Jai Brunner

Jai Brunner has been awarded the Singhvi-Trinity-Cambridge Scholarship to pursue a fully-funded LLM degree at Trinity College, Cambridge University for the academic year 2023-24. He recently graduated from Jindal Global Law School in August 2023 with an LLB degree. Earlier, he obtained his undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2016. After graduating from UChicago, he worked as an Editor at the Supreme Court Observer (SCO) for two years under the supervision of Dr. Sudhir Krishnaswamy. Jai has a keen interest in constitutional law, anti-discrimination law and the administration of the Supreme Court of India.

Here, we share the insights into discussion with Jai knowing about the path taken which led him towards winning the Singhvi-Trinity-Cambridge Scholarship, 2023.

1. You completed your undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. What motivated you to pursue law after studying political philosophy, and to further pursue an LLM?

Philosophy is a very abstract subject. While I loved studying philosophy, it left me wondering if what I was learning was of relevance to the real world. After four years in libraries and classrooms, I decided I needed some “on-the-ground” work experience. Since I had primarily studied political philosophy at UChicago, I was very much interested in issues of justice. Hence, I decided to apply for a job at the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR) in Bangalore. Dr. Ashutosh Varshney (Professor of Political Science at Brown University) had told me about the excellent work being done at CLPR by its founders, Dr. Sudhir Krishnaswamy and Senior Advocate Jayna Kothari. I was inspired by their long-term vision of fostering public constitutional culture. Fortunately, my interview went well, and they hired me to work on the SCO project.

I quickly became engrossed in the law. The job required me to spend nearly every day writing and reading about the Supreme Court of India. I was lucky to be working under Satya Prasoon, who is now an Assistant Professor at BML Munjal University. Every day, he would give me tiny crash courses in constitutional law, using the landmark Supreme Court cases we were tracking — the Sabarimala controversy, the Section 377 challenge, etc. — as teaching material. After two years at CLPR, I decided I wanted a stronger foundation in the law and applied to several LLB programmes.

In retrospect, I am glad that I studied philosophy prior to pursuing law. I can now see that the subject gave me an excellent foundation for studying law, especially given my interests in constitutional law and jurisprudence.

2. The recipients of the Singhvi-Trinity-Cambridge Scholarship are “exceptional individuals who have demonstrated academic excellence, leadership potential, and a commitment to making a potential impact in their communities”. How do you think one fits into this box (selection criteria)?

This is a difficult question to answer since I do not know how the Selection Committee chooses the awardee. I will share the advice that I received from my mentors when I asked them for help with scholarships. Firstly, they all stressed that fantastic academic scores are a prerequisite. Barring some exceptional cases, it is impossible to secure full funding at Oxbridge without stellar marks. Secondly, they urged me to think about how I could demonstrate unconventional excellence outside of the classroom. Nearly everyone you are competing with for scholarships is an outstanding student and has achieved all the standard impressive accomplishments (e.g., interned for a Tier 1 law firm, performed well at moots, published papers, etc.). If you want to stand out, it helps to have an interesting story to tell.

At the end of the day, you also just need to get lucky. When it comes to these scholarships, there is very little to distinguish one outstanding applicant from another. Thus, my advice would be to always hedge your bets. Make sure you have other plans, just in case your LLM dream does not come to fruition. Remember that you can always try again later, after building up your CV for a few years.

3. What are your views on the prospects after a foreign degree? How do you think one benefits from pursuing a foreign LLM (in comparison with an Indian one)?

Personally, I am interested in pursuing a PhD. As you know, the West currently has a monopoly on academia. Unfortunately, most of the best faculty and funding opportunities are in the UK, US, Europe, and Australia. Thus, the best PhD programmes tend to be abroad. For anyone hoping to pursue a PhD abroad, having a foreign LLM (from a top university) is a huge asset. That being said, I know many successful scholars who pursued a master’s degree in India prior to enrolling in a foreign PhD. Furthermore, there are some excellent PhD programmes in India itself. A career in academia is certainly possible without a foreign LLM.

Another benefit of a foreign LLM is that it can help secure jobs abroad. I know several people who used their foreign LLM to apply for corporate law firm openings in New York, London and Geneva. Without a foreign degree, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door.

4. How did your time at Jindal Global Law University (JGLS) prepare you for your LLM application? How do you suggest aspirants utilise their time at law school most effectively to that end?

JGLS gave me access to brilliant Indian legal scholars, which in turn provided me with fantastic research opportunities. I was fortunate to have the chance to do research for Dr. Mohsin Alam Bhat at the Centre for Public Interest Law. During my first and second years, Dr. Bhat was leading a team doing crucial work related to issues of due process and citizenship in Assam. My contribution to this research opened many doors for me, including a full scholarship to pursue a one-week course on citizenship at Melbourne Law School. Needless to say, this benefited my CV.

My advice to aspirants would be to find opportunities to work for faculty that inspire you. Firstly, this will buttress your CV. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if you develop a great working relationship with them, then you can ask them for reference letters. A personalised reference letter from an established professor will greatly strengthen your application.

If your law school lacks great faculty, then I would urge you to reach out to professors from other universities. You will be surprised by how responsive some professors can be to e-mails from enthusiastic students.

5. Could you please share with us the application process and the timeline you followed for your application?

Personally, I left things a little late. I would not recommend following my timeline. My advice would be to start the process around May (for December/January deadlines). First, finalise the universities and external scholarships you intend to apply for. Make sure you are aware of key deadlines. Next, find out exactly what you need for each application — transcripts, personal statements, letters of reference, etc. Identify what will take the most time and plan accordingly.

One aspect many people leave until too late is asking for letters of reference. References really do make or break an application. I urge you to reach out to the people you want a reference from as early as possible — at least by early August. These are busy people and if you reach out at the last minute, they might simply not have the time to write your reference. Insofar as how to establish contact, I would recommend reaching out in an informal capacity, on the premise of asking for advice. Once you develop a good rapport (over 1-2 meetings), let them know that you would like a letter of recommendation from them. If they say “yes”, then ask them what they need from you (e.g., your CV).

6. What were the areas you focused on in terms of CV building towards LLM?

My priority was getting the best academic scores I could during my LLB. Since I had already worked in a relevant field prior to commencing my LLB, I was less focused on extracurriculars. I saw extracurriculars as opportunities to develop better relationships with potential referees.

I would add that if you intend to apply to the US, then definitely consider interning for a Supreme Court (or High Court) Judge. American universities value this highly. If you are okay with deferring application process by a year, then try to land a judicial clerkship. Good grades combined with a clerkship will make you a very strong applicant (both for American and British LLMs).

7. Were there any interviews for the LLM? If yes, how did you prepare for the same and what are the things an interviewee should keep in mind before and during the interview?

I did not sit for any interviews. One of my friends had several interviews for various scholarship applications. As far as I know, he prepared by reviewing his CV and personal statements. He may also have done some mock interviews with his mentors. I remember him emphasising that it is just as important, if not more, to be charismatic, than as it is to demonstrate legal expertise.

8. Applying to foreign universities for LLM can be quite a lengthy process and a particularly stressful one. How did you manage your stress?

I can be very susceptible to stress. Just ask my roommates from Jindal. I found that the best way to manage my stress was to not put all my energy into LLM applications. I spent a substantial amount of time and energy applying for jobs. Knowing that I had a salaried position to fall back on made me feel less pressured.

More importantly, I tried to set aside time to just have fun. I socialised, I worked out, I travelled, etc. Of course, there were times when my academics, LLM applications, and job search took precedence. Nevertheless, my goal was to never get fully consumed by my work. I owe a lot to my friends, who helped remind me to take it easy from time to time.

Finally, I would speak to a therapist on campus every couple of months, to assess my mental well-being and develop routines to cope with stress.

9. You worked at the Supreme Court Observer (SCO) for a considerable time of 2 years and have also actively engaged in writing and publishing on contemporary matters of policy research. Your writings reflect a deep knowledge of various areas of law. What do you think is the importance of smart and precise legal research? What are your views on “exhaustion of research”?

Undoubtedly, legal research is vital to society, as it can improve the laws that govern us. It will be interesting to see how natural language processing algorithms revolutionise legal research in the coming years.

My views on “research fatigue”? I do not have any in particular. As with anything else, you can get burnt out. Make sure to take care of your mental health and pace yourself.

10. Lastly, what advice would you like to give to aspirants dreaming to be like you?

Before giving any advice, I must acknowledge that I have been given a lot of opportunities, which a lot of other students may not have access to. I do not say this to dissuade anyone from applying to Oxbridge. I know students who lacked access to even half of what I did and nevertheless secured funding to study at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, etc. I just want to caution against the worldview that success is purely the result of individual merit.

My advice would be, find motivation from an inherent interest in your work, rather than the mere desire to be successful. In order to be admitted to Oxbridge and receive full funding, you need to put in years of outstanding work prior to your application. Personally, I have found I could not sustain this high-level of intensity had I worked merely to be successful or to outdo others. What drives me is being intellectually engaged in what I do. So, I would advise any LLM aspirant to find an area of law which you can persistently remain passionate about. Furthermore, I would urge you to also discover what kind of work you love to do. Do you find yourself spending late nights doing research? Do you love advocacy work, engaging with stakeholders on the ground? Whatever it is, identify that and find ways to do more of it.

I will end by just saying, work hard. No matter what you do, dedicate yourself fully to it. See where that takes you.

Please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

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