A Legacy of Determination
When two individuals left their respective countries to work toward becoming attorneys in the United States, determination proved more powerful than the discrimination that ensued. That spirit continued to propel each of their daughters to successful legal careers. Two families of lawyers reflect on the challenges of being an immigrant in our country's legal profession.
Asha V. Mathai, Esquire, and her father, Thomas V. Mathai, Esquire
In 1965, 25-year-old Thomas V. Mathai left his home country of India for the United States with no family, no place to live, no formal understanding of the English language, and no more than $7 in his pocket. His reason for leaving was a simple one—to take over where his sister, who came to the United States but was forced to return for health reasons, left off. "I was determined to take over and finish up the job," says Mathai, now 68 and partner of Chicago-based Mathai & Thorson P.C. "I didn't think, 'Where will I live?' or 'What will I do for money?' I just came here."
Mathai did have a letter from a professor at Indiana University promising a happy life in America. So he flew to Boston and took a bus to Bloomington, Ind., where he was met by this professor and then escorted to the home of the president of the Indian Student Association, who had agreed to host Mathai. The professor, president, and members of the student association greeted him with open arms, helped with tuition, and found him a job, enabling him to stay in the country and paving the way to his undergraduate degree in forensic studies.
Though his initial intention was to become a police officer, Mathai eventually decided to become an attorney. That, however, was no easy feat. "I applied but didn't get admission [to law school]," he explains. "But I kept on doing it." About a year and a half later, he was accepted at Northern Illinois University (then called Lewis University), and after four years of attending law school and working full time, he became an attorney.
In his insulated world, Mathai had received nothing but warmth and acceptance from his peers in America, but things weren't quite the same beyond the walls of his college campus. "One time at the A&P grocery store, a kid who was about 12 or 13 said, 'How you doin', boy?' I thought, 'Why would he call me a boy? I'm old enough to be his father.'" This incident led to discussions with Indian friends who shared stories of discrimination that initially surprised Mathai. Later, he began to notice people treating him differently. At parties, for instance, guests barely acknowledged his presence. Other times, people stared at him and his Caucasian American wife. "I thought, 'That's really nasty that people have to do that,'" he says, noting that it wasn't something that he let fester. "I thought keeping away was the best policy."
The greater difficulty was in the courtroom, where, in 1980, he believes he was one of the first foreign national officers of the court. "People started staring at me when I went before the bench. Some judges leaned forward as if they could not understand what I had said." Mathai recalls judges dismissing strong arguments and denying his motions. At first, he believed it was because he wasn't a talented attorney. A few years later, he changed his approach and became more aggressive. "When a judge started to ignore me, I interrupted. I'd argue and say, 'You're not listening!'" This proved to be a savvy strategy, prompting judges to treat him with equal respect and fairness.
Even client attitudes were a hurdle. "I felt like they saw me as incompetent at times. But I took charge of the situation. I'd say, 'I'm the lawyer, so you need to listen to me. You can talk, but then you must listen. You will not interrupt me.'" Mathai learned quickly how to garner respect and get past people's assumptions, slowly building a solid practice that serves clients of many nationalities. Mathai credits determination as a key factor. "After 27 years, nobody is going to tell me that I am wrong."
Determination Runs Deep
Though Lilie Remoreras Watts' story doesn't boast the innocent optimism of Mathai's, it too is characterized by determination and inspiration. Watts, counsel of international trade affairs for business clients operating globally, left her native Philippines in her late 20s after her fiancé had been killed while serving in the Vietnam War. Determined to carry out the couple's previous plans to move to the United States, she decided to do it on her own.
Watts found work as a paralegal, first at the law firm of Lawler, Felix & Hall and later at a petroleum refining company, Tosco Corporation, both in Los Angeles. Though she had been a lawyer in the Philippines, financial struggles and a lack of high-paying jobs required her to work extra-long hours, leaving her with no time to study for an American bar exam. Eventually, Watts landed a well-paying paralegal job, worked her way up to head paralegal, and years later, after finding time to study for and then passing the Bar, was promoted to in-house counsel. "[Now] she travels around the world and works as an international attorney," explains daughter Michelle Watts Zagazeta, also an attorney. "One of her primary responsibilities is to make sure clients' international exports are compliant with U.S. laws."
Financial limitations proved to be Watts' most formidable adversary as she transitioned from life in the Philippines to life as a legal professional in the United States. But she has also come face-to-face with issues of discrimination, primarily in the form of ignorance and incorrect assumptions of others in the workplace. Comments from colleagues and superiors about how "shocked" they are by her grasp of the English language are commonplace. "She has also been hit on by colleagues who made comments that they have a fetish for Filipino women because they are submissive," Zagazeta says, adding that Watts is "anything but submissive." Like Mathai, she was determined not to allow such behavior to hold her back and quickly proved her capability to any doubters.
Discrimination Not a Deterrent
Perhaps not surprisingly, Watts discouraged Zagazeta from becoming a lawyer. "My mom always encouraged me to aim to become a medical doctor," says Zagazeta, formerly an associate in the intellectual property and technology practice group of O'Melveny & Myers LLP's San Francisco office. "My mom initially tried to discourage me from becoming a lawyer, warning me of the extra-long hours [and] the tedious work. That warning didn't faze me." Watts eventually supported her daughter's decision, and after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University, Zagazeta went on to earn a J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. After two years in the trademark department of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and an additional year with O'Melveny & Myers, she is currently embarking upon a second career as a professional weightlifter, as she moves her work in trademark law to a solo practice.
Michelle Watts Zagazeta and Lilie Watts
Despite the challenges faced by her father, Asha V. Mathai, 28, an associate and member of the litigation department of Jenner & Block's Chicago office, did not grow up with the notion that being an attorney was something to be avoided. Quite the opposite; her father, Tom, has been so satisfied with his career that he always urged her to consider becoming a lawyer. "He absolutely loves what he does and he thinks it's a really good profession," says the younger Mathai. "He loves going to work and he thought that I would too." Asha's skill set made it somewhat of a natural choice—she considers herself thorough, detail-oriented and, like her father, extremely analytical.
Not only did Mathai's daughter take his words of encouragement to heart—though not always, as evidenced by her initial college major of psychology—but she took his experiences immigrating to the United States as inspiration to work hard despite the challenges. "Law school is such a difficult experience for someone who didn't have financial support or a good grasp of the language," she reflects. "I really respect the fact that he packed up his stuff and decided to come here and get an education. I appreciate that I had an easier path, being born here and having my father, whom I could ask questions. Whenever I'd complain, [his story] was a reality check."
What Mathai neglected to share with Asha, however, were his encounters with discrimination and bias. She was vaguely aware of his experiences of being excluded and unfairly judged, but the stories all came from her mother rather than her father, and they weren't shared until Asha was in her 20s. Though she pushed her father for details, the information was limited. "It was difficult to get answers. He either doesn't care or doesn't notice it. He's there for a purpose and that's his client," she says, noting that he is less preoccupied with issues of race than most Americans and is instead more focused on how much better his life is here than it had been in India, where his family was poor and opportunities for education were scarce.
"I never discussed [discrimination] with her. Never ever," says Mathai. "That's a dangerous subject that was not for the children to talk about." He believes that sharing such stories would teach children to discriminate. Because he wanted to raise Asha and her two siblings, Vanessa and Michael, to be accepting, he chose not to emphasize discrimination, hoping that it would teach them to be patient. "That doesn't mean you don't push back if your back is against the wall, but this is not a matter of life and death. It's something that you can absorb."
Similarly, Zagazeta's childhood discussions with her mother about diversity and discrimination were limited. While attending Stanford University, however, she majored in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and for one of her classes she interviewed her mother extensively about her experiences as an immigrant. "It was only then that I really had a thorough appreciation of her challenges as an immigrant."
"I've never been a believer that the way to eliminate tension is to be color-blind. People are going to notice differences and that's okay. It should be embraced."
Though Asha Mathai was initially unaware of issues of discrimination as a child, things changed as she got older, particularly in social settings. "People were very curious. In high school, the students seemed very concerned about what my ethnicity was. A lot assumed I was Latina or of Middle Eastern descent," she explains. "I was surprised when one student said something really awful. 'You're Indian?' he said. He seemed not pleased and said, 'Well, don't worry. You can't tell.'" As she noticed others' curiosity, Asha became more aware of the fact that she was biracial. "I started to notice the looks I'd get when I went out with my father. He's now remarried to a Filipino woman who has a teenage daughter. When all of us go out, people really turn around and look." Even now, she is approached on a regular basis by strangers who can't figure out her ethnicity.
Changes Within the Profession
A notable departure from her father's experiences is the fact that Asha's racially based encounters have taken place primarily outside the practice of law. "[At Jenner & Block], they don't approach me about my background," says Asha. "I was surprised at how aware they are of the racial differences and the tension it may cause for minority associates. They have all kinds of functions—like dinners and social functions—to get minority associates together, and they had a diversity retreat with speakers and clients from different companies." What Tom Mathai lacked—an open effort to address the needs of minority lawyers—is standard procedure in today's large law firm culture. This is something that Asha appreciates as a major step in the right direction. "I've never been a believer that the way to eliminate tension is to be color-blind. People are going to notice differences and that's okay. It should be embraced."
Asha recognizes that times have changed, and despite her father's silence about discrimination issues, she is certain that Tom Mathai's initial years practicing law were infinitely more difficult than hers. "I think the idea was just to ignore or downplay the differences or the discrimination people experienced. People may have felt alienated. [My father] was likely the only Indian attorney in a room of white attorneys. I wish that I could've been there to see how they looked at him," Asha says. At certain times, she can relate to his circumstances. "I often feel like one of a very few minorities and it makes me somewhat uncomfortable," she says, adding that she finds herself reaching out to other minority associates for friendships and working relationships.
Zagazeta, too, has had the benefit of being a lawyer in the next generation, one that is more concerned about promoting diversity and inclusiveness. "I have it much easier than my mom," she says, noting that the law firms she has worked for, particularly Pillsbury and also O'Melveny, have for the most part been very supportive of women and minorities. "[But] I still face the challenge of being a woman, minority, and looking young for my age. Oftentimes, I have to work at least twice as hard as white male attorneys my age in order to prove myself." She, too, credits her former employer with taking positive steps toward equal treatment, but points to a number of challenges that often come from external sources.
"I do a lot of networking and I notice that companies owned by white males—which are the majority of companies—tend to assume that white male attorneys are good attorneys no matter what their qualifications are. These companies tend to treat women and minorities as good attorneys only if they are the very, very best," Zagazeta says. "When networking, I notice that business owners are not interested in working with me until they learn the undergrad and law schools I graduated from (both top schools) and the law firms I have worked for (top law firms). Then they are suddenly very interested." In the same vein, she has often been mistaken for a legal assistant or paralegal. Like her mother, Zagazeta has been "inappropriately hit on and propositioned" by male colleagues. She is often interrogated about her nationality and ethnic background. But like her mother, Zagazeta is always up for a challenge and says that because of her determination, she has won the respect of her clients and colleagues and has been given high levels of responsibility accordingly.
Steps and Strides
Tom Mathai believes the legal profession has made giant strides to promote inclusiveness since he began practicing in the 1980s. "It's mainly because of young people," he says. "They're very active and sensitive about [these issues]. They aren't ashamed to say, 'You are wrong. That's not the way to do that.'"
Asha Mathai adds that current diversity initiatives have created a better workplace environment for minorities. "There's an incentive, one of them being to make minority associates feel comfortable so they don't leave and seek employment elsewhere, but also a financial incentive. People want a more diverse team, a mixed group of attorneys. If clients keep giving firms the incentive, I think firms will listen to that." But, she believes, there's still a long way to go. "The ideal working environment would be to see a mix of people. But I don't think it'll happen anytime soon. Things like this take time. It's going to take constant awareness with minorities and majorities constantly working on it."
Until then, a combination of dedication and determination will likely continue to propel both Asha and Tom Mathai, Michelle Zagazeta, and Lilie Watts toward satisfaction and success, just as they have done during even the most challenging times. DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based in northern New Jersey.
From the March/April 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®