Mayer Brown attorney Jasmin Sethi sees practicing law as more than just a job. For this visually impaired counselor, it is a means through which to change the world.
“I want to be the best lawyer I can be, and give back to the community along the way,” she says. “I’ve always had an interest in the bigger picture. I want to make a contribution to the world.
I’ve always had advantages, going to Harvard for instance, so I try to give back.” Being blind has not deterred Sethi from earning a Ph.D. in Economics and a law degree from Harvard. For her, the biggest effect blindness has had on her life is that it has made her work harder.
“I organize my time better, am more resourceful and creative,” she says. “[Blindness] makes you think how to work around a constraint.”
Her daily routine offers several examples of this acuity. She uses computer screen reading audio software and an electronic Braille note taker to navigate legal paperwork, and has a full-time personal reader to help with reading and editing. Using these accommodations allows her to perform much as any other attorney, so she has had little problem with acceptance in the workplace.
“Sometimes I may not be able to pass a document [to my colleagues] in the courtroom,” she says. Or [I may] need to do something differently than they are accustomed. It’s merely a matter of informing them.”
Sethi, who scored a perfect 1,600 on her SAT in high school, credits a lot of her success to her mother, who was an incessant motivator of both Sethi and her older sister, Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University who also is blind.
“My mother always pushed us to work hard,” Sethi reflects. “She knew the value and importance of education to our success, and wanted us to have more opportunities than she had. She believed that we had to work harder to compensate.”
Sethi’s parents emigrated from India to Canada, and then the U.S. Jasmin Sethi before she was born in New York. Her father died when she was five, and while her family was never destitute, they had to be resourceful to make the most of their limited income.
“I have been lucky,” says Sethi, whose Ph.D. thesis dealt with the effects of government policy on the education and employment of disadvantaged groups. “I grew up in a comfortable background and had mentors like my sister (who is nine years older). There are those who have less advantages and I feel an obligation to mitigate those inequities.”
These efforts include involvement in politics (she was a research assistant for the Council of Economic Advisors during the Clinton administration and an intern with the U.S. Justice Department) and pro bono work. A case that involved an individual who sought disability benefits was a recent pro bono success, an assignment that she requested.
This interest in societal improvement is reflected in her professional publications. One of them, “Lessons for Social Scientists and Politicians: An Analysis of Welfare Reform,” was published recently in the Georgetown University Journal on Poverty, Law, and Policy. In this article, Sethi opines that the formerly fashionable idea that people could get jobs if they really wanted to work is no longer viable and that the government needs to provide assistance.
“We need to go back to the idea of having the public sector guarantee jobs rather than people being out of work,” she insists.
Another study that she co-authored, “The Effects of Sexual Harassment on Gender Inequality,” concluded that forbidding sexual harassment reduces gender inequality, especially for those women entering the workplace.
Most sexual harassment policy has been made by court interpretation rather than statutes,” she explains. “Firms are responding to court decisions by introducing sexual harassment awareness training through their human resources departments in an effort to avoid fines and punishment.”
The study also has had positive effects on the promotion of women into management positions, she notes.
In another more recent pro bono case, Sethi and a Mayer Brown partner filed an amicus curiae brief in support of a number of professional social-science organizations, including the American Psychoanalytic Association and the National Association of Social Workers, regarding their support of a controversial District of Columbia statue that allowed gay marriage.
The partner, who had requested the assignment, asked Sethi to assist her.
“Basically the city was pro gaymarriage but some people were challenging it under the Human Rights Act,” she explains. “We were looking at the consequences, that there are social benefits under marriage for everyone. Our brief was about the social science of evaluating benefits of marriage both for the couple and children that go above and beyond any that can come from the civil union. This argument goes to the principle that separate but equal is not equal.”
Pro bono and giving back to others is only a fraction of the work she pursues at Mayer Brown.
“Right now I’m in general litigation, [but] I am working towards a specialty,” she says. Among the areas Sethi has worked are antitrust, financial services, a lot of arbitration, brief writing, and research.
Asked whether she’d consider pursuing a judicial appointment sometime in the future, given her interest in how the law impacts society, Sethi responded:
“One cannot plan these things. Right now, I’m trying to gain a lot of skills and find an area of expertise, and give back to the community along the way. It’s very hard to plan one’s future. We’ll see what happens.”DB
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer and historian of the Underground Railroad. He lives in Orlando, Fla.
From the September/October 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®