Updated: Jul 14, 2021
[Mr. Debanshu Mukherjee is the Co-founder of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and is working in the capacity of Practice Head of Insolvency Law, Corporate Law and Financial Regulation. He has a decade-over experience in commercial laws and has advised the Government of India on several legislative projects in this space. After graduating from Hidayatullah National Law University in 2008, he worked as an Associate at AZB & Partners. In 2013, he completed his BCL with distinction from the University of Oxford. Later, in 2017, he attended Harvard Law School as a Fulbright Scholar and was awarded the Irving Oberman Memorial Prize in Bankruptcy and the Dean’s scholar prize in Corporations]
1. How has the leap from being a corporate lawyer to policy-making been for you? What were the factors/reasons that helped you in taking this decision?
I was quite happy with my work as a transactional lawyer before I left for my first graduate degree in Oxford. Around this time, I was approached to join forces with others in Vidhi’s founding team and develop its financial sector work. I really liked the idea of starting a new venture with like-minded individuals and help in building something up from scratch. As with any other start-up, the first few years were quite challenging but equally exciting. We divided responsibilities amongst ourselves, strategized together to agree on how the organization will develop and literally gave it our all.
As luck would have it, we got to work on some large reform projects right off the bat. We also benefitted from being mentored by senior professionals on our board, who kept us disciplined. In hindsight, the first couple of years created the blueprint for the organization’s future development and I found the entire experience to be very fulfilling. To sum up, it wasn’t a planned move. I just followed my instincts in the beginning and decided to remain invested because of what we experienced and achieved in the first few years.
2. Having a postgraduate degree from both the UK and US, could you detail on some peculiarities in the method of learning (practical and theoretical emphasis) that you found in these countries?
The BCL program at Oxford allows you to take up to four courses a year. They are taught through seminars and one-on-one tutorials and evaluated based on a single exam at the end of the year. Most seminars involve multiple instructors and are very engaging because of the small class size. There is no cold calling during classes, but the final exams can be very challenging. The LLM at Harvard follows a semester system that allows one to take 9-12 courses over three terms depending on their appetite and interest. Seminars are not very different from Oxford but primarily rely on reaction papers for evaluation. Many bread-and-butter subjects like Constitutional Law and Corporations are taught in the lecture format.
Exams are not as tricky as Oxford, but there is a lot of cold calling in classrooms, which keeps one more prepared throughout the year (and possibly explains why the exams appear to be easier). Harvard also requires everyone to write a short thesis during the year. The BCL is an exclusive program for graduate students, whereas the JD and LLM students at Harvard are usually taught together. Oxford is quite tradition-oriented and allows one to go deep into specific areas of law and understand the theoretical underpinnings. Harvard enables one to go wide and has more practice-oriented offerings.
3. Could you tell us some differences and commonalities in your undergrad and postgrad law schools in terms of lifestyle/demands on time, approach to teaching, expectations, or even general environment?
I started my undergraduate studies at Hidayatullah National Law University in 2003 (the same year that the school was set up). While it wouldn’t be fair to compare my college with the graduate schools I attended later (in terms of resources and infrastructure), one significant difference that I must point out relates to the amount of time I spent preparing for classes. There was a lot of spoon-feeding during my undergraduate studies. This changed dramatically during graduate studies, where the quality of your classroom experience entirely depends on how prepared you are for a class.
In my time, the batch sizes at most national law universities used to be small, and ours wasn’t any different, which was good for us. We had some excellent teachers in the initial years. More importantly, we had a very competitive (and yet supportive) student community that consistently pushed everyone to do well. We had our share of problems, but even those experiences helped us become better versions of ourselves.
4. Could you detail on the long-term objectives of the work undertaken by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy as well as the areas of law/issues that are likely to be the focus of the Centre in the near future?
The organization and the areas that we work on have developed very organically over the years. Driven mainly by the backgrounds and interests of the founding team, we chose four broad areas in the first year: public law, judicial reform, health & environment and financial & commercial law. We started independent research under these broad themes at the very outset. In so far as government work is concerned, we got our first break with the bankruptcy reforms project. While this was ongoing, we were pulled in to advise on several aspects of the statutory framework for AADHAAR. We managed to execute these projects reasonably well. This helped us in establishing our credentials in the early years.
Today, we have thirteen verticals (working on areas ranging from inclusive education to tax law) and two regional initiatives in Maharashtra and Karnataka. We are focused on producing independent research outputs in each of these areas to bring about meaningful reforms by shaping the public discourse, engaging directly with the government and, if required, even going to court (as we did in challenging laws that discriminated against leprosy patients or intervening in a landmark health law case in support of an individual’s right to have a greater say in their end-of-life medical care). We hope to work with more State governments in future (especially for reform areas that come within their legislative competence).
5. Could you detail on your experience working at AZB Partners?
I started work in 2008 as the global financial crisis was unfolding. The first few months were a bit slow, but work picked up soon thereafter. In those days, AZB didn’t have designated teams for junior lawyers, and I ended up working with several partners on a variety of matters. I spent two years in Bombay and another two in Delhi. Eventually, I worked a lot with Abhijit Joshi and Sai Krishna Bharathan in Bombay and Anil Kasturi in Delhi. All three of them were great at mentoring and giving client-facing opportunities to junior lawyers, and I tried to make the best use of the opportunities that came my way. I primarily worked as an M&A lawyer and thoroughly enjoyed my time there.
6. What motivated your decision to pursue a BCL degree from the University of Oxford and an LLM from Harvard? Could you describe the admission process at these Universities?
There was no planning as such. One thing led to another. I applied to Oxford because a close friend from college had graduated from there a year before, and he encouraged me to apply. After finishing at Oxford, I applied to Harvard and got in, but kept deferring because of professional commitments at Vidhi - the bankruptcy reforms project was in full swing by mid-2014, and I really wanted to see it through. The admission processes at the two schools are not very different. In addition to the statement of purpose, Oxford also required a writing sample. It’s important to get references from people who know you genuinely and are likely to write objectively. I got mine from undergrad professors for the Oxford application and Oxford professors for the Harvard application. I eventually went to Harvard after the IBC was enacted and rolled out.
7. We would love to hear about your interests, both academic and extra-curricular, during your time at law school?
Like most other national law universities, we had our fair share of extra-curricular activities. Moot courts were very popular. In my third year, I was part of a team that qualified for the world finals of the ELSA moot on WTO laws – it was quite an experience. I was also involved with the Student Bar Association (as our student body was called) and managed to get elected as its President once. Although ours was a fledgling school, there was no shortage of opportunities for personal development as long as one was interested and willing to work.
8. Could you share your experience of serving in advisory capacities for various Government-appointed committees for key corporate and commercials developments in the country? Could you also share any associated challenges you may have faced during this time?
Among other projects, I was fortunate to have advised the Bankruptcy Law Reform Committee and the government on the design and drafting of the IBC and its implementation, which is seen as a successful reform story. I also advised on some company law reform initiatives and a committee that recommended the FRDI bill that was supposed to deal with the resolution of failing financial firms (although it didn’t go through for reasons unrelated to its technical content). While working with the government can be very fulfilling, it can also be disappointing sometimes.
In our engagements with them, our primary work involves researching on legal and policy issues and advising as independent professionals based on that research. But what they choose to do with that research and advice is entirely up to them. Quite naturally, it is fulfilling when our work helps shape a reform positively for the public good and disappointing when it doesn’t. But even when it doesn’t, I believe that it is important to continue engaging and providing constitutionally sound advice to the best of our ability. Failure to engage despite having the opportunity and the ability to do so would be an abdication of professional responsibility. On balance, government-facing work is very satisfying despite the challenges.
9. Having received the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard, could you give students targeting an LLM abroad some insights to better aim towards such meritorious scholarships?
The Fulbright scholarship for Indian students is jointly funded by the US Government and the Government of India (it’s called the Fulbright-Nehru scholarship here). The application process is quite elaborate. One needs to apply more than a year before they intend to start in the US. There are multiple essays to be submitted. Among other objectives, the scholarship is aimed at promoting cultural exchanges between India and the US.
In addition to showcasing one’s academic and work-related credentials, they should also demonstrate how they might contribute to this cause. One also needs to commit to coming back to India (at least for the near term). Once in the US, one also gets to attend fully funded immersion programs outside their host cities to know more about the US culture (which includes access to Fulbrighters from the US and other countries). In my assessment, they look for well-rounded individuals who will go back and work to improve their home country.