Ms. Neelasha Nemani is an NLUO alumna from the batch of 2012-2017. Right after graduation, she started her career with J. Sagar Associates, where she later got promoted to Senior Associate in the year 2021. She got an offer from Cambridge University to pursue Masters in Corporate Laws. Pursuing her MCL, she bagged an offer from Clifford Chance, making her the first from NLUO to make it to a magic circle law firm.

She has been interviewed by Toshika Soni, EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from NLUO.

1. Could you please introduce yourself to our audience?

Hi, my name is Neelasha Nemani. I graduated from National Law University Odisha, Cuttack (NLUO) with a BA LLB (Hons.) degree in 2017. After graduation, I joined the banking and finance practice at J. Sagar Associates (JSA) as an Associate in their Mumbai office. After a little over four years of working at JSA, I left the firm to pursue a master of corporate law (MCL) degree from the University of Cambridge in October 2021. Come September 2022, I will be working with Clifford Chance, London as an Associate in their global financial markets practice.

2. What drew your curiosity to the field of law and how did you choose banking and finance in specific?

My decision to explore a career in law was a product of my parents’ suggestion. Since I did not have a concrete alternative, I thought I may as well go through with it. I was always interested in economics, so I figured I could explore commercial laws in future. As far as choosing a specific practice area is concerned, I kept an open mind about it. When I started interning at law firms in my third year, I worked with teams that did capital markets, competition law and of course, banking and finance mandates. At the time however, I “chose” banking and finance predominantly because I really enjoyed working with a particular team in JSA (which I ultimately joined). I was honest with myself that I was neutral to the practice area, and I wanted to join a team I resonated with — a team that would help me grow and develop as a lawyer.

3. Can you please tell us about your time at NLU Odisha during your undergraduate studies?

I did not have the sort of CV you would expect. I did not graduate with Rank 1 or bag any gold medals. If this makes anyone feel better — I did not participate in moots either. By the time my second year was ending, I knew I was going through the law firm route. This effectively meant I would have to give a 110% effort during my internships, maintain good grades (my aim was a 7/8 CGPA) and be involved in some co-curricular activities to reflect my genuine interest in the subject. I spent a considerable amount of time and effort exploring various areas of corporate and commercial laws in order to identify what areas I liked best. The most fun way of doing this was to be involved in academic research and writing — sometimes with a friend because it made exchange of ideas possible and the experience more fun. I also signed up to a few credit courses and certifications — this is a really fun way of getting something on your CV and also learning about subject areas that are not taught as part of the curriculum. So, I spent the remaining three years of law school working on things similar to this, and the rest of the time I spent playing basketball and investing in friendships. My simple point being: you do not have to be a “jack of all trades” sort of person. As long as you have some clarity as to what you need to do to achieve your goals, it is perfectly okay to switch off otherwise and have fun.

4. How was your experience at JSA? Are there any key takeaways about life at an Indian law firm that you would like to share with our readers?

My time at JSA was great. Much like a typical law firm, the amount of work was a lot, and I was always on my toes and had to juggle between multiple mandates at a time. That said, the team I worked with was outstanding and support from my seniors/mentors was always available. Therefore, while I was always very busy, my growth trajectory was also quite steep. I cannot stress enough on how much this experience helped me during my interviews with foreign law firms.

With respect to a career at law firms, I will not deny that working at a law firm necessarily means that you are going to be very busy, always. Yes, there are many, many working weekends and many, many sleepless nights (often consecutively). The job overall can be quite challenging at times. That said — and it is perhaps easier to appreciate this in hindsight, but one’s growth and development as a lawyer has the potential to happen quite quickly. Quite early on, you tend to become an important point of contact for the client, and this really pushes you to learn how to “manage” the client’s expectations. In a typical team setting, you would be working on multiple and perhaps very different mandates, and with different members of the team. This arguably improves your ability to work with people that have different styles of working, and also pushes you to manage your time efficiently so that you are able to meet all your deadlines. So all in all, while a law firm job is hectic, it is definitely a great learning experience.

5. Is there something in particular that has inspired your professional choices? What is the motivational force behind your career trajectory?

When I first decided to go down the law firm route, it is because my internships made me realise that my growth trajectory was going to be quick. This appealed to my inherently ambitious and competitive self — I knew that working in a law firm and sweating through my initial years would pay off immensely in the long run. Also, working at a law firm is really helpful even if you want to shift to a good in-house role in future — for example, development finance institutions, banks or funds. Therefore, I knew that working at a law firm would mean more avenues would open up for me in the future, so it was worth a shot.

6. How did you decide on pursuing an MCL after having gained significant work experience? Would you recommend this decision to our readers?

About three years into working at JSA, I decided to explore the option of moving to a foreign law firm eventually. I felt like the exposure could help my professional growth exponentially and the idea of living abroad also seemed quite exciting. I figured that doing a graduate degree abroad could help provide the right platform for me to enter the foreign job market. When I started looking up details of various LLM programmes I could apply for, I felt like it was the right time to take a break from work but spend my time doing something intellectually stimulating anyway. I was promoted to Senior Associate at JSA in April 2021 so it was a slightly difficult decision at the time to quit and move to Cambridge in October 2021 for the MCL. But seeing as how things eventually panned out for me, I am glad I made that decision.

The MCL course at Cambridge was fantastic. It is quite hectic compared to the LLM at Cambridge as we take six modules as opposed to four in the LLM, and we also write exams at the end of each term. That said, the modules on offer are extremely relevant for corporate lawyers, the teaching faculty of course is undeniably superb, and the experience overall was very enjoyable while also being very academically enriching. In my view, if you want to pursue a career in corporate law, especially in law firms or in-house organisations, you should consider pursuing an LLM/MCL degree after gaining some work experience — ideally at least 3 years. This is because your work experience can significantly help you not just in understanding the modules better but also in terms of your contribution to discussions in class which tend to be practice oriented for the most part.

7. How was your experience of managing applications and work simultaneously? Can you list a few things that helped you secure the coveted MCL offer from Cambridge?

I knew early on that having to work my job at JSA and also work on my law school applications would be difficult. However, I did not realise the extent of this until I was nearing my application deadlines. I had to take a very practical call at this time regarding my applications, because compromising on work was not (and should not be) an option. So I decided to limit my applications only to three universities. I had also made a clear list of preferences amongst the three universities which helped me prioritise the relevant applications. I had set very strict but also realistic deadlines for myself which would allow me to meet my work deadlines but also give me time to work on my applications — this was usually something I reserved late nights and weekends for.

In my view, I was a strong candidate for the MCL programme because of my work experience, since the MCL is predominantly a practical course. It may have helped that I was working at a top tier firm in India for over four years and had worked on a variety of niche transactions with great international dimension. That said, the University of Cambridge gives a lot of weightage to academic and co-curricular excellence. Through my application, I was able to demonstrate that I was academically oriented since I had graduated within the top 2% of my undergraduate cohort and had also been involved in a lot of research and academic writing. It is quite important from an application’s perspective to be able to string all your experience and achievements together and demonstrate how the relevant course would be beneficial for you.

8. Being the first student from your university to make it to a magic circle law firm, was the leap to pursuing Clifford Chance daunting? Please brief us about your journey.

Taking a step back, my decision to pursue a job application at JSA was where it all began. Back in May 2016 when I had applied to JSA after doing three internships with them, there was no alumnus from NLUO in the firm. The idea of getting a job at a Tier 1 law firm, and JSA in particular which was popularly known to have had a “hiring freeze” at the time therefore seemed like a distant dream. Thinking back to those days, I think this situation really helped me rediscover myself and channelise my time and effort effectively to realise my dreams. My biggest takeaway from that experience was that a dream is not impossible to achieve if you are dedicated, consistent and ready to go all out for it.

When my first term at Cambridge commenced, I was clear that I needed to start working on my job applications very soon. As a first step, I spent considerable time and effort updating my CV which also included sending it across to a couple of my mentors at JSA for their comments on it. What I learnt from this is how important a well-presented CV is for a law firm to consider you. While you cannot change your experience and accomplishments, it is important to present it in a manner that would be relevant to recruiters, and this may change from firm to firm. Once I finalised my CV, I quickly made a few job applications — one of them being for Clifford Chance. I was fortunate to have heard back almost immediately with a confirmation on interview dates but that also meant I only had a few days to prepare for the interview. As is quite standard at international law firms, I was to have two stages of interviews and then a written test before they would decide to make me an offer.

There was a substantial amount of work to do towards preparation. I had to effectively jog my memory about transactions I was involved in many years ago and make a list of all the potential questions I could be asked on them. It was extremely helpful to make that list as it helped me streamline my preparation easily. Given how little time I had for preparation, I had no option but to be crystal clear about my strategy. I think the values I inculcated merely by being a law firm lawyer really helped me here. For starters, I could easily tell myself that I have handled more in lesser time, so this really should be okay. Secondly, staying calm and composed is key — interviewers almost always try to throw you off, and your being able to handle yourself in that situation is a trait they are looking for in a potential recruit.

That said, there is always an element of luck or “being at the right place at the right time” for things to work out a certain way. One thing I had promised myself at the beginning of this new job hunt was: I will give my 100% effort, but if it does not work out, it is not the end of the world. And my genuine belief in this is probably what helped me stay calm and stick my ground through the (arguably daunting) process.

9. Not many people are familiar with the concept of “exhaustion of research”. What are your views on it?

Exhaustion of research effectively translates to the ability to find a way to prove your point with sufficient evidence to back your claims. Needless to say, this lies at the core of every lawyer’s work. As far as corporate law in a law firm is concerned, the work is broadly of two types — transactional work and advisory work. Transactional work largely involves negotiations and market positions, whereas advisory work is where research becomes a lot more important. Where a lawyer is advising a client on a sticky position of law, good research skills are vital. This may be the difference between giving the right advice and not.

In my view, the best time to hone your research skills is during your undergraduate degree when you have enough time and more to focus on research building activities such as academic papers and moots.

10. Is there any piece of advice you wish to leave our readers with?

Basis my experience, here are a few things I have learnt (mostly the hard way):

  1. Yes, having an alumni base is helpful. But not having one does not mean you cannot get a certain kind of job or get into a certain kind of law school for a graduate programme. Voila, LinkedIn to your rescue — learn how to use it and use it well.

  2. Grades do not determine how successful a lawyer you can be, but maintaining good grades makes your journey less of a struggle.

  3. More often than not, doing a graduate degree after some work experience (typically 3+ years) could be a game changer. This is almost always true if you are looking to have a career around law firms and in-house organisations. Firstly, you will appreciate graduate school more because you learn to value free time more. Secondly, you will be able to appreciate the nuances in practical aspects of the law. Thirdly, if you want to join a multinational law firm at an associate position and not as a trainee, you most certainly will need to have already had some work experience under your belt.

  4. Do not lose yourself in the process — discovering your interests and having hobbies is part of a successful journey. It helps slow down your burnout process. Also, you might just have interests in common with your interviewer and may be able to chat about it as an ice breaker.

  5. Yes, this is a cliché, but failures genuinely are part of the process, and they help you grow and do better. It does not matter if 4 out of 5 law schools sent you rejection emails or 2 out of 3 job applications did not work out. You literally only need one law school acceptance, one job acceptance at a time. Rejection does not equate to failure — it just means it was not meant to be. If you can take something positive out of that, that is a bonus. Remember, successful people primarily shed light on their success stories, but failure is a part of everyone’s journey. People just do not talk about it.

  6. Mental health is important — pay close attention to it. None of this is worth it if it comes at the cost of poor mental health — you will neither be able to enjoy what you are doing, nor will you be able to do your best.

Have a dream, make a plan, stick to it, be kind to yourself and you will be able to achieve whatever you set out to achieve. Good luck.

Thank you.

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