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Brandon’s story: Topping the UPSC after Amarchand, retakes and considering bread and butter

Gitanjali Brandon: one in thousands
Gitanjali Brandon: one in thousands

A lawyers’ work routine can not only supplement but also complement preparation for one of the world’s most-failed exams, while failure, even if undeserved, can be a boon. So reads a page in the book of NLSIU Bangalore 2007 graduate Gitanjali Brandon, who secured rank 6, the highest ever for any national law university graduate, at the UPSC civil services exam 2011.

The former Amarchand Mangaldas Mumbai associate will now join the Indian Foreign Services (IFS).

But before that, she has traditional UPSC topper rites to perform: keeping a tirade of media and government officer engagements. She came here via a profession that has given her “just so much”, she says. “Law has played a big role in shaping my need to do this.”

The Beginning: A life mostly legal

“In law school, I never gave writing this exam a serious thought,” reflects Brandon who adds that nevertheless she did have a constant inclination to join the United Nations or another government organisation.

Active participation in NLS’ law and society committee was one of many ways in which she channelled her interests centred on international trade and environment law and development issues during law school. Co-founding the Indian Journal of International Economic Law was another notable endeavour.

Her debating prowess was reflected in her Worlds, All-Asians debate, and NLS adjudication performances that reinforced her suitability for diplomacy as a career option.

However, at the end of final year at law school, she headed to Amarchand Mumbai as a capital markets associate.

“I got a PPO [pre placement offer] from Amarchand Mumbai while I was interning with them in my final year; they wanted to recruit me in the capital markets department. At that point I was not 100 per cent clear,” she recounts. “It was a steep learning curve and an excellent opportunity, so I thought why not, and I’ll take it from there. While working, it was extremely interesting and challenging.”

But staying confined to a single practice area for the next 20 years in a “9 to 5, or rather, 9 to 12 job”, she jokes, and making partner, was not the plan. Instead, saving money, pursuing a masters' degree and ending up with a research organisation, a think tank, or in legal academia, was more like it.

And then the subconscious card played itself.

Sitting on the window sill

A civil servant father, a social scientist mother, and a peer group full of NLS graduates from the World Bank, the Red Cross Society, Amnesty International and the United Nations had their own influence on Brandon.

Conversations growing up were public-service oriented, and the thrill of globally representing a billion-strong country was appealing in itself.

“I thought I’d much rather contribute actively to India’s foreign policy instead of just writing papers and critiques from afar, which of course have their own importance,” explains the diplomat-to-be.

The fancy of appearing for the exam finally hit her. She put in her papers at Amarchand in August 2008, and returned home to Jaipur to start preparation.

Of UPSC and other engagements

Ironically, a new work profile – becoming “independent legal consultant” - kicked off her study “leave”.

“I couldn’t possibly be studying all the time, and couldn’t be confined to a room or a house. I would be so bored out of my mind. I really needed to be working, and preparation was not possible with a 16 to 17 hour law firm job. But you can’t put your life on hold just because you are taking this exam,” she declares.

For two years she prepared for the civils and assisted pro bono with research and drafting work for advocates, civil service organisations and even the UNICEF hunger project.

Even after the mains exam of 2011, she interned with the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies headed by former IAS Shri Harsh Mander, currently member of the prime minister's advisory council, and helped in preparing policy briefs

But she stopped short of accepting the Bhopal-based National Judicial Academy law associate position she was offered, in the interest of her exam prep.

Of consistency and (avoidable) caffeine

Are the famous tales of the wise UPSC aspirant who spaced his 15 hours of daily study prep only with healthy eating and timely sleeping breaks, tall or true?

Brandon is quick to dismiss the “15 hours” capsule as a dangerous myth, but she warns, in the same breath, against inconsistency and indiscipline.

“Even when I was starting out, I was overawed by the fact that all these toppers say that they prepare for 15 hours daily. But that is humanly impossible,” she maintains. “What I really did wrong was, that I used to let things pile up for three to four weeks in between, and then would have panic attacks, even as little as two months away from the exams.”

Brandon got away with three to four hours of prep a day, and on some days not even that. Consistency, and not quantity, she holds is the key in these exams which have seen a marked changed in their approach over the last four years.

“The UPSC is not asking textbook-ish questions anymore. Examiners want good administrators, who really understand the letter and spirit of things,” she notes.

“This exam is not so much a sprint as a marathon race. It is almost a two-year long process and it is advisable to keep your motivation levels up, preferably form study groups and divide the work, and take care of your health.”

“Motivation does tend to lag, but it is better to be consistent than depend too much on caffeine.”

Strategic planning

She recommends a steady diet of national dailies, news magazines, law commission reports and case law digests to keep abreast of domestic and international developments.

Reading landmark decisions and smart use of online resources, notably, Legal Resource India, Law and Other Things, Legally India, do away with the requirement for taking coaching classes for optional subjects, she explains.

For the interview she has a special warning for lawyers. “Unlike engineers, lawyers would not be forgiven for not being articulate and able to make out their case well, and that has little to do with language and diction.”

Shining through dark times

Only 12 marks first separated Brandon from the destiny which was not hers.

In 2011, Brandon had made her second attempt at cracking the civils, having failed the first time after a score of 15 out of a total 200 marks in a 2010 mains essay paper which finally contributed to excluding her from the interview list by 12 marks.

The former law journal editor recounts reporting back at the time, to her parents, that that particular essay was the best of all her answers. She remembers discussing it at length with an NUJS Kolkata friend and fellow examinee, who had written an almost identical essay.

The NUJS pal cleared the civils that year and is now in the income tax services, while Brandon’s representation to the examination board, as to an obvious clerical error in evaluation was rejected.

Were the representation accepted, Brandon estimates she would have gone on to hold close to rank 100.

The IFS, which was her resolute aim, accepts only around the top 50 ranks.

“This exam is like a small microcosm of life. It is best to take it on your chin,” she reflects today.

Of plan B

True to form, Brandon the lawyer had done her own cost-benefit analysis and prepared her very own list of pros and cons before taking the plunge of risking a cushy and lucrative corporate law job for this examination.

Foremost, she was counting on her NLS resume adorned with good internships to land her a top LLM admission to help break into law and policy. Alternatively, she was willing to take seniority cuts to return to the corporate law scene. Her independent legal consultancy experience was going to come in handy here.

If all else failed, she would take recourse to her lifelong accompaniment – her advocates’ enrolment card, and litigate “for basic bread and butter”.

“Friends, acquaintances, and even people from my extended family had warned me of the dicey and unpredictable nature of the step I was taking. But for me too it was not an overnight decision.”

Life post-law

Failure and fallbacks behind her, Brandon’s goals for the future are set.

While hoping to specialise in energy diplomacy and international trade law and also eyeing a chance to be India’s cultural ambassador, she is simultaneously keen to employ her legal training in the civil services.

She wants to publish books and papers on legal developments, undertake legal scholarships and bring a practitioner’s skill to the bureaucratic table.

“Undoubtedly, your training in law really equips you to read between the lines, read the fine print, and be able to put forth very very logically consistent arguments. It is a great skill for a diplomat to have,” she notes.

A penny for every believer

The diplomat-in-the-making admits that what she has chosen is not as lucrative as what she has left behind, but she is compensated by the feeling of following a passion, and being exposed to “unparalleled opportunities” to interact with “the best of minds” while at it.

Brandon’s list of NLS graduates who have left behind lucrative legal careers to sit for this exam and go on to crack it includes 1998's Srikar, who is presently special secretary to UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani, Abu Nathen George and Aparna Ray, both in the IFS, and Ashutosh Salil and Cyril Darlong Diengdoh in the IAS.

Apart from these, she mentions six to seven high performers from her junior batches at NLS, who are presently preparing to sit for the exam.

“I know there’s just a trickle at this time,” she says but adds, “I would really like that people interested in international issues give a serious thought to joining the civil services. It is an unparalleled platform for being actually able to impact directly and help bring a lot of change.”

As for the raison d’etre for lawyers to join the services, she believes that the very presence of law among the core subjects at the training, speaks for itself.

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