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Solo & Small Law Firms

The American Legal Dream of an Iranian Immigrant

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This week’s solo profile and Shingular Sensation is Mitra Nejat, an Orange County immigration attorney who came to the United States from Iran in the 1970s as a teen, started law school later in life and built a thriving immigration law practice. I love Mitra’s inspiring personal story because it’s a reminder of the great opportunities that both solo practice and our country can provide. Though I don’t know Mitra, her story was introduced to me by her colleague and loyal MyShingle reader Branigan Robertson  (who authored a post here a year ago on Opening a Firm: How to Survive the First Three Years ). 

nejatIf there’s one thing I’ve been lucky to have in my career as a lawyer, it’s the support of my family and friends. As a woman who came to America from Iran in her early teens speaking only Farsi, I would never have become a successful solo practioner without the support of incredible people who let me pursue my dream.

Now that I’ve survived the solo jungle for the better part of two decades, I thought I would write a piece to inspire other lawyers to pursue their dreams. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak English, come from a stigmatized country, start law school late in life, and struggle to find mentors, you can do it. Trust me, I would know. I did it and I’m still here.

Immigrating from Iran to America

I grew up in the capital city of Tehran in the early 1970s, before the Shah was toppled by a revolution that would radically change the country. Though my father was a judge, I wanted to become a doctor. I can still remember the microscope my mother bought for me when I was 12.

High school in Tehran was much different than the high school experience in America. The curriculum there is a lot like the college experience here, and subjects like chemistry and advanced math weren’t optional. But despite the rigors of academic life in Iran, my mother knew I would have more opportunities as a woman in the United States. And in 1973, she decided to send me to the States.

I can remember going to the U.S. consulate. I was terrified. My cousin told the immigration officer that I’d be coming to the States to help him care for his mother and help around the house. I can still remember the officer peering at me over the rims of his glasses saying, “not a chance.” He told my cousin the only way I could get approval to come to the U.S. was with a student visa. So I got a student visa.

One of the biggest challenges of transitioning to American life at 15-years-old was learning the language. When I first arrived in Salt Lake City I knew very little English. For almost a year I was unable to communicate with kids outside of my own family. I felt isolated at first. But being immersed in the culture, I was forced to learn the language quickly.

College & Work – The Lead-Up to Law School

After moving to California, I enrolled in college, and majored in business administration. As graduation neared, I had a change of heart about being a doctor. I now felt a calling to go into the legal profession and help other immigrants like myself. But even in the late 1970s, law school wasn’t cheap, and by this time, revolution in Iran had changed things back home. Suddenly my family had difficulty sending money to support me. Law school was a dream that would have to wait.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, I threw myself into work. I established a career working as an administrator for a large public university. While I found the job rewarding, I knew I wanted to someday be my own boss and call the shots. During this time, I got married and I began raising two beautiful daughters.

The Law School Dream

For years, I managed to save money and build a decent life for ourselves. But the dream of attending law school remained with me. In 1992, with the girls in middle school, I felt the time was right, and I was admitted to Western State Law School.

While there, I made friendships that would continue into my legal career. Some of these friends had already decided they wanted to practice immigration law. This made me think about my experience as a young girl and the anxieties that revolved around extending my visa. Until I became naturalized, there was always a nagging fear that a filing error could get me deported. I remember others in my family who immigrated having similar fears.

The Push to Solo Practice in Immigration

Then, in 2000, Congress passed the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act, which provided more opportunities for certain immigrants to adjust their status, but also sought more aggressive deportations. I saw this as an opportunity to help people.

I passed the bar in 2000, and decided to go into business for myself. After decades spent working for other people, it felt like the best course of action. I was thrilled! I was finally doing it!

But now I needed clients, experience, and confidence. Nothing in law school can prepare a newly-minted attorney for the reality of handling cases. To this day, I know long time litigators who tell me after years in the field, they still get butterflies when going into court.

I knew that I needed a mentor, but finding steady mentorship was challenging. This is something I tell young attorneys who want to start their own business to consider. Having someone to provide guidance as you learn the law in a practical setting can be indispensible. You don’t want to spend hours counseling a client and later discover specific sanctions affect that client’s ability to immigrate.

But given the high-pressure nature of the profession, it’s understandable that mentors can be difficult to find. After nearly 20 years as an attorney, I too would have trouble watching over a young lawyer’s work and answering questions on a daily basis while handling my own cases.

Luckily, I had a close friend who also practiced immigration law, and through hard work and collaboration, we were able to find our way together. As I became adept at handling employment and investment visas, I found myself securing more referrals through word of mouth, and my practice grew. Through it all, hard work has been the best coping mechanism for the stress of running my own law practice.

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Passing the Torch

But as mentioned earlier, I couldn’t have been the best I could be without the support of my family and friends. And now I get to do my part. I have the rare privilege of helping both my amazing daughters get into the legal field.

Today I’m proud to say my eldest daughter is an associate at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm. She’s rocking and rolling doing commercial and environmental matters. Naturally, she married a lawyer. Her husband is an employment termination lawyer in Los Angeles. And my youngest daughter is currently attending Whittier Law School. All incredibly intelligent, talented young people, I tell them to be fearless when pursuing their dreams, because practicing the law requires fortitude.

Throughout the years I’ve been blessed to grab a piece of the American dream for my family and myself. I continue find similar satisfaction when helping people from around the world find a piece of that dream for themselves. The motto of my firm is “Hope for people seeking freedom.” I am blessed to be able to help people find that freedom.

Mitra Nejat is an immigration lawyer in Orange County, CA. She came to the United States from Iran in the 1973 at the age of 15 and knows a thing or two about how terrifying immigration can be. Now, she represents people from all over the world who seek to legally enter the United States. Visit her at immigrationlawhope.com.