Friday, 26 July 2013

A Conversation With Thilini Kahandawaarachchi


Ms.Thilini Kahandawaarachchi, a Sri Lankan national, spent 5 years at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore (my own alma mater) and graduated with a B.A. LL.B. Honours degree in 2007. Currently Thilini works for the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Sri Lanka as its Chief Publicist & Researcher, but is all set to leave for the USA in August having won a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a MA in International Affairs with a focus on Asian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.
I recently caught up with Thilini and discussed at length her experiences while in India and at NLSIU and on how relevant an Indian law degree is for someone who expects to practice law in Sri Lanka.

Winnowed: How did a Sri Lankan end up at NLSIU?

Thilini: Every year NLSIU admits up to five foreign students, especially from the SAARC region. In 2002, I was one of the foreign students. I was on a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). It is given by the Indian Government to students who perform well in their A Level exam (the equivalent an Indian Boards exam for the 12th standard).

After my A Levels I had two options. I was selected to the Law Faculty, in Colombo University where only about 200+ top students scoring highest marks in the country for their A Level get through to do a 4-year LLB and my other choice was 5 year B.A., LLB at NLSIU on a scholarship.

Colombo Law Faculty was almost next door to my school, and I did not want to go there for four more years because it would have been very similar to going to school. My parents spoke to numerous Supreme Court judges, academics in Law before making the final decision and everyone they spoke to, recommended NLS. Though not everyone knows about NLS in Sri Lanka, those who know about NLS, are aware of its reputation as a top law school.

For me, it was more about the excitement of going to a different country to study and the experience that mattered. Since I had to do law, either in Sri Lanka or India, I chose India. It was a life changing experience. It shaped me to become who I am today. It made me independent and confident. I made great friends who I am still in touch with, had a great time travelling in India, meeting new people and seeing the world outside Sri Lanka.

Winnowed: Did you consider taking up a job in India after graduation?

Thilini: No, I did not because I wanted to finish my Bar exams and qualify as an Attorney-at-Law in Sri Lanka.

Winnowed: How did you qualify as a Sri Lankan lawyer with your Indian law degree?

Thilini: In Sri Lanka, to qualify as a lawyer you have to do the Bar exam conducted by the Sri Lanka Law College, which gives the professional qualification “Attorney-at-Law”. It entails sitting for all the three years’ exams of Sri Lanka Law College if you are a “foreign graduate”. Local graduates are exempted from the first two years’ exams. The exams are held every six months, so it takes a minimum of one and a half years to complete the exams unless you take two or all three years’ exams in one go, which means about 23 exams in one go.

Since I do not have a Sri Lankan graduate degree, I had to sit for all the three years’ exams of the Sri Lanka Law College - 23 exams in all.

Winnowed: Why did you choose to study law? Was it a childhood ambition to become a lawyer?

Thilini: For me, Law was more a tick in the box rather than an ambition and even less so a passion. Law was a natural choice, or rather the expectation because I come from a “Law” background, where my Dad is a lawyer and though my Mom never worked, she had also done Law. So I ‘had to’ do Law. In my parents' words, "to at least get the qualification." Having got a law degree,when I came back to Sri Lanka, I did not want to get back into law. Practicing law in Sri Lanka would have meant going back to law school to study law, then going through apprenticing for another six months and working at a law firm, which I did not want to do. I wanted to work in something that I was really interested in and do the Bar exams while working, which was exactly what I did. I finally completed the Sri Lankan Bar exams in 2011.

Winnowed: So you didn’t want to work as a lawyer. What did you finally end up doing?

Thilini: While travelling between Colombo and Bangalore every three months during the time I was at NLSIU, I would always read the inflight magazine of SriLankan Airlines and wish that I could become a travel writer like the writers featured in the magazine.

And after my first year exams at Sri Lanka Law College I joined a local publishing house called BT Options. At that time they were publishing magazines such as Business Today, Explore Sri Lanka and the Architect, which are all popular magazines in Sri Lanka. My work entailed traveling around Sri Lanka and writing about my journeys, exploring historic sites tasting local food, going on train journeys, boat trips, plane rides, climbing mountains, exploring caves and temples scattered across Sri Lanka and very often, to take the road less travelled. Coming from a family that travelled all the time, I really enjoyed my time spent writing about my journeys. I also wrote about architecture, and other projects and interviewed top businessmen and political leaders in the country as well.

While I was working there, BT Options won a pitch to publish Serendib - the inflight magazine of SriLankan airlines. It was a two decade long dream come true for BT Options. So was it for me.

In 2011 I joined Ogilvy & Mather in Sri Lanka and had a brief stint at Ogilvy Public Relations. After that I joined the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce as its Public Relations Manager. Working at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce provided me the space to be innovative and creative with my work and also provided a great work-life balance.

Winnowed: Please tell me how you got back into academics.

Thilini: In 2010, I started a postgraduate course on International Relations at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo. For my course I worked on a thesis titled “Sri Lanka: Centre Stage of the 21st Century.” Inspired by Robert Kaplan's writings on the Indian Ocean and his book titled "Monsoon", it focused on Sri Lanka’s geo strategic location and how Sri Lanka can be a major shipping hub in the region if its strategically important position in the Indian Ocean is used to its true potential. I also presented it at the International Conference on South Asian Studies, 2012 which was held in Negombo, Sri Lanka. An arduous six months working on it also kindled my interest in the geo politics of the Indian Ocean region and the significance of South Asia in International Relations.

Winnowed: What made you apply for a Fulbright Scholarship?

Thilini: A Fulbright Scholarship was something that I focused on for a long time and worked towards achieving it. It is highly regarded and very competitive and the programme is not just about Masters education in the States, but also about cultural exchange and a great opportunity. Just as I was completing my post graduate thesis the applications were called for the 2013 round and I applied. The rest just fell into place.

Winnowed: Please tell me about a few people who have a made a big difference to your life.

Thilini: My parents who made many sacrifices to give us a good education and my teachers. Once in a while you also meet people who change your life, and meeting my lecturer and supervisor for my thesis at BCIS Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda was an experience that transformed my life. He spent so much of his time guiding and mentoring me on my thesis and gave me many opportunities to present my thesis as a paper to a diversity of audiences. He was also my referee for a Fulbright application in 2012. My former employers Mr. Harin Malwatte Secretary General/CEO of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, who was also one of my referees for Fulbright and Mrs. Alikie Perera, Deputy Secretary General were both understanding and encouraging during my application process for a Fulbright Scholarship. Mr.Palitha Fernando, Attorney General of Sri Lanka also took time off his schedule to be a referee for my Fulbright. He was also a great source of inspiration and a thought provoking lecturer at BCIS.

Winnowed: If you were to advice other Sri Lankans who are considering an Indian law degree, what would you tell them?

Thilini: Though an Indian law degree is not necessarily relevant in Sri Lanka, both countries generally follow a Common Law system, though Sri Lanka has also been influenced by Roman Dutch Law and also has personal laws such as Thesawalamei, Kandyan Law and Muslim Law. However, despite the differences in the law, the kind of training that we get at NLSIU is definitely unmatched.

Yet, if one wants to get into private practice in Sri Lanka, I personally believe it is better to go to Law School in Sri Lanka because it helps you build a wide network in the legal field through Sri Lanka Law College or Law Faculty. Foreign graduates very often do not have that. But if one wants to go beyond practicing Law, then a degree from a top Law School such as NLS, would provide a good foundation.

Winnowed: What’s your happiest memory from your time in Bangalore?

Thilini: There were many, but one memory that I fondly remember is a holiday that I spent with my best friend Rashi’s family in North India and visiting Taj Mahal for the first time was unforgettable.

Winnowed: India can be very welcoming towards foreigners, but it also has its dark and dirty corners, especially for women. Did you ever have any negative experiences while living and studying in Bangalore?

Thilini: Fortunately, I personally did not face any bad experiences as a woman, but that was almost 6 years ago.

Winnowed: What are your hobbies?

Thilini: I like to travel around Sri Lanka with my family and friends and when the seas are calm, I love to go snorkeling. In my free time, I also work with sixteen boys between the ages of four to fifteen at an orphanage.


I strongly believe in having a 'life' outside work and having a good work-life balance. Living and working in Sri Lanka provides me all that and more. Colombo is very laid back and relaxed. Every few months I have friends from NLSIU coming to Sri Lanka and it is always great to catch up.Even when they have friends and family visiting Sri Lanka they tell me, so that I meet them and show them around when possible. Though Colombo is very small very often I meet new people who happen to know my friends from NLSIU or from elsewhere in the world and it is always a wonderful realisation to be reminded of how small the world really is.

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