NYU.

 

My college selection process was in no way exhaustive. Despite their outstanding rankings and range of offerings, I didn’t apply to many universities simply because I was so determined to get into UCLA (I was maybe a little too stubborn – not something I’m proud of at all). I’m grateful that I got into UCLA, otherwise I would’ve regretted not having applied to more programs.

 

Also, I didn’t consider any universities in the UK because I just didn’t see myself pursuing a future or a career there. I had a very specific “California Dream” when I applied.





Were there any challenges that you faced when applying and/or moving to the US for your studies?


I would like to divide this answer into parts based on the kinds of challenges one faces when deciding whether to move abroad for one’s studies:

a.     Merit: Fortunately, I did well in undergrad when it came to academics and co- and extra-curricular activities. So when it came down to creating a holistic profile of my academic interests alongside demonstrating an enthusiasm to participate in activities outside the classroom, I was able to show substance. This approach suited me best, but there are multiple avenues one can take while applying to universities. As long as you are able to convince the university why you deserve a spot in their program (based on academic merit, co-curriculars, extra-curricular experiences, passions and interests, other personal motivations and history, etc.) this challenge can be overcome.

b.     Application Logistics for US LLM Programs: This part was a little tricky, as it includes multiple complicated steps, documents, and people/entities (LSAC, letters of reference, rank statements, stamped and sealed copies of your transcripts posted to LSAC, and more). It’s all a bit overwhelming at the beginning, but you get the hang of it soon after beginning the process. It all started with creating an LSAC account and understanding the requirements. I, personally, didn’t have a mentor or guide who offered to help me through this. Luckily, I had a very motivated friend who also wanted to pursue her LLM in the US and had begun researching the process long before I entered the applicant market. Once we were in our 8th semester of law school, we sat down together to help each other understand and navigate the process. The lack of any formal guidance scared me a little, as I didn’t want to make mistakes in any part of the application, but thanks to multiple internet blogs, I was able to navigate it smoothly. Patience is key.

c.     Finances: Going to the US for your master’s is an expensive affair. It requires advance planning regarding how one intends to fund the course and living expenses while studying. I had a discussion with my parents about how to manage it all. Receiving UCLA’s Dean’s Tuition Fellowship award helped immensely with financing my degree.


I see that you were a Law Clerk at Donaldson Callif Perez, LLP. What kind of opportunities did you get when you studied in the US? Could you tell us a bit about them?


As a foreign-trained lawyer and/or law graduate from a law school abroad, until you pass a US state bar exam, the main legal professional opportunities you’ll have will primarily include law clerkships or paralegal work. To put it plainly, you aren’t allowed to sign off on legal documents as an attorney unless you’ve passed a bar exam and have been sworn in by the state bar association for that jurisdiction. When applying for job opportunities after my graduation from the LLM program, I typically only received interviews or invitations to final rounds of consideration for legal intern, law clerk, and paralegal positions. I must be clear, though, that this was my own personal experience.


While I enrolled at UCLA shortly after earning my law degree in India, by contrast, some of my classmates came to the LLM with six or more years of work experience under their belts. I imagine that their job search experience differed materially from my own, given their established work history; consequently, I suspect that the positions available to them might have varied more significantly. I’m not confident that such opportunities applied for everyone of the same background, but it’s an educated guess. Peers with similar experience levels as mine, however, did receive the same types of job offers as I did.

How would you describe your LLM journey? What were some of the highlights from your experience?


My LLM journey was truly eye-opening. When you’re 22 or 23 years old, you barely know what you’re capable of; nor what the world can offer to you. Going to UCLA was one of the best decisions of my life. It provided me with the opportunity to meet people from different countries, to study with and learn from them, and to get a glimpse into how the law works in other jurisdictions at a foundational level – something I only read about in my Legal Theory class in India. Hearing from peers about how courts and laws functioned in different countries really broadened my view and perspective of the law.

 

One of the biggest highlights of my LLM was that I was able to take courses alongside JD students (the JD being the LLB equivalent in the US). I got to witness American legal education as it’s imparted to its own resident students. We were assessed on the same grading scale and were taught in the same way. Personally, I found it to be a very enriching experience just to have an internal understanding and comparative lens of how education differs across jurisdictions. This is one of the more noteworthy highlights because not all universities allow JD and LLM students to take the same classes. LLM and JD students oftentimes have separate professors and grading scales, so this was definitely a very interesting and enlightening experience.

 

Another highlight was the variety of networking opportunities that I was provided while at UCLA, which were truly phenomenal. They truly broadened my horizons and opened up my world. I interacted with industry leaders from reputable big law firms and companies, gaining insights into the work and trajectories of powerful practitioners who are doing exactly what so many people dream of achieving in their lifetimes. Those experiences and interactions filled me with so much confidence and positivity.

 

In addition to the academics, I also thoroughly enjoyed UCLA’s campus. There’s just so much to do there. From accessing numerous world-class libraries across several departments to utilizing Olympic-grade gym, recreational, and sporting facilities to receiving support at its quality on-campus healthcare center to simply enjoying a beautiful, sunny day on the lawn by Janss Steps, there’s never a dull day on campus.

 

Lastly, UCLA is located in one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful neighbourhoods and is very close to the beach. Naturally, most of my weekends were spent soaking in the sun at the beach. I definitely felt like I was in a movie (haha).





I see that you had received the Dean’s Tuition Fellowship. How can an applicant apply for this, and how was your journey at UCLA with this fellowship?


There is no separate application to apply for it, per se. When filling out UCLA’s application form, there is a section of the form that asks something along the lines of, “Why should you be offered a scholarship?” The Dean’s Tuition Fellowship is awarded as a deduction towards your tuition fee. You’re informed whether you are a recipient at the same time that you receive your admission offer. I felt that there was nothing specific or additional that I did to increase my chances of receiving the award, but I personally believe that your overall profile and application ultimately affect the final decision. That piece is very much merit-based, but UCLA advises that decisions about the award are made on the basis of both merit and need/financial circumstances.



Do you have any advice for students who want to work in the US after their LLM?


In my opinion, those planning on careers in the US following the LLM should focus on the bar exam! The bar exam is the single most important factor for your legal career in the US. If you intend to work at a law firm (even in a transactional capacity) or as an in-house counsel, you will need to pass the bar exam. There are, of course, opportunities and options available that do not require bar admission, but these are often either niche roles that you’d have to negotiate with your employer or non-attorney roles that wouldn’t require a license to practice.

 

The second most important piece of advice I can give is to find an employer who’s willing to sponsor your work visa. After graduating from law school in the US, international LLMs are legally allowed to work anywhere in the US for up to one year after the program concludes without securing an employer-sponsored visa on what’s called Optional Practical Training (OPT). The work (H-1B) visa lottery process falls around the same time as the end of the OPT period. It’s therefore prudent to convince your employer to sponsor your work permit – assuming, of course, that they’ve had enough time to positively assess your work as an employee – so that you can submit an application to the work permit lottery.


Alternately, you could negotiate with your employer that you’ll accept the position only on the condition that they will also sponsor your work visa at the conclusion of the OPT period. One way or another, it’s imperative to have that talk and make it clear to your employer that you would require sponsorship. Getting an employer to sponsor you is usually the tricky part, but if you do find a willing sponsor, you’ve won a big battle. If your visa goes through, you’ll not only have secured a great employer and (hopefully) passed a bar exam, but you’ll also have more or less secured your career in the US.


Do you have any tips that you’d like to share with LLM applicants?


Do your research and do it well. Be sure of what you want to study, where you want to study, and how you intend to use the degree. Your application needs to reflect these points while simultaneously conveying your passions and overall personality. When applying for a college abroad, you’ll be competing with students from across the globe for a seat in the program. Make sure that your application stands out and has the power to convince others to believe in you.


Also, be aware that the entire process is a big financial commitment – application forms can cost $50-$100 each, in addition to fees imposed for shipping your transcripts to LSAC, taking English proficiency tests, paying for LSAC account creation/report submission/credential assessment services, and more. Therefore, it’s wise to plan and forecast your net investment even before receiving admission offers. This will help you paint a more realistic picture of the LLM process.

 

Do you have any concluding statements or remarks?


Although both the LLM application process and the LLM experience itself can be overwhelming, remember why you chose to do it in the first place. Seek motivation from your passions and dreams. In the end, you’ll realize that it was a beautiful learning experience, and totally worth it.

 

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