Global Institutions have an immense responsibility to operate efficiently in order to achieve their ambitious mission of eliminating poverty and making the world a better place through shared prosperity.

Vikram Raghavan, our next pathbreaker, Lead Counsel at The World Bank, acts as Bank’s legal advisor on areas related to conflict, refugees, macroeconomics and budget support lending. 

Vikram talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about making the transition from working in a law firm to an in-house counsel at The World Bank, supporting the institution and its entities on a diverse range of legal issues.

For students, Law has an invisible hand in ensuring seamless execution of complex transactions and contracts that pave the way for growth and prosperity. Read on to know more …

Vikram, tell us about your background?

I was born and grew up in Madras, which is now Chennai. I studied at the same high school from kindergarten to higher secondary. I was always interested in history and geography as a child even though we had no Internet and relatively few books were available to us. The school’s library wasn’t particularly welcoming and its resources were meagre.

For my +2, I chose commerce and economics because no major high school offered arts (history or geography) as an option. Most of the “smartest” students opted for computer science or biology streams with an eye to pursuing college degrees in engineering or medicine. Anyone who had other ambitions were herded together in the commerce stream.

I was a stamp collector in my early teens, and it is philately together with the Time Magazine (which my aunt sent us from Chicago) which got me interested in international affairs. But there were no direct career paths to international law at that time. I was also interested in what we called “general knowledge” – anything from capitals and currencies to the names of prime ministers and presidents.

What did you study?

In the summer of 1992, after completing my higher secondary exams, I sat for the National Law School of India University (NLSIU)’s entrance exams. I heard about the law school from someone who, many years later, would become my brother-in-law. At the time, NLSIU was a new university. It hadn’t, as yet, graduated a single student. But it was a bold experiment in legal education, which had been neglected for decades. I was intrigued by all that I heard about the school and so visited its temporary Bengaluru campus while I was still in my final year of high school in Madras. After qualifying the entrance exam, I joined NLSIU in July 1992. I spent five enjoyable years there. It was the best education one could receive and one that cost very little money by today’s standards. It was an extremely competitive environment and a pressure cooker in terms of deadlines and demands on students. But it was also a melting pot as there were students from all over India. It was an entirely new world to me. 

Among the many innovations and strengths of the NLSIU program was the focus on research projects. Every student is required to write a project or research paper for all sixty courses offered as part of the undergraduate program. Many students later submit these papers for publication to leading national and international journals. So by the time one gets ready to graduate, you get a solid publication profile which helps in applications for graduate studies.

After five intense years, I graduated from NLSIU in 1997 with a B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) degree. 

Like others in my class, I applied to a number of universities in the US and UK for a masters’ degree in law or LLM. Funding and scholarships were – and are – rather limited. But I was lucky to get the Hauser Scholarship to pursue an LLM international law at New York University School of Law. Hauser Scholarships are competitively awarded after a careful vetting process by an international committee that screens candidates on a number of criteria. 

After NYU, I took the New York bar exam and then began working as a lawyer in New York City in 1998.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

My father and grandfather were lawyers. Even so, I always maintain that my interest in law wasn’t really derived from them. As I explained in a recent Linkedin post, my interest in law as a career grew after I read Prashant Bhushan’s riveting book, The Case That Shook India, which he himself had written when he was a student or after he had just graduated. So he was and still remains a key influencer of mine even if I don’t agree with everything he says.

In my legal career, I have learnt a lot from many people. But two of them stand out. 

The first is Louis (“Benno”) Kimmelman with whom I worked in my early years as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers in New York City. Mr Kimmelman taught me a lot about hard work and research, good and clear writing, and the importance of persistence and perseverance. 

The second major influence was Hassane Cisse, who was my manager for a few years at the World Bank. An excellent lawyer and a fine legal mind, Mr Cisse really emphasized the importance of living a balanced life in which one makes priority for things besides a professional career

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

During my five years at NLSIU, I did several internships. In my second and third years, I worked in the Madras High Court on writ and criminal matters. 

In my fourth year, I went to Delhi and interned with K.K. Venugopal, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court who is now India’s attorney general. I learnt a lot about legal practice and India’s courts from these internships.

In my fifth year, I went to Sri Lanka to intern with Neelan Tiruchelvam, a member of parliament and a Harvard-trained lawyer. Dr Tiruchelvam was working on a new constitution for Sri Lanka and he asked NLSIU’s vice chancellor for an intern. I was chosen to go to Colombo.

This assignment transformed my life in many ways as it was a truly profound experience to work with one of the finest legal minds but also with an outstanding human rights activist. 

As if that were not enough, Dr Tiruchelvam was also a highly rated corporate lawyer and I spent some time with him at his law firm working on corporate transactions including a major telecom privatization deal. That experience taught me that you can take multiple avatars as a lawyer and as an intellectual if you apply your mind, manage your time, and don’t cut corners.

I did not do any major career planning in advance of getting a job after Sri Lanka. We did not have much guidance in those days about legal careers. I began thinking about a career while pursuing my masters at NYU. 

How did you get your first break? 

I lived in a dorm room at NYU Law School. Each floor had a shared printer, and I noticed many American students printing out their resumes and cover letters (you could not email your job applications in those days). Intrigued, I decided to do so.

I borrowed a fat book from the library which has a directory of leading law firms. One by one, I sent my resume to each firm. I did not really strategize about this search nor did I bother seeking out the career office’s advice (in retrospect, I should have).

I quickly received many polite rejection letters from everywhere I applied to.

Then, one evening, I got a phone call from a partner at a midtown law firm. He asked me to come and meet him for an interview. The firm then invited me for a call back where partner, after partner, asked me why I had the audacity to send an eight-page resume (the strictly-observed standard is one page).

I am not sure I gave them a convincing answer, but they seemed impressed by the number of publications I had and the scholarship I received. So a few days later, I got a call telling me I had a job.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

In my first job, I did face some challenges in adapting to a corporate work environment as all my internships were litigation and research focused. But I resolved to do the best I could to catch-up and to work hard. I told my managers to give me any type of work so I could learn as much as I could. 

In 2001, I was contacted by the World Bank Legal Department as they had an opening for an entry-level lawyer. The job involved drafting legal documents and negotiating project terms for World Bank loans. So, after three years at O’Melveny, I left New York and moved to Washington to join the World Bank.

In retrospect, however, I should have spent more time at the law firm before going in house to the world bank. But you take the chances that life presents you and that is what I did. The World Bank opportunity seemed too good to pass up. And nineteen years later, I am glad I took it.

Tell us what you do currently?

I work in the World Bank’s Legal Department as a lead counsel. More specifically, I am the Bank’s legal advisor for conflict, refugees, and macroeconomics and budget support lending. 

My work covers a wide range of subjects: the Bank’s mandate and Articles of Agreement, loan conditionality, post-conflict reconstruction, refugees and forced displacement, humanitarian crises, coups, sanctions, contractual disputes, expropriation, graduation, and sovereign debt. I provide internal legal advice and insights on these subjects.

I have also worked on projects in many countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, India, Mali, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Yemen, and the West Bank and Gaza. 

I also frequently speak to internal and external entities about the Bank’s history and mandate. 

A typical day involves attending many meetings and dealing with questions and queries from colleagues in world bank offices around the world. I sometimes get the opportunity to travel and visit countries where the world bank is active in financing projects.

How does your work benefit society?

The world bank’s mission is to fight poverty and to ensure shared prosperity for the world’s people. My own contribution to that noble mission is a very small one but it is very satisfying and fulfilling .

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I worked on some of the early projects after the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those were really satisfying experiences. I also worked on the world bank’s first project in Myanmar after twenty-five years.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be curious and soak in as much knowledge as you can. Knowledge has never been so abundant and plentiful. I wish I were a student again with access to the Internet or a computer or even reliable electricity (I did more exams by candle than with tube lights).

There are so many more options available to you than any other generation before you. So don’t be content or settle on something you think you are suited to.

Make a list of all possible careers. Talk to people in the field. Shadow them. Set out what you heard and saw in a matrix. And then make a decision about what you want to do.

Future Plans?

There is so much more to learn. Every day, I get up and there are new challenges and new things that I did not know about before. This year, especially after the COVID pandemic began, I resolved that I wanted to spend a lot more time reading. That has been a struggle because we have been quite busy at work.

Over the years, I have built up a modest library in my home. It is filled with old books, and new ones. Many are out of print. Many don’t exist in pdf form. So I have enough reading material at home to last the rest of my life and probably one more. I just need to find the time to sit and read undisturbed.

I have to go on a social media diet even though I do get a lot of my news and analysis from Twitter and Facebook (to a much lesser extent than before).