International Women’s Day 2023
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
How has your multicultural experience influenced you?
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India over 40 years ago, and then moved from the U.S. to New Zealand around 20 years ago, when I was 12 (I moved back to the U.S. in 2018). My dad was a scientist in a very specialized field, so he moved to wherever the work was. I’ve lived in San Francisco, San Diego, Auckland (New Zealand) and New York City and have had the experience of both being born to immigrant parents and immigrating myself. I think this has made me very conscious of how people do things differently in different places, and there is often no “correct” way to do something. It has also made me very understanding of different people’s cultural and socio-economic backgrounds which has been helpful in interacting with clients from varied backgrounds as an attorney. It always surprises me how narrow-minded it can make you to stay in one place and only associate with people from similar backgrounds. We can all learn something by going out of our comfort zone. As a woman of color, I have also certainly seen my share of discrimination, but it is nice to see the legal profession becoming more open-minded and diverse.
On another note, because I originally did my law degree in New Zealand, I have a good understanding of how things are done in other similar jurisdictions which I hope may one day enable me to do more cross-border work.
What are the differences or similarities, if any, in becoming an attorney in both countries?
Legal practice in general is surprisingly similar across the common law countries, so a lot of the skills I learned in New Zealand have been equally applicable to my work in the U.S., and similar issues to those I dealt with when litigating in New Zealand have come up in litigation I have worked on here. There are, of course, uniquely American aspects of legal practice though – such as dealing with federal vs. state law, conflict of laws issues across the different states, and depositions, which are a uniquely American discovery tool.
In terms of the process of becoming an attorney, in New Zealand the law degree is a four-year undergraduate degree (called an LL.B.), so you can begin it right after High School. The first year is an “audition year,” where you do a number of classes from a non-law degree as well as some pre-law classes, and if you get a high enough GPA, you are admitted to law school for an additional three years. Most people admitted to law school in New Zealand do a non-law degree at the same time as their law degrees – for example I also completed a BA with double majors in History and English. During the law degree, if your GPA is high enough after completing “Part II” classes (the equivalent of 1L in the U.S.), you are then invited to the Honors program which involves writing a seminar paper and a dissertation. My seminar paper was in a legal history topic while my dissertation concerned women’s reproductive rights under international law.
In the U.S., the system is of course very different. Because my New Zealand law degree is considered equivalent to a U.S. J.D. in New York State, I was eligible to take the bar exam and become admitted as an attorney here even if I didn’t do an LL.M. I did the LL.M. anyway though in order to get some experience in and knowledge of U.S. law. The process is very different and more difficult for people who have done a law degree in a country where the legal system is different, or their law degree is not considered equivalent to the J.D.
What female role models did you have growing up that helped shaped your career?
I have always been inspired by women who have worked in traditionally male-dominated fields. My strongest influence was my mom though, because she pushed me to have a career that would ensure my financial independence and taught me to be unafraid of expressing my opinions and advocating for myself. Sadly, we still live in a society where women are often financially worse-off than their male peers and are conditioned from childhood not to speak up. My mom is also a huge Perry Mason fan, which I am pretty sure influenced my choice of career!
Describe a time in which you were able to help other women during your time at CP?
I have been able to work on several cases with female plaintiffs, including litigation concerning the deaths of infants in the now recalled Rock ‘n Play Sleeper manufactured and distributed by Mattel, Inc. and Fisher-Price, Inc. In any litigation involving children, the conduct of the parents is always under the microscope, and society tends to come down hardest on moms, who are often blamed when something happens to their children. I hope that through my work on this litigation, I am able to help debunk myths about “good” and “bad” parenting and mothering.
What was your experience like traveling back to the states for your LL.M?
I had never been to New York before (and had been living outside of the U.S. for many years prior to my LL.M., although I am originally from California), so it was definitely a new experience! I am very glad I chose to do my LL.M. at Columbia University though, because the access to resources is just incredible. The professors who taught the classes I took during my LL.M. are leaders in their fields; several had extensive careers in federal government, the United Nations and/or litigated major cases in the U.S. and overseas. It was also a great experience to meet lawyers from all over the world, some of whom now also work in NYC and continue to be close friends. But overall, I was surprised to find that the law is in many ways pretty similar in the U.S. to other common law countries, and the skills you learn as a lawyer in any similar jurisdiction are just as applicable when working in the U.S.
Do you have any advice for young women seeking a profession in law?
Don’t let other people tell you that you can or can’t do something. These days, people usually don’t blatantly tell women that they can’t do something because they are women, so, instead, young women are often told they can’t do something because they don’t have the right personality, grades, background, credentials, etc. – but such comments would not be made to a man in the same position. When someone says this to you, don’t get discouraged; instead, use it as inspiration to prove them wrong. When I was applying for the LL.M., people told me I didn’t have the right credentials for a top school, but I was accepted by all nine U.S. law schools that I applied to, all of which were in the T-14 and three of which were Ivy Leagues. Then, both an older male partner at a New York law firm and a younger female careers counsellor told me it would be near impossible for me to ever find a litigation role in a law firm in the U.S. and that I should basically give up trying. I did not give up, and received an offer for a litigation role in a Manhattan law firm the week that I graduated from the LL.M.
My other big piece of advice is to keep things in perspective and never to lose your sense of humor. Law is a stressful profession with a lot of acrimony. Make sure you have friends who support and build you up, and have a laugh with your colleagues every now and then.
Have you been able to use your experience to mentor other women or give back to the community?
I have been very fortunate to have some fantastic senior lawyers take a real interest in me throughout my career and take the time to teach me invaluable skills, so I consider it very important that I do the same for other younger lawyers. I regularly meet up with young women doing their LL.Ms in the U.S. to talk to them about working in the U.S. and the legal profession generally. Throughout law school I was involved in various pro bono activities, often with a focus on how the law affects women, for example in relation to domestic violence and parental leave policies. During my LL.M., I was on the board of the Columbia Law Women’s Association, and I have served as a mentor for CLWA for the past few years.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I hope to still be litigating and to have worked on a few more trials or large settlements by then!