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Getting to Know Deeva Shah

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Deeva Shah was recently selected as the 2022 recipient of the Jack Berman Award of Achievement. Given by the New Lawyers Section of the California Lawyers Association, the award honors a young lawyer (first eight years of active State Bar membership) who has provided outstanding service to the legal profession and public, as well as dedication to issues of concern to new and young lawyers. Shah is an associate at Keker, Van Nest & Peters. She co-founded Law Clerks for Workplace Accountability, whose mission is to ensure that the federal judiciary provides a safe workplace environment—free of harassment—for all employees.

1. Describe your path to becoming a California attorney and what challenges you had to overcome.

I am a first-generation college student and a first-generation law student and the child of immigrants. Because English was not my first language, I learned English by voraciously reading books. Growing up, I worked at my parents’ convenience store, where I frequently played the role of translator and mediator between customers and employees. After joining the debate team in middle school, I realized that I loved advocacy because it allowed me to combine my translation and mediation skills with my love for crafting narratives. I enjoyed seeing situations from multiple perspectives and learning how to communicate effectively. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but the path seemed daunting because I didn’t know many people with my background who had completed college, let alone joined the legal profession. I decided to work in the legal field after college to gain a better understanding of what I wanted and how to get there.

During my time as a legal assistant at Google, I fell in love with California and with intellectual property and technology law. I realized I wanted a career working on issues where the law meets the unknown, grappling with issues of first impression and with advising clients in uncharted waters. In law school, I quickly found that the challenges I had overcome as a first-gen college and law student were now my strengths; I was comfortable being uncomfortable and I enjoyed learning new things. But I also realized how little I knew about the legal profession and what actual practice entailed. I was fortunate to have mentors who proactively reached out and encouraged me to ask questions, but my intended path when I started law school was very different from where I am now—from law school activities to clerking to long-term employment.

2. How did you get interested in advocacy not just for law clerks but for all federal court employees?

My interest in advocacy comes from a number of places. Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to ask questions and think critically about my career, including where I work and what kind of work I do. Over time, I also became interested in understanding power imbalances and implementing change, studying how different organizations are structured and their receptiveness to change.

When I started applying to clerkships, I realized how little control or information candidates generally have about the clerkship process, the chambers’ environment, and any particular judge’s management style. I was fortunate to clerk for two excellent judges who were wonderful managers and mentors, but some of my friends did not have the same experience. Initially, I did not intend to become an advocate; I was just asking questions about how my friends could report discrimination or harassment they were facing. But during my clerkships, I realized that these problems were not isolated to a specific courthouse or district. I also learned that judiciary employees were uniquely isolated from typical workplace protections by design, despite working for the same institution tasked with adjudicating federal harassment and discrimination claims. I began working with a small group of then-current and former federal clerks to push for changes to these reporting procedures, and people started contacting us for assistance. We felt like we had an obligation to keep doing this work for the many people who felt like they could not speak publicly.

3. Your application for the Jack Berman award included a transcript of your testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. What was the process of preparing to testify before the legislative body like? What fears or concerns did you have going into that hearing and how did you overcome them?

My testimony before the House Judiciary Committee was the natural outgrowth of my work with Law Clerks for Workplace Accountability. Outside of the judiciary, there are not a lot of people who are familiar with the judiciary’s reporting procedures and how to navigate them. Some of those folks had already testified before and others did not feel comfortable speaking up, so when I was asked to testify, I understood why the testimony was important.

I was nervous about the hearing because of the number of people who had warned me about the potential for retaliation. My parents were concerned as well because they knew I practiced in front of the federal judiciary. But I overcame these fears in a few ways. I spoke with one of the judges for whom I had clerked, who reminded me that the work I was doing was important and that many in the judiciary also supported my work. I discussed my testimony with my mentors at Keker, Van Nest & Peters, who reminded me that I had their support and that the changes I was asking for were the bare minimum. Most importantly, I spoke with other women who had or were planning to come forward publicly about their own personal experiences, a decision that required far more courage than mine.

In that context, it was easy to testify. I focused on the core tenet underlying this work, that democratic institutions that we value the most must be capable of change to be the most effective.

4. How did your mentors prepare or encourage you to speak out in critique of a dispute resolution system within the judiciary that has been in place for as long as it has?

My mentors played significant roles in encouraging me to speak up. At a high level, they reminded me why speaking up was important in this context and helped me conquer my impostor syndrome. They reminded me that I had support in the legal profession. But they also practically prepared me for this work by reviewing testimony and articles, providing feedback, and sharing and promoting the work. These mentors and their mentorship took all forms, which is a lesson I’ve learned since graduating from law school. Not only did I have support from the partners at my firm, but I also had the support of my professors from law school and the judges for whom I had clerked. Most importantly, peer mentors—the people I had gone to law school with, clerked with, and currently worked with—provided the most support in preparing me and elevating my work. I had the privilege of an immense support system that minimized the risk to myself and emphasized the importance of thoughtfully criticizing a long-existing system.

5. What challenges remain in protecting against harassment and discrimination in the federal judiciary and where is further attention needed?

Although the judiciary has taken significant strides in addressing issues of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, many challenges still remain. The amicus brief I co-drafted with colleagues at Keker, Van Nest & Peters highlights four flaws with the current reporting procedures and protections: (1) the processes are still opaque; (2) the lack of meaningful confidentiality heightens the risk of retaliation; (3) the procedures lack—or at least appear to lack—impartiality; and (4) the remedies are limited.

On that last point, I’ll note that employees of the federal judiciary face significant difficulty finding counsel to represent them during the reporting process. Most local counsel do not want to take on a case that will inevitably pit them against the federal judiciary; many law firms have refused to take on these cases or draft amicus briefs on these topics. Monetary damages are not available through these processes, meaning individuals must be willing to pay for counsel or find pro bono counsel. While many of the issues with this system must be fixed internally, the availability of counsel is an issue that our profession may be able to help address more broadly.

Finally, the Judiciary Accountability Act is making its way through Congress and would expand workplace protections for judicial branch employees and would prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability, as well as prohibit retaliation against whistleblowers. Although many of these issues may continue without cultural change, legislative change is another option that could use public support.

6. What does the Jack Berman Award of Achievement and its namesake mean to you?

I am honored to be a recipient of the Jack Berman Award of Achievement not just because of what the award means but because of its namesake. Jack Berman devoted himself to helping others, and his life and his legacy are a demonstration of what it means to serve the public through our profession. Jack launched a transitional housing fund in San Francisco. Jack co-founded Tax-Aid to provide free tax return services to low-income individuals; Tax-Aid has helped over 70,000 clients now. Jack chaired the pro bono efforts at his firm, working on a wide range of cases and encouraging others to do the same. I am sure I am only grazing the surface with these examples.

What I am inspired by is the sheer diversity of Jack’s work. Like many of us, Jack understood the many ways in which our profession can help those who are underserved and underprivileged; however, Jack took the time to act on that understanding in practical, meaningful ways. This award is a reminder to think beyond the day-to-day minutiae of our profession and to consider the impact of pausing for a moment and asking how things could be done differently. This award is a reminder of the resources and capacity for change available to lawyers, and it serves as a call to speak up and think critically about our role in an otherwise risk-averse profession.

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