By Paula Edgar • May 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
I’ve known Sunu Chandy for several years now – we have several friends in common and she’s been a panelist at different events I’ve planned. I knew that she is a passionate and dynamic advocate for civil rights and that she has been involved in several high profile cases, but I was excited to learn much more about her.
During our conversation, I learned that we have much in common, including a connection to Jamaica, a passion for writing and we are both driven by the personal connections we make in our work. I hope you enjoy the interview and that Sunu’s story helps you to find your own Esquisite Path.
Name: Sunu P. Chandy
Employer/Title: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission/Senior Trial Attorney
Practice Area: Employment Discrimination /Civil Rights
Favorite NY Restaurant: Abistro in Brooklyn
Favorite NY Spa: Bliss Spa/ Spa at Equinox Gym
Favorite Legal Themed Movie: North Country (a fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the U.S.)
Paula Edgar: What made you decide to become an attorney?
Sunu Chandy: I became an attorney because I am a social justice activist. I grew up in an immigrant family where my parents were very concerned about the children being able to make a living and do well. I thought about going into women’s studies, a Ph.D. in women’s studies. I also considered all kinds of non-profit work, non-profit management. My father was kind of on this mission that if I became an attorney, I could be a social justice activist but also be able to earn a living. So I think he thought that a law degree gave me more mobility in terms of options during law school to see what avenue I wanted to go into.
Paula: What was your lowest point professionally and how did you recover from it?
Sunu: My first year out of law school was definitely the lowest point professionally, just because I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked as an intern at a Labor Law Firm. I was really excited when I was hired on. There were six partners and two associates. You go from being an intern to being an attorney, which is a whole different level that’s expected, when actually you’re the same person you were before you took the bar. Thank God I had one other associate there who was excellent and really supportive and helpful. She’d been out of law school several years.
Being the junior associate attorney, I was always working with the attorney that was crazy, meaning whoever had the deadline. The lowest point was basically realizing that there were so many things I didn’t know how to do. After three years of law school and after the bar exam, you’re supposed to be feeling good.
I just often felt like I wanted more responsibility and like I felt very unsure. There was a time when I had worked on a letter to the court. The attorney signed it, but didn’t shepardize the case and something had been overturned. I said, “When I worked at the other firm, nothing went out of the office to the opposing counsel, to the court, to anyone without the final product being shepardized. That was my practice there.” I thought that’s how we were doing it here. I didn’t do the final product. I wasn’t given the final product to shepardize.
I had my little defensive comments, but at the end of the day, I felt like I really messed up. I felt like I had made our firm look bad. The bottom line is, I learned from it. I was really embarrassed; I was really upset. I try to remember that. So much of practice you learn as you go. You don’t want to forget how hard it was. Then people coming up are going through that and you want to be compassionate.
Paula: What has been your most victorious moment as an attorney?
Sunu: There actually have been several. Every case that I’ve had at EEOC here, I’ve settled. The reason I think that is because I litigate very hard in terms of putting our best foot forward, and letting them know that we’re not afraid to take this all the way. Obviously, when we bring our cases, we’re filing them in court. They already know we’re serious about it and we believe in the charging parties and think it’s a strong case.
Some cases will settle in the first few months and some take years and years and years, after you’ve done every deposition you can do on both sides and then it’s settled. Whenever we settle, it’s really something that I feel good about because the individual people are so happy, most of the time. Usually they’re so grateful and just feel vindicated, like “Someone believed in us and stood up for us.” I get the nicest cards and letters. It means the world to me.
Also, on the employer’s side, they do training and put up a notice. Anyone who works there knows something happened and they had to take care of this and now they’re giving us a training. Now we have the EEOC’s phone number. We all have it in case there’s a problem. There’s a way to make sure, going forward that stuff doesn’t happen. I think the combination of that being so forward-looking and compensating individuals who really went through something is really satisfying.
It’s been in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I’ve had write-ups on my cases that have been really satisfying. NPR covered one of our cases. We get a lot of moments in the sun in terms of showing the public the kind of work we can do and how civil rights can be vindicated in the workplace.
Paula: What are your thoughts are about practicing as an attorney in New York City.
Sunu: I guess I’ve never thought about it because I haven’t practiced anywhere else. What I hear from folks is that it’s kind of more intense in terms of the private sector, in terms of hours and lifestyle and people put their all into work. I’ve heard people compare the New York office of the EEOC to other offices. I definitely know that we bring a lot of litigation. In terms of the flavor of our office, it’s an intense place and we have really good leadership here.
Paula: I would imagine, probably because of the diversity of the city, probably some of the cases that you get probably are rich in character.
Sunu: Definitely in terms of the people who came forward after 9/11. We had backlash harassment towards Muslim, South Asian and Arab employees. A case I’m looking at right now had Rastafarian employees who had dreadlocks. I had a case with a Jewish employee in terms of observing the Sabbath. That’s a really great point that you raised. It’s probably a much more diverse docket than a lot of other places in the nation.
Paula: Is balance something that you work on? If so, how do you balance the demands of your personal life and professional life?
Sunu: I find that I really like as a pro and a con in my world here is, a lot of the time, we are able to have a lot of decision making over the balance of our work. If I have a deadline Thursday or Friday, I don’t have to show my face here at certain hours; I need to get my work done. If I want to go to the gym and then stay late, or if I want to take it home at the end of the day, or if I want to get here at five in the morning, there’s not a lot of “When are you here? When are you not here?” If you have a certain level of discipline, that works well. I really, really appreciate that about my job.
Litigation comes and goes. There’s going to be weeks where you have four depositions because the judge won’t give you an extension and you need the information and you need to review three boxes of documents first. You make it happen. Definitely, there are weekends involved. If you work efficiently, you can try to figure that out.
I think there’s choices that you have to make about balance in terms of debt, in terms of salary, in terms of if you have a partner or a husband, or you have other income coming in, or helping out your family, if you have an inheritance or if you don’t. All of these things go into the mix when you make these decisions.
Paula: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a similar career as yours or to be in the position that you’re in?
Sunu: I would say definitely research who’s in the field that you want to work in. I think because I happened to take a lot of coursework in labor and employment law, so that ended up being my focus. I ended up working at two firms that represented employees in labor and employment law. Then I spoke to them and said, “Who else in New York is doing work in this area that you respect?” So talking to the people that you meet and know about who else is in the field -- who is reputable, respected.
Paula: That’s great advice.
Sunu: That’s who you want to be learning from and working with, or at least having an informational interview with. Sometimes you’re not sure exactly what you want to do and you have to look at a range of options. I think if you definitely have an interest in one area, you’ve got to do your homework and meet as many people as you can who practice in that area, through the bar associations and all sorts of organizations. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time and meeting folks. I found out about the EEOC job through my classmate from Northeastern Law School, one of my close friends from law school. She started working in the Boston office. She told me about this job. My boss here called her. She said, “I’m biased. She’s my friend. I think she’s great. What am I going to say? Hire her.” Of course I had to get it on my own, but the bottom line is, I wouldn’t have even known there was an opening.
Paula: What are your thoughts regarding issues with advancement in the legal profession for women of color?
Sunu: I think that oftentimes people mentor people who they feel comfortable with. That might be the same race and the same sex and the people they’re buddies with. It works all different ways.
I also am interested in a piece about -- I don’t know if this goes across the board. This is something I’ve thought about for myself. I didn’t really realize it until a few different things happened. I’m 30. I’m going to be 38. In one of my churches that I attend, I was invited to some group that was 30 and under. While it’s cute to look young and everything, I do think that has an impact when you’re applying for a higher-level job. I never really thought about how age comes across and how that might play a role for some women of color.
People don’t expect you to have that sort of experience or knowledge. If you’re interviewing for higher-up positions, then not looking that age range is a downside. I actually keep thinking that I should think about what I want to do about that. It’s like “what does authority look like?”
Paula: What are your plans for the future?
Sunu: I’m really interested in looking at creative writing and poetry and social change. I definitely want to do some research on that on my own. As you know, I’m also looking into adopting a baby. For that reason, and just for supporting myself, it’s important to keep a good income. At least for now, I’m definitely looking at staying with the law and also pursuing other interests.
Working at the EEOC has been a really good place for me to make a living, do work I believe in, and promote civil rights in the workplace, but also have a good amount of time to do other work.
At this moment, I kind of can see this going in two different ways. I can see staying here for my entire career. I can also see transitioning into other roles here. There are other roles like supervisor of investigators or mediation. There are a number of other parts within the agency I could try if that opportunity comes up. I could also see looking at transitioning into work that’s maybe a non-profit that works on social justice change through the creative arts.
It’s really actually nice to have this law degree and a job that I actually adore, in many ways, to fall back on in terms of earning a living, which to take it all the way back, was my dad’s point. That’s kind of where it started. You have this need to make a living and you want to do something you believe in. I feel extremely blessed to have those come together.
Paula: My final question for you is, what makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night?
Sunu: The human relationships with the charging parties. The phone call, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you. No one else believed in us.” The card I’m looking at says, “I just want to say thank you for believing in us, for all your time and dedication. It’s truly appreciated.”
Yes, I believe in the case being covered in the Times and having people from different parts of the country call me and say, “My son has a disability. I saw this case about a job coach. Can his job coach go and help him get situated on the job?” Our point is yes. Big ripple effects come out of these cases sometimes because of the media coverage and lead to change in ways we don’t even know about often. Every settlement that we do is used for advocacy down the road in workplaces we never even hear about.
That’s satisfying, but what’s actually satisfying is the one-on-one relationship that I have with the charging parties in each of my cases. I’m coming in here and looking through those three boxes of documents because somebody wasn’t accommodated based on her disability, or because somebody and nine other people were sexually harassed. Why did we do all that? Because ten women were sexually harassed and it’s not right. It’s not right to go into your boss’s office and ask if you’re getting your vacation time and have him say, “Come here. Oh, you got sunburned” and grab your breast. That’s why I did so many motions on successor liability. If I’m here on a weekend looking at documents feeling frustrated about how I’m going to prove this is a successor, all I have to think about is that charging party and the nine other women. The owner of the company grabbed them, groped them and spoke to them in sexually-demeaning ways. They had nowhere to go. They sold the company, so now they’re left with nothing.
We have the legal capacity to go after the new owner and say, “Here’s all the ways you knew about this,” which they don’t deny. “Here’s all the ways we meet the task for what’s an appropriate successor liability.” I really hope we have a good outcome. So definitely what makes it worthwhile is the human relationships with the charging parties.
Paula’s Two Cents on being passionate about your work.
Sunu’s drive to achieve justice for the charging parties in her cases is reflected in the dedication she puts into her work, whether that may be working on Saturdays or filing multiple motions in order to win a case for her clients. The benefits of the work she does is far reaching and long lasting.
My two cents: When you can combine your training with your passion, your work becomes less like work and more about fulfilling your life’s purpose. I wish that for all of us.
Esquisitely Yours, Paula.