Bhumika Billa, on writing a book with Wolters Kluwer, getting into Oxbridge and working with the Negotiation Academy

Bhumika Billa is an LLM candidate and Cambridge Trust scholar at the University of Cambridge and the author of Anti-Dumping in the Globalized World: Law and Practice of Anti-Dumping Duty Circumvention (Wolters Kluwer, 2019). Previously a Research Fellow at the Centre for WTO Studies, she graduated in law from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies as a university gold medallist in 2018 and has been working as a Principal Associate at the Negotiation Academy ever since. She has been interviewed by EBC/ SCC Online Student Ambassador Shreya Aggarwal who is pursuing Law from Vivekananda Institute Of Professional Studies. 

  1. You are the first student from your law school to get into the University of Cambridge and also the University of Oxford- both with scholarships. Did you apply to other Universities? Can you please tell us a little bit about the process and what according to you makes an application stand out from others? [Bhumika was awarded the Cambridge Trust Scholarship from the University of Cambridge and Cornelia Sorabji Law Scholarship from the University of Oxford]

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to share my experiences.

I only applied to Oxford and Cambridge as I was quite clear about what I was looking for. The scholarship application process was straight forward and didn’t require much effort on top of the college applications. I had to tick a box on the LLM application form and indicate the scholarships I wished to be considered for. For the Cambridge Trust, I had to submit an additional statement and an additional letter of recommendation.

To avoid stating the cliché, I will share how I began my application process. I took a year to decide what exactly I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it (which I think is the most important introspection), and based on the answers to these questions, where I wanted to apply. Taking a year after graduating gave me both perspective and certainty- two things that are extremely important (more from a personal growth perspective than just from an application point of view). Once I was clear about my choices, it was fairly easy to tell my story to the admission committees.

The gist of all the advice I took from various sources (online interviews, friends who had been through a similar process and mentors) is that the only way to stand out is being yourself. Use your CV, statement of purpose and recommender choices to connect the dots of the story you want tell. Knit your past experiences, present work and future aspirations to tell them who you are (and who you want to be), rather than focusing on what you think they might like to hear. It is not important to have a fancy eureka moment where you knew your true calling (a pattern I noticed in the sample essays available online) or that one professor who changed your life-discard these templates and just be you, as authentically as possible. It all comes down to how well you have thought about your experiences and aspirations- something which is bound to reflect in your application.

  1. You wrote a book “Anti-Dumping in the Globalized World: Law and Practice of Anti-Dumping Duty Circumvention” which was published by Wolters Kluwer a year after you graduated from college. What inspired you to write on this issue and how was your experience of writing a book as a young scholar in the field? [The book was launched by the Centre for WTO Studies in June 2019 is available on Amazon]

I came across the issue of anti-circumvention during my internship at Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan in the third year of law school which piqued my interest because of its complexity and lack of literature. I then pursued this in the final semester where we were required to write a dissertation. While working on the dissertation, my supervisor Prof. Dr. Rashmi Salpekar (Dean, Vivekananda School of Law and Legal Studies) encouraged me to consider expanding it into a book. After submitting my dissertation, I started looking for publishers to consider my manuscript.

It was initially challenging to convince Wolters Kluwer as I didn’t have much post qualification experience in the industry, but they eventually agreed to look at the dissertation after a literature review by their team. A couple of months later they agreed to give me the contract and I started expanding the manuscript while I was at the Centre for WTO Studies, which was very generous and supportive of my project. To make the most of my time and the resources, I usually stayed back after office on weekdays for a couple of hours to work on the chapters.

The journey was mostly smooth as I consistently dedicated a few hours every day for almost a year. A more important contributing factor was the support of my mentors, experts and friends in industry, policy and academia- who agreed to review the chapters and give feedback that was very helpful. It did get a little nerve-wrecking towards the end, particularly during the editing phase. Overall, the experience has been extremely fulfilling and enriching, especially because of all the wonderful new people I got the opportunity to work with and international trade law experts I got to learn from.

  1. How was your experience interacting with the key leaders in the field of negotiation? What do you think about the potential of negotiation in the dispute resolution world? [Bhumika has been working with The Negotiation Academy as a Principal Associate and was also a participant at the 13th ICC International Commercial Mediation Tournament held at Paris in 2018]

I have always loved meeting new people and the Negotiation Academy journey has given me a wonderful platform to do so. I first met Dr. Claudia Winkler (Founder, The Negotiation Academy) in my ninth semester when I organized a negotiation workshop at Vivekananda School of Law and Legal Studies. After the workshop, she offered me to work with her on the start-up and she has been one of my go-to-mentors ever since. I then competed at the ICC Mediation Tournament in Paris, where I was judged by Mr. Tom Valenti, who has been a great friend ever since and has given me various platforms to learn from and help other women in their growth stories. I have also made really good friends in the negotiation circuit- who are some of the coolest lawyers I know- the kind of lawyers who don’t just focus on getting their clients decrees. Let me explain.

Beta-testing online negotiation courses for students, assisting Dr. Winkler in teaching, getting a unique exposure at the ICC Mediation tournament, and training at the International Disputes Professional Academy- all these experiences have only reinforced my belief in the importance of negotiation skills. It is a skill every lawyer needs at every stage of a dispute resolution process (both inside and outside the courtroom!)- from negotiating a dispute resolution clause in a contract, discussing fees with a client, convincing a Judge to mitigate the punishment, to making a case before an arbitrator, brainstorming outcomes in a mediation and settling a commercial contract before it goes to court.

With the whopping cases and overburdened judges in Indian courts, a collective shift in the attitude towards dispute resolution seems to be the most practical solution. We need lawyers who refuse to fight their clients’ egoistic battles before the judges and dig deep to spot the underlying interests of their clients, in order to get them what they truly want. The potential of negotiation is huge- it can practically rescue our justice system from the burdensome shackles of inefficiency- that ultimately root back to numbers. With the growing number of alternative dispute resolution enthusiasts, this massive potential has begun to be untapped and the attitudes have begun to shift, but it will take a while for us to get there.

  1. One of the biggest problems faced by students at any law school is the lack of time management. You were the university gold medallist and were actively involved in both participating and organizing moot court competitions and various other events. How did you manage your time in law school?[She was awarded the gold medal for securing Rank 1 in BA LLB (2013-2018) batch by GGSIP University and organized the 3rd VIPS International Moot Court Competition as the President of Moot Court Society]

Time management is a skill I am still working on. I have to admit I wasn’t very good at it in in law school, which is why I practised active procrastination (only recommended if you are good at pulling off panic-free all-nighters without harmful amounts of caffeine). My policy was to say yes to mostly everything and then figure out a way to manage it anyway. The actual threshold of your capabilities is often way higher than it exists in your head.

I think it all worked out for me because I enjoyed (and still do) working on diverse projects at once. Having accomplished multiple tasks gives me a sense of fulfilment and self-confidence to set higher goals. Attending classes with a genuine willingness to learn (which also helped me stay focused in lectures and reduced a lot of time required to prepare for exams later), organizing events, preparing for moots and participating in research projects was rarely overwhelming. I was always in the moment while handling whatever I was doing. However, there was an obvious cost to this approach such as cutting down on my dancing and some other extra-curricular interests (something I would rather change if I could relive my undergrad). It’s all a matrix of things you enjoy and things that are necessary. The more they overlap, the higher is the number of things you can prioritize in that matrix.

  1. What has been the toughest research project/assignment you have had to do that made you give up, but you did it anyway. What is your mindset while tackling problems and how have you overcome challenges in the past?

My biggest challenge has been a 6-month long research project that required me to work 14-15 hours daily, 7 days a week alongside law school. I thought of giving up several times but kept myself motivated by staying focused on the outcomes, that’s what I usually do when the journey is unbearable. However, I am still trying to shift from this “cost-benefit” approach (where I would weigh and balance outcomes and effort of any project), to a simplistic consideration of intellectual curiosity. I have realized that to be able to enjoy the journey, intellectual curiosity has to be the sole motivator to make any endeavour worthwhile. I am currently somewhere between the two extremes trying to shift from one to another, but where you place yourself depends a lot on the kind of individual you are. Amidst all this, a few friends and mentors who believe in you, uplift you, and encourage you to believe in yourself can make a huge difference till you find your place on that spectrum. I am also a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism which has given me a rock solid philosophy to deal with problems. It has taught me that real strength lies in seeking support when you need it and overcoming challenges with the help of those who wish well for you.

  1. I have read your articles and seen you interact with many students, invite guests at our college and make friends across fields. It seems like you have this unique ability to form long-lasting real connections. How do you network with people and maintain these relationships? [Bhumika was a delegate at the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations where her team also won the Social Impact Shark Tank Hackathon].

I started out as a pro-active law student constantly looking for valuable advice, sometimes coming across as too keen and other times as a curious initiator. After a point I stopped hesitating and reached out to the biggest names in my field without the fear of judgment, because what’s there to lose? I learnt a lot from Claudia about this (read her article on how to network here). Just reach out. I then gradually learnt the art of email writing and more nuanced techniques of making long-lasting impressions in first meetings. But these are secondary hurdles really, most students I know (including myself in the first few years of law school) are unable to even cross the first hurdle- reaching out and pro-actively following up.

Broadly speaking however, I have come to hate the word “networking”. It took me time to realize it is much more effective if you focus on “friending”. Simply put, just ask people about their stories because they are genuinely interesting (and inspiring!) rather than focusing on getting their business cards to later ask them for a favour. Try to offer something first. In most cases especially as a student, you rarely have anything more than curiosity. Offer them that- ask about how they reached where they are today and what inspires them- you will be surprised at how that is all it takes (in most cases at least). It is way better to have ‘an army of friends’ than a ‘professional network’ to fall back on.

  1. A message for the readers!

Law school is a very stressful place and you can easily get caught up in the ‘rat race’ which may be more cruel for some than others. Make sure to surround yourself with motivators, optimists and kind people. Being one yourself makes it easier to attract like-minded. Just don’t lose yourself in the process and please remember- it’s always people who matter in the end.

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