Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 29

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT
Honestly, I believe the title of partner in the legal profession - what it says
to the outside world - is that you've achieved a degree of excellence in the
industry, and it gives you credibility and legitimacy. And especially for women
and lawyers of color, that stamp of approval is really important.
Studies have shown that many talented women and people of color
do not become partners in Big Law. Briefly describe your professional
strategy to accomplish that goal.

This is a relationship-driven industry. Ultimately, how you're supported is going
to make a big difference in your career. Especially for diverse lawyers, you might
look around and [see] there's no one like you at the top. A lot of young, diverse
lawyers would ask themselves, "Do I even have a path here?"
But I realized, especially from my own experience, it might not necessarily
be a bias against me but a preference for someone who looks like them. It's
unlikely that an older male partner who's in his 60s will look at me and say,
"Oh, you really remind me of myself when I was your age." But I realized that the
more open I was to conversation, to mentoring, and to learning and growing,
it created an environment for me to develop relationships that were really
important.
My biggest mentor at the firm is this six-foot-two white male who is a selfproclaimed atheist. [Laughs] I'm a petite Muslim woman. We really had to work
hard at our relationship, at having tough conversations - that's something that
has to happen on your journey to partnership.
You hear it all the time, "Just find a mentor, find a champion, find a sponsor."
But that doesn't just magically happen. It takes a lot of work. But I think [that
being] more open to building those strong, meaningful relationships with
people who are like you - if you find those people, that's great - but also
with people who are not like you on paper [is] the key.
There are so many scary stories within the professional world about
women - particularly women of color - being scrutinized and sometimes denied promotions or fired because of their hair choices. As a
Muslim woman, explain why you choose to wear a hijab in your professional setting, especially when one could argue that your professional
trajectory may have been easier if you didn't.

Courtesy of Fatema Merchant

I went to law school with a background and interest in international women's
rights and international law. At the time, I don't think I ever thought that I would
be in Big Law for so many years. I summered at Norton Rose Fulbright, which
was Fulbright & Jaworski at the time, then started my legal career there and
worked on big Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations and really loved it.
Early on, I realized that I could make an impact in private practice through my
work on diversity and inclusion issues, pro bono efforts, and involvement with
the Capital Area Muslim Bar Association.

"Wearing a hijab ... grounds
me and allows me to focus
on things that matter."
For me, wearing a hijab - even though it's a challenge - has been a source
of empowerment because it grounds me and allows me to focus on things that
matter. Ultimately, being a lawyer is about power and confidence. So, this is a
part of how I assert who I am.
I realize that there are a lot of assumptions associated with a woman who wears
a hijab. People may wonder if it's truly a choice. Some people wonder if we're
timid and conservative. But for me, at my firm at least I can start the conversation and help people test those assumptions.
Touch upon some of the challenges you have faced being a Muslim
woman in the legal field and how you overcame them.

It's a challenge. My garb and my hijab are so much a part of my cultural
and religious identity - they keep me connected to my community.
I always thought, "If this is who I am, then why wouldn't I bring that to
the workplace?"

I'm a good lawyer. I'm practical and smart. Clients trust me. But I also understand that people might have strong opinions about what their lawyer should
look like. When I walk into a room, most people aren't going to look at me
and say, "That must be a Big Law partner." I also think that for a lot of American
Muslims, particularly if you're visibly identifiable as Muslim, people see you as
being Muslim first and whatever else second. I'm an international trade and
white-collar crime lawyer who happens to be Muslim and a woman who wears
a hijab. I think as a society we're just not there yet. I understand that it takes a
little bit more work in those initial interactions to overcome whatever innate
assumptions people might have.

I do think that for a lot of underrepresented groups, the message we receive
is that in order to succeed in the corporate environment, [you have to] be
a version of yourself that is palatable to the majority culture. So, for a lot of
young lawyers, it means sort of walking through life with two versions of
yourself. I had this conversation earlier when I was a junior lawyer in a jury trial.
I was really concerned that my hijab was going to be distracting for the jury and
impact the case in some way. I asked a more senior lawyer for advice. He said,
"If you are completely comfortable with who you are, then the jury is going to
be completely comfortable with who you are." That advice really rings true for
me today.

Part of the way that I have overcome some of the challenges, as I've said before,
is to be really open and to invite tough conversations. Scott, the partner who is
one of my mentors and whom I worked with very closely, once went to a client
meeting with me. Our client was also a white man and of similar age to Scott.
Our client really only directed his answers to Scott. It's a not a huge thing, but
I noticed it at the time. On our way back to Washington, D.C., I brought it up and
just talked about it openly with Scott. He said, "Oh my God, I didn't even realize
that was happening." After that, whenever we started meetings, he would make
a point to talk about how senior I was and how I was the brains of the operation
- whatever it was to make sure that people understood my role.
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MAY 2019

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WASHINGTON LAWYER 29


https://www.dcbar.org/

Washington Lawyer - May 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Lawyer - May 2019

Digital Extras
Your Voice
From Our President
Practice Management
Calendar Of Events
Cybersecurity Rules & Risks For The International Lawyer
Borders, Refugees & A Global Crisis
Climate Change: Turning To Law In Race Against Time
Member Spotlight
Global & Domestic Outlook
Worth Reading
Media Bytes
Attorney Briefs
Ask The Ethics Experts
Disciplinary Summaries
The Pro Bono Effect
Community & Connections
Special Coverage: Youth Law Fair @ 20
Last Word
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Cover1
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Cover2
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 1
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 2
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 3
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Digital Extras
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Your Voice
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - From Our President
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 7
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Practice Management
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 9
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Calendar Of Events
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 11
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Cybersecurity Rules & Risks For The International Lawyer
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 13
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 14
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 15
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 16
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 17
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Borders, Refugees & A Global Crisis
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 19
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 20
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 21
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Climate Change: Turning To Law In Race Against Time
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 23
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 24
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 25
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 26
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 27
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Member Spotlight
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 29
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Global & Domestic Outlook
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 31
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Worth Reading
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Media Bytes
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Attorney Briefs
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 35
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Ask The Ethics Experts
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 37
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Disciplinary Summaries
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 39
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - The Pro Bono Effect
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 41
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 42
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 43
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Community & Connections
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 45
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Special Coverage: Youth Law Fair @ 20
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - 47
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Last Word
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Cover3
Washington Lawyer - May 2019 - Cover4
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