A Look into the World of Trade: Akhil Raina’s Journey from NLU Jodhpur to the WTO

Akhil Raina is a 2016 alumnus of National Law University, Jodhpur, where he opted for International Trade and Investment Law Hons. He pursued his LL.M. in International Economic Law & Policy (IELPO) at the Universidad de Barcelona as a European Law Students Association (ELSA) Scholar, and subsequently interned at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).Since 2018, he has been a Marie S. Curie Fellow and PhD Candidate at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies. He has been interviewed by Nisha Gupta, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing her law from NLU Jodhpur.

1.      It’s a tradition for every student of NLU Jodhpur to be hear the name “Akhil Raina” at least once in their Trade Law classes. Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi, Nisha. That’s a very flattering way to make an introductory question. I wonder if the statement you made is true, but if it is, it’s all thanks to Dr. Bipin Kumar who teaches at NLU Jodhpur -he was my first “proper” teacher in the field and I learnt a lot from him. He has a particular liking for me because I was so fascinated with the subject he was teaching, so we had a great rapport and I had a great time in Jodhpur as I will tell you later on. That’s the reason some people still hear of me in college.

I must say I am honoured that you invited me for this interview, so thank you very much.

As an introduction – I’m Akhil Raina. I hail from Kashmir and I grew up mostly in Delhi. Since 2018 I have been based in Belgium. Over here, I am predominantly a Marie S. Curie Fellow with the ‘Global India’ European Training Network (ETN) – essentially an European Union research project funding scholars all around the world. I am also a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Global Governance Studies, which is situated in KU Leuven. Additionally, I am a teaching assistant over there – I help 2 professors in their courses on WTO Law. I am also the co-coach for the KU Leuven team for the John H. Jackson Moot Court Competition,and I’ve been so for a couple for years. In addition to doing my academic work, I’m also an ad-hoc consultant for a Brussels-based law firm, as well as an associate and mentor for Trade Lab which is an NGO based in Geneva which provides pro-bono legal services in International Economic Law. So that is my not-so-short introduction.

2.      Your “not-so-short” introduction is a glimpse into your rich academic background – from an undergraduate student NLU Jodhpur to a Ph.D. scholar and teaching assistant at Leuven and everything in between. Can you tell us how your journey with law began?

It has been quite a journey and I think that to answer this question I would have to take you all the way to my family, in fact. I come from a pretty nerd-and-proud family. It’s full of doctors and engineers. In fact, my grandparents were professors and government servants. My parents are doctors and they have always seen practice go hand-in-hand with an academic bent of mind. My mom is an excellent teacher, and my dad has a bunch of publications and patents to his name. So, an academic environment was there for me even before I was born so that has always helped me. Specialisation was always something that I was drawn to and I always saw it as a positive.

The journey with law started as a process of deselection. If you grow up in an environment which is constantly about one thing – which for me was medicine – you can grow up to either hate it or love it. I can’t say that I “hated” it but I got annoyed a little bit with the constant blowing up of “doctors are so great” – and I get it, they are, but so are other professions!You could do something else and still be a great person or a good person at least. I had one stubborn debate with my parents and just decided to do something else. Engineering seemed too drab for me. I had this idea in my head that engineers build bridges – and that’s what I still think they do!

I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. But by nature, I was quite argumentative, and I liked to debate in school also, so I thought that law would be a good idea. You have to do things till you figure out what works for you, and try as much as possible – that’s been my modus through the whole journey: which is to do whatever it is that you’re passionate about. “Passion” is a word that is being thrown around a lot so I would rather say: do whatever you are“interested” in. And that takes a little bit of finding – you need to invest time and effort into finding that thing. Once you find it, you just got to be a mad person and go at it with all your heart, all your gut and all that you have. It’s also just the best way to be successful and happy. I was pretty lucky that I could find it in law and in trade.

So, I gave the CLAT and landed up in Jodhpur – which was great for me. I had an amazing time and I made some phenomenal friends. I can’t even put into words how great and supportive they were – friends of all different kinds . And a shout-out to hostel life which has been very instrumental in shaping my personality, and I believe that if anybody can have an experience of it, they should.

Jodhpur had some good teachers and a lot of opportunities. I talk to a lot of people about just the whole process of it, like I am talking to you right now, and maybe you can transport this message to your audience – we have a little bit of an expectation mismatch, because if you’re in Jodhpur, you can’t expect all your professors to be Oxford-type professors. They are going to be good but not all of them are going to be great. But the opportunities to learn are there and you just have to take them. Again, you must invest time in finding out what you like to do. I tried to do in a bunch of ways – mooting, amongst other things. I would say this to everyone: you must try to do as many things as you can – mooting, debating, writing papers, sports, music. Who knows, you could be the next big thing in sports or IP law. Everybody has a thing that they are innately good at; it just takes a bit of looking.

For me, trade is obviously my “big thing” and it happened a bit by chance; it happened organically. Through the moot-intra system in college it that so happened that the two moots I went to in my 2nd and 3rd year of law school were both on WTO Law. The first one was GIMC which in Gandhinagar and the ELSA Moot Court Competition (now called the John H. Jackson Moot Court Competition). I had great teammates and we had a lot of fun but we didn’t really get anywhere. When I came back, I had bunch of research lying around with me and I had a basic understanding of it, so I just compiled it all together and built a narrative around it and out came a paper – or what I thought was a paper. I sent it around and luckily for me one of the bigger trade law journals in India, the Indian Journal of International Economic Law, accepted it. It was a big thing for me because it gave me a sign – maybe I have an idea about this; if other people can understand it and appreciate it, it must mean something. That publication was a big impetus for my trade journey.

Bipin Sir was very instrumental along with other teachers such as Ms. Aakanksha Kumar who was brilliant as a faculty for Arbitration & IP. To support us in the trade world, we had a trade centre in college, and we could opt for Trade and Investment Law Honours. So, I was very lucky, and I think I should keep flagging that as much as I can. In fact, I was also very lucky to have the support system that I did: a really amazing family, very good friends and also mentorships very importantly.

Not to dwell on this too much but when I got into trade, I saw that people wanted to do corporate law a lot. I just didn’t understand it very much because it was supremely dry to me and I didn’t understand it and people would say “Oh no – it’s for money.” And for some people, money is a consideration and they have to go and do that.But most of the people that I saw just went ahead with this sheep mentality and they had this idea that “we will do this now, earn some money and have fun later” – but that’s not how life works. It’s very short and you get just one shot at it so you might as well do something that you truly enjoy.

In the meantime, I didn’t know that trade would come my way. So I did a bunch of litigation internships and I think that if you’re trying to be a lawyer, litigation in a court like the District Courts or a High Court is an amazing default option, and you can be happy just doing that. Of course, it has its own constraints with finances but I think it’s a great place to look at rather than blindly going to a ‘Big Law Firm’ or something.

So that was the beginning of my journey. Like I mentioned earlier, mentorship is especially important. I had some great seniors in college;talk to your seniors and they will help you. Internships again are particularly important. After I realised I had an interest in trade law, I did a few internships with the government research centre – the Centre for WTO Studies; there’s Mr. Abhijit Das there, amongst others, and now Dr.James Nedumpara is heading the other Centre. They were great mentors to me. I had two otherinternships: with Lakshmikumaran& Sridharan which was another great experience, and with Clarus Law Associates with Anuradha RV, a bunch of very dedicated people who really care about the people who are interning under them.

3.      As you said earlier – specialisation was something you were always drawn to. How did the decision to go for an LL.M. right out of college come about?

Yes – right after Jodhpur, I decided to go the whole hog and go for an LL.M.. I was one of the two-three people in my batch of 80+ who decided to step out of placements. At that time, everyone would automatically be seated for placement interviews unless you explicitly gave your name to not be included in the process. So, it sounded like a suicide mission, but I did it anyway. I called my mom, who I was petrified would be really upset about me not going for a job, but she surprised me by saying “no, I know you want to this as a serious thing – so go for it!”

That pushed me to apply for an LL.M.to try and see if I could build a career around my ‘passion’. I applied to all the 6-7 universities that I thought were the best for the course and had the best faculty. I wasn’t looking at the name of the university; it’s just one of the ways to do it, different people have different ways. Amongst the places where I got accepted, I chose a programme called the International Economic Law & Policy (IELPO) LL.M.at the Universidad de Barcelona; I also got the European Law Students Association (ELSA) scholarship.And I would say that it was a great experience; a foreign experience is amazing if you can afford it. If you get a scholarship, you should definitely go and see how things are done outside, differently. All the top-notch people in the field of trade and investment, competition, tax; whether they were practitioners (from WTO, UNCTAD, etc.) or academics, they were all there. I was like a kid in a candy store – I just couldn’t get enough of it! I made a lot of friends from different countries and they have become my “professional connections” as well later on.

At this point, I must say that connections are important but not in the way that most people think it to be. They think of it as networking – I just hate that word. It sounds so transactional. You just have to make a connection with people, you have to like them. The trade world is a small world so you might as well get along with it. But then again if you like people and make a genuine effort to connect with them, you won’t have to go “network” with anybody. I hear this all the time – “how do you network?” I mean, you just go and talk to someone! How hard can it be? A lot of us approach these people just for jobs and they get a hundred people like that every day. So, you must stand out from the crowd and also make sure that you don’t use them. I have been guilty of it myself and it should be noted that they will only give you a job if they like you! Like I said, the trade world is small so you are going to work with the same people over and over again; the investment world is slightly bigger but it’s pretty much the same in that respect. Be genuine with people, make a connection. It’s not that hard and it doesn’t have to be like a business.

4.      You have said that the trade world is a small world. How was the experience of finally entering this world after the LL.M. Program?

I just tried a lot – I have to say. I just applied everywhere after the LL.M. and I got rejected like you will not believe. A lot of people get disappointed like “I didn’t get an internship with the WTO” or “this didn’t work out”. Keep in mind that trade is a small field around the world so it is really competitive with some extremely smart people working in it. I am not saying that people on our side, in India are not smart, but it’s very hard to crack it outside. You must try – people just give up after a couple tries. I sent so many emails – emails to people I’d never talked to, just telling them who I am and explaining what I wanted to do; handing out printouts of my CV to just about anyone who would take it. And you have to ask. It is not like if you ask you would automatically get it but if you don’t ask for things you won’t get them anyway. Just through this process, at the end of my LL.M., two very fortunate things happened.

One, I got an interview with the WTO (which had always been a dream, I used to look at pictures of the WTO building sitting in my hostel room in Jodhpur),since I was doing pretty well in my class where the top 3 or so would get pre-selected for interviews. I went up till the final stage of the interviews where they told me that they had just taken in a person of my nationality so they couldn’t hire me – it’s not their fault, it’s just how international bureaucracies works. But I was crushed.

So, I went back to the same thing of emailing people, I found out about people who work in different departments of the WTO. And it so happened that a professor who had taught at my LL.M., Prof. Lee Ann Jackson, was looking for a legal intern, not for the dispute sides of things but for the agricultural division. She asked me to come along and I went there for a 3-month internship. It got extended to 6 months because we just got along that well. She was amazing and even the other people there were really kind to me. And I would have stayed on, it was my dream-place to be at, but then the 2nd fortunate thing happened right around the time that I was passing out.

Two, my academic mentor at the time – and pretty much still – Prof.Pierre Sauvé said “you know, Akhil, you’re eventually going to get into teaching so you might as well do a Ph.D. now.” I obviously said that “I am too young, I don’t know anything what I’d do.”He just told me to not worry about it since he had already figured it out for me. He pointed me to the university and the professor; and said he had told him about me.

I had about 3 places where I would have wanted to do a Ph.D. – one of which is where I am right now. I had a set of some very gruelling interviews in the selection process and they also asked for some write-ups. They were happy with what I had done. They were looking for somebody who wanted to research on India as well as the EU, as well as trade law,so I fit the bill.

So that is how I landed up in KU Leuven. It is a great environment with a great support system. People say that doing a Ph.D. is a lonely path – and it can be quite lonely at times – but I’ve made some very good friends here and it’s not as bad. We have a very diverse multicultural working environment;you get a lot of free time to do whatever you want and you can figure out your own schedule. This should be taken with some amount of caution, though, because people think that you have a great life doing a Ph.D. and being your own boss; but know that having a boss is hard but being your own boss is the worst.

5.      Mooting led you to publications, which in turn led you to your specialisation. I think it’s safe to say that mooting and publications had a drastic impact on your life. And with over 30 publications to your name, you have certainly mastered the art. What would you say to our readers – especially law students – who are trying to get the hang of legal writing?

Mooting – I cannot say much for except for the fact that if you’re trying to be a lawyer you should enjoy it, rather, you should naturally be able to enjoy it. It is essentially what you will be doing. You think of a case, you think of legal arguments, you draft, and you plead. It’s what you are going to do for the rest of your professional life, so you might as well have a good time with it. It’s like being a doctor and saying that I don’t like to suggest medicines to people – it makes no sense! You don’t have to make a life out it. Try it, see how you like it. If you like it, try another one; if you don’t like it, give it up! Go play a sport or do parliamentary debates or write a paper or get into a journal or take an online course – there are so many things that you can do. But mooting is a good place to find something that you like.

As far as publications go, I think just saying “publications” shows us that we are grabbing the wrong end of the stick. Forget publications; enjoy what you’re doing. Publication is the by-product – you have to enjoy the writing bit of it. In law school if you write a paper or two, that’s more than enough. These days you have blogs and so many other opportunities, you can do it much more often.

I think legal writing can be taught but I do think that for it to be something that you do a lot it has to be something that you genuinely enjoy. As for me, I’ve always loved words and I loved writing. Even as a kid, I used to write short stories and poems just for fun; it was complete garbage, but I really liked doing it! I just followed that into my career so now I have done a fair bit of it. I would encourage anyone who wants to do it to really give it a try.

The idea of it is very simple. The first thing is that you have to find something to write about – which is 80% of the trick. You must find something that is not being talked about a lot and some place in which you can add a novel argument. Essentially something that is interesting and perhaps something that is also contemporary.

When I was starting to write articles, I would go through all of the blogs that were on the subject, go through the past 6-7 months of them, take down any interesting topic or ideas. Then I would go to the journals that have been published in the last 6 odd months. For trade and economic law there is the Journal of World Trade, Journal of International Economic Law, World Trade Review, Global Trade and Customs Journal and our very own Trade, Law and Development of NLU Jodhpur. Then you just see what is the interesting bit that somebody hasn’t seen before and that is what academia is – you see something that somebody hasn’t seen before.

The next thing to do is to read. I really used to enjoy reading a lot. In hindsight, that is one of the reasons I got into writing so much. I think we don’t read enough even in “knowledge” industries like law and medicine; we should be reading much more. In fact, I try and do this myself more and more.

I was really interested in keeping up with the latest scholarship; I was a bit of a name-dropper also! If you want to do it a couple of times, you can just be interested in the topic and you can do it with a lot of dedication and interest, and it can come out very well. You can get a hang of it after a while and I would say that it’s very teachable.

If you are aspiring to write, talk to someone you think has written a bunch or you like their way of writing or what they write about. Not all of them, but some of them will be happy to talk to you. Again, it is very teachable. A friend of mine recently said in a similar talk that you read, you think a lot, you get a storm cloud of ideas, you draft a little bit and then you redraft. Also, writing helps you to think so the more you write, the better and more clearly you can think; they make it better for you during an interview, in conversation, in conferences and they make people take you more seriously. It’s a great thing to do but it takes a little getting used to. It is true – it is more an art than a science. So, you have to be “passionate” about it.

Remember: all writing is rewriting! That is as true for fiction as it for legal writing. You write, you throw it into the garbage and then you rewrite it. It all sounds a bit abstract but it’s 3 or 4 steps – think, write and redraft × repeat. That is my process. I read a lot; I make notes. Using those notes, I will write one draft. Then I will read that draft and make notes of that draft. I will throw that draft away – will delete that Word file. Then I will redraft it, while reading more. Once I have a second draft, I will make notes of it and again throw it away. It sounds manic but that’s how you get good articles. After 3-4 drafts, you’ve read enough, you’ve thought enough and your writing is getting better, crisper and more and more to the point.

Though I’ve been talking about interests and passions, note that writing is hard work and to get good at it is very hard. I enjoy it but it’s gruelling work to write an article and to get it published in a good place. But I thoroughly enjoy it. It is hard work and I enjoy it. Sincere but not serious – I guess that fits here.

6.      Along with studying and writing, you’ve also worked with the WTO, a law firm and continue to work with an NGO. How has work in the field of trade been for you up until now? How different has it been from a simple corporate life?

I don’t have a counter-factual. I have never worked in a corporate space so I don’t know how that goes but a lot of my friends complain about it so I can imagine that it is not great. I think the main difference is that I really enjoy what I do. I enjoy drafting and arguing and debating and coming up with new arguments. I think trade is special in that sense because it affords you the opportunity to do all three: you can do litigation or be involved in litigation;consultancy (that’s advisory);and teaching and academia. If you look at the top people in the field, all of them do all three together. I was really inspired by this and I think this is one difference.

I also have to two more things with regard to this. One, when you talk about interest or passion, a lot of people think, “it’s just fun for this guy!” No – it’s still a lot of hard work! I work from the second I wake up, on the days I’m working towards a project; I start work from the second I wake up to the point when I crash in bed. I’m not saying this is what you should do.You should take care of your health and mental health and work out and meditate, but I work a lot and the only difference between me and someone complaining about their corporate job is that they don’t like the subject matter. I really get fascinated by this subject matter and that brings me to the second point. Second, I think what distinguishes this from both, corporate and criminal law, is that it has no boundaries.Trade and investment Law is such an exploding field; it is a remarkably interesting intersection between economics, law and politics – some people even think psychology, but that’s for later. The politics of it keeps changing, whether domestic and international. You hear about Trump and China, about FTAs, about India and everything in between.Underneath is the economics of it, so you have to understand macroeconomics and microeconomics. Basically, it is multifaceted and that is what keeps it fresh and interesting.

In all these different places I have had different experiences. Most of my work has been outside India where they have a bit of a better sense of work-life balance (contrary to what I said of work from the time you get up till the time you go to bed!).It affords you that opportunity of having that balance; everybody is not in some mad rush to get somewhere. But coming back to what I said about different experiences:

With WTO, which is an international organisation, I had an amazing experience of working with people from different backgrounds, cultures and countries, all trying to work towards a common goal. You are working with IR (International Relations) people, lawyers, economists, policy people – all together.

Working with legal NGOs has been exceptional because you see the need for these legal services that a lot of people and countries cannot afford.

Working with a law firm is gruelling – it’s gruelling anywhere and everywhere. Again, the thing is that you must enjoy the subject matter.You are not going to like every brief that comes in front of you. Most of trade or what makes most money is ‘trade remedies’, and it is very boring – even I can say that. It very mechanical with a lot of dry numbers but to me, it is still more interesting than doing Mergers and Acquisitions. So, I would say – do the thing you hate the least and you will be happy.

7.      Quite early on in your life you’ve taken a step that most people your age only dream of doing – starting your own independent practice. As the Founding Partner, what are you looking forward to doing with Raina International Law Consultants (RILC)?

To be honest,it kind of embarrasses me a little because as of now it’s just a small endeavour, and people are already asking about it! Like you said, it is the dream of every lawyer – one that is inordinately scary and has led to a build-up of a lot of anxiety.

I have some experience with advising governments in the past and some experience in working with law firms on case briefs. I started the idea of practice  a few months ago and I have some potential work coming in.What I see in the future is to give consultancy and advisory services for essentially compliance; if a company (especially a company that works in international transaction and business) has a question regarding whether something that they are doing violates any international rules or even Indian or European rules on trade, investment and business transactions, then I would be happy to help them. This also covers trade remedy representation and consultancy in India, for example,anti-dumping, safeguard duties and countervailing duties which are sometimes then challenged in Indian courts and tribunals..As of now, it is just starting and I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some very good people as interns from Jodhpur and Odisha. The plan is to expand eventually, and have some friends from different parts of the world who share the same sort of ambitions as me, come up with a bigger network and work with them.

The idea is to be a small boutique practice, focusing on 3-4 subject areas which is WTO, FTAs, investment, treaty negotiation, and the like – which is what I’ve been involved in in the past.Right now, it’s in the business development phase so just hoping to get it off the ground and get it running before I can talk more about it.

8.       That is a long list of things that you do! How did teaching find its way into your life?

While talking about work, I just had that epiphany as to why it’s much more fun for me than some of my friends – it’s to do with teaching. I have done a little bit of teaching as a Teaching Assistant in Jodhpur, I’m doing some of it now, and I plan to do it in the future as well. I think it is possibly the most fulfilling thing. I once heard in a speech, “Teach. Even if you’re not a teacher – teach!.” And I think the reason behind it is that it is just so fulfilling to share something that you are very passionate about with someone who has no clue about it, and you see that look of realisation on their face when they learn; that is just priceless!It adds a lot to your life. I think it’s a big reason why I additionally have more fun with my field. Even my writing of articles is a way to teach. I would say to anybody who wants to have a good time in the legal profession that they should invest some time into teaching. Even if you’re involved in M&A, go to your alma mater and teach a corporate law class or coach a moot team, etc.Trust me – you’d be all the more happy.

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