By Paula Edgar • August 22, 2010•Writers in Residence
Chaumtoli Huq is a dedicated advocate for her clients as well as a devoted partner and mother. Prior to our conversation, I had heard a lot about her through professional circles, but we had only met in person once, so I was excited to hear her story.
During our conversation, I learned that we have several things in common, including a childhood aspiration to be an In Living Color “Fly Girl”, being the child of immigrant parents and that we are both lucky enough to have fantastic, supportive partners who support us in our careers and in parenting our children. I hope you enjoy the interview and that Chaumtoli’s experiences help you to navigate your own Esquisite Path.
Name: Chaumtoli Huq
Employer/Title: Manhattan Legal Services, an affiliate of Legal Services NYC/ Director of Litigation.
Practice Area: General Litigation (focused on the areas of consumer, employment and housing law)
Favorite NY Restaurant: Café con Leche and Jaiya Thai
Favorite Legal Themed Movie: A Time to Kill
What did you want to be when you grew up? Actually, I was interested in dance. I would say that was my first love or passion. That’s the first thing I wanted to do when I grew up. It’s tough to be a dancer in New York City. When I was growing up, there was a show In Living Color. On that show, at the beginning, they would have the Living Color dancers, “The Fly Girls”. I always used to say to my mom, “They have an East Asian, a Latina, African Americans. They don’t have a South Asian on In Living Color.” She was kind of grinning but hoping for the backup plan I’m sure. If I was really honest, my dream was to be a fly girl, but I had a backup plan because my immigrant mom was always making sure that you always had to have backup plans.
What made you decide to be an attorney? That came up much later after I graduated from college. I worked for a domestic violence organization, which is called Sakhi for South Asian Women. It was formed to help immigrants from South Asia who are victims of domestic violence. On the board, they must have just gathered all the lawyers from that community. There was about four or five lawyers, female, that were just on the board of this organization, and some of whom founded it. I was just so impressed by this group of women that it really changed my perspective on law. I began to think, “I can do this. I might as well go to law school and I can just do everything for the clients. I don’t have to hustle to find a lawyer. If I was just a lawyer, I could do all this myself.” Those two factors motivated me to think about law school, and then I went.
What would you say has been your lowest point professionally, and how did you recover from it? I was supervising a new attorney who was very resistant to my supervision. She was a young, white female attorney. We would talk about a case review or planning. She was always challenging me, saying, “Do it this way.” Or when we were in a meeting, she would publicly contradict things I said. I raised these concerns with my boss. I came to learn that she had complained separately, without communicating with me. She said some things -- I think she said I wasn’t professional towards her and that I would block her professional growth opportunities. Those were the criticisms that she brought. My director said, “These are the complaints that were raised.” Eventually, supervisions were changed based on her complaint instead of what I had said, even though I was her supervisor.
That was a low point because I think it really made me think that even being a woman of color in a leadership position, it doesn’t matter. Someone who’s junior and less experienced can still have greater weight than you. At the end of the day, there could have been miscommunication. I did something that was taken the wrong way, but there was no benefit of the doubt. There was no getting my side of the story, even though I was trying to also raise the issue of communication.
During that conversation, I mentioned that maybe -- I’m pretty direct. I’m kind of to the point. I’ll definitely give credit where the work is great, but if things need to improve, I’ll say it in a way that’s supportive. A newer attorney may not want to hear that. I don’t know if it was a point, per se, like a time period, but it was a circumstance that was a low point. I think it made me think, “Wow” and maybe sort of second guess myself. If I didn’t have a supportive network outside of the work environment, I think it would have taken me way lower.
Paula: It’s so disheartening because you would hope that your supervisor would then give you the benefit of the doubt, knowing you haven’t had those kinds of complaints before, to allow you to work through the situation rather than switch supervision in the middle.
Chaumtoli: Yes. Afterwards she was placed under the supervision of a white attorney. There were other supervisors that have had similar types of complaints. There wasn’t any other switch. Definitely this person was given a lot of weight. So not hearing both sides of the story and not figuring out where the communication gap is, which is kind of how I approach things.
I think the moral from that is just trust your instinct and your judgment. More than likely, it’s solid. To say you are a strong woman, you have vision about the work you want to do -- I think the most I heard was that might be intimidating to someone. They may take that as you’re being a difficult supervisor or what have you, but that’s your strength. That’s not something to shirk from. I think that was important for me here.
What has been your most victorious moment as an attorney? I think each client that I’m able to help is a victory. I think the one case that I did really early on in my career that was very compelling and dramatic and got a lot of media attention was -- after I completed my clerkship, and at the time I was at the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund. I represented a domestic worker who was brought to New York City by a diplomat from Bahrain. Basically, for about nine months, she went unpaid, kept indoors, and was subjected to extremely abusive treatment. Somehow, she managed to escape from this Upper East Side apartment. I was connected to a lot of community-based groups. She found her way to one, and they referred the case to me asking if we could help her. We brought a lawsuit on her behalf.
At the time, I was young and I guess somewhat idealistic. I didn’t know there was a law of diplomatic immunity. Basically, diplomats can’t be sued in civil court. It was good that I didn’t know that fully. I thought that we had some exceptions. We had some case law that seemed to suggest that there were certain limited exceptions. We also brought an involuntary servitude, Thirteenth Amendment claim. It was a phenomenal case, just in terms of from a legal standpoint, not in terms of the facts of the case.
My argument was you can’t trump the constitution. You can’t have immunity from the constitution, this was basically slavery. So you’re telling me someone can drag someone from a different country, enslave them in the United States and not pay them? Just because they’re from the diplomatic core, they can get away with it?
We, along with that, worked with a lot of community-based organizations. It got covered in the New York Times. It was a huge story. It actually turned out to be the first case filed of its kind. At the time, I was just sort of an attorney who wanted to help the community. I wanted to help this woman who suffered a lot. We were able to, through a lot of advocacy and litigation and working with the pro bono counsel at the time. At some point during a case, the United States can intervene in an action if they have an interest.
When we filed the case, the United States attorney intervened on behalf of the diplomat. They were concerned if they undermined or there was an exception to diplomatic immunity, their diplomats abroad could be sued. There was a concern about reciprocity. There were a lot of heated negotiations. I basically got to see all different aspects of lawyering.
At the end, it resolved positively.
Then as a lawyer, to have such an interesting legal case and have the media be interested in it and raise the issues around domestic workers, which I still care very deeply about the issue. It was just a great, great experience on so many different levels. There were so many different lessons, from a lawyer’s standpoint, from an empowerment standpoint, from a new lawyer standpoint. That would be my major victory.
The sweetest thing was -- a lot of my family members or extended friends of the family don’t quite get what I did. They knew I was a lawyer. They knew that I helped people. They knew I didn’t make a lot of money. Beyond that, one side of the family was like, “Are you still working for free?” I was like, “Oh, no, Uncle Max, I actually work at a non-profit. They provide fee services.” I do get paid, although sometimes it does feel like it’s not enough, but still.
I faxed my mom over a copy of the Times article and highlighting my name and underlining it. She showed it to Uncle Max. He was like, “We’re so proud of you.” It was just like finally he understood what I did. He was just proud. That was very moving. My mom was very proud, too. She’s always been very supportive of the work. She worked hard herself and is an immigrant, single mom. So she got what I did and understood the issues.
Some of the community members don’t fully comprehend. I’m sort of the first grouping, second generation, if you will. So there were all eyes on making sure that we were successful. Success meant making a lot of money. It was nice to have this moment, in addition to all the great work and working with the community and just feeling empowered by the client, part of me was like, “Oh, I finally understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and why it’s important for me to work on that issue.” I think that’s probably the huge victory.
There have been other clients and other wonderful stories. That’s why I love my work. You’re given the gift of someone’s story. You’re entrusted with the responsibility of helping them. Sometimes you can under the law, and sometimes you can’t. When you can or you’re a person that can just hear them out, it’s a powerful feeling for folks who are marginalized and disempowered. I think just the work that I do is victorious. I think that case was pretty much a highlight of my career. I’m now going on 12 years.
Why do you think women of color aren’t advancing in the legal profession the same way
white men and women are advancing? I think there’s a combination of factors. One is that sometimes women of color may not look out for those positions. It took a conversation with senior lawyers for me to even look at a management type of job. I was happy litigating. I was happy doing the program work. It took someone who said, “I can see you being a director. I can see you managing. I can see you supervising” for me to consider that. That’s one piece of it, just going for those positions and not shying away from it.
Beyond that, the few that do kind of go and occupy those positions, it’s very tough. When I started as a supervisor, I had some senior white attorneys who would really challenge some of my decisions. I had one attorney I worked with who would confer with a colleague of mine to verify the validity of anything that I said to him. The reason I came to know about this is he comes up to me one day and says, “Chaumtoli, you’re in good company.” I said, “Really? Why?” He said, “Oh, yeah. Everything that you said, another attorney agreed.” Another supervisor who’s white and male agreed. I was like, “Oh, okay.” Humor, for me, is the only way to release those kinds of moments. At that moment, all I could say was, “Well, I am in great company. I know he’s a respected litigator.” There are subtle ways in which responsibilities are assigned.
There are two other managers of color here now. We talk a lot about, when we look at what’s on our plate, in addition to our job duties, there’s a lot more compared to male and the white male managers. I think those are factors that really make it personally challenging. If you have these challenging critiques, are strong, have a support system, and understand that this is not about you, it can be very, very frustrating. I would be lying to you if I didn’t say there were some days that I just want to scream. There are daily ways in which you work and constantly having to prove yourself.
Some of the things I’ve mentioned are very similar and maybe acute in the private sector. I think what’s very challenging in the public sector is that because people are generally liberal and conscious, some folks feel they’re immune from any kind of potential unconscious racism or prejudice. It’s really hard to engage folks.
I found corporate folks don’t have illusions about being -- they’re just like, “We’re a corporation and yes, we may not know all the issues.” They’re more open to diversity training, of course some more than others. In the public interest community, it’s very hard to bring up those issues about race or gender without it getting very, very defensive. I think that makes it very challenging to raise issues that come up.
Is balance something that you personally work on? If you do, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life? I think about it more in terms of equilibrium, where everything is in order. To me, usually it’s family and work. I feel like, in my life, there are other scales. I have my mom, who raised me. She’s single and she lives nearby. There’s thinking about her. There’s my circle of close friends who I also feel like I want to support. I feel like balancing all different relationships that sustain me, family and the professional and more immediate and friend circle.
I definitely look for the balance. Sometimes, when work gets busy, some other personal stuff may not be the immediate priority. That is my goal. I don’t know if it’s achievable, but I think it’s mostly, not a day-to-day balance, but just thinking about it in terms of equilibrium. You have your universe, all different parts of your life. Are they sort of synced at a particular moment? Sometimes I’ll feel like I haven’t checked in with x-person or I’ve been too much on the social side and make sure I’m focused on my career. I do have career interests and this is a big part of my day and work. So to make sure that all of it is balanced is important.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a similar career to yours? In terms of litigation, I think just going to organizations to get the skills and to work. Litigation is representing clients and getting into court. The advice would be just to find places and opportunities to do that. I also try to be very active in bar associations and other minority bars. There’s South Asian Bar Association, the Asian Bar. Just be professionally connected.
When I graduated from law school, a senior attorney strongly recommended I join the New York City Bar. It’s been great. There are things that you can do within the City Bar association context that maybe your job doesn’t really provide. A lot of opportunities or professional opportunities have come up for me, not always through my current position. My last position at MFY Legal Services, Inc., I came to know of their work because I actually translated from Bengali to English at a hearing for a client. Then when they had a job opening for an employment attorney, they had already interacted with me. I guess general advice is just to be open to opportunities and be willing to take risks to go for those opportunities.
Who was your most instrumental mentor and why? It’s tough because I feel I’ve been very lucky to have a tapestry of mentors. When I was starting my career, I didn’t have professional mentors. I just observed people and talked to people that really inspired me or said something that inspired me. I would just go and talk to them. So if I name one, I feel like some of them may be offended.
I would say, if I had to choose, it wouldn’t be a professional. It really has to be my mom. It sounds very cliché. I can’t imagine how it is for an immigrant woman to come to the United States. My upbringing is complicated so I won’t go through the story. For the most part, my parents separated and she raised my brother and me. If I was angsting around something, she would say, “What will make you happy? Do the thing that will make you happy.” I think that really freed me up to look at opportunities. She also told me the honest truth, like, “You did wrong there. You need to own up to that and apologize.”
I think a mentor is someone who is going to gently guide you, give you the room and the space to grow and develop, but also is going to tell you honestly, give you honest criticism. She’s been supportive of my law school and going into public interest. Anytime that I talk about my cases, she’s willing to hear about them. I’ve been really blessed to have a lot of professional and legal folks, peers as well as more senior attorneys, who have given me wisdom throughout the professional career. In terms of a steady, constant mentor, I would have to say it would be my mother.
What are your plans for the future? I think that’s a good question now because I’m in a very reflective mode. I am contemplating some kind of more public position. I’m not sure what that would be. What I mean is working in government, working as a judge maybe. I think it’s something I’m just exploring to see what that would be. I would love to play a leadership role in a public official position.
What makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night? I don’t want to sound cliché again, but I have a great partner. I am an arbitrator, from six to nine, so he’s going to put the kids to bed. I’m going to walk in and he’s probably going to say, “How was your day?” He’s already called me one time during the day to check in. I think what makes it all worth it is, no matter what happens, professionally or otherwise, I just have a great family and a wonderful partner who really wants to see me do well.
I have to give him credit there because for a lot of men, it’s very hard to give the space to let their partner grow. I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that. I hear a lot of friends who say their partner doesn’t like them staying late for meetings or questioning why they’re not around more often -- we sort of tag team. I’m on a four-day schedule.
If I had a partner that wasn’t going to be understanding and flexible and willing to share responsibilities, like home responsibilities, it would be really hard for me to do all the things that I’m able to do. I think women I’ve known that are successful, usually have supportive partners or a supportive network.
Paula’s Two Cents on Giving Back to Your Community
Much of Chaumtoli’s professional path is closely connected to her South Asian community. I believe that our work as advocates, whether practicing or non-practicing, is greatly enriched when our work and our professional ties are related to our community. Doing this solidifies your training with your passion and purpose and ensures that you leave your mark on this world.
In addition to the fulfilling aspects, many times combining professional aspirations with personal community goals can lead to greater opportunities in both areas. I challenge you to join a specialty bar association, non-profit board or volunteer for a community organization – the benefits can be extremely rewarding.
Esquisitely Yours, Paula Edgar