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The Legal Eagle / Compassionate Counselor

Jul/08/2023 / by Abhijit Masih

Founder and president of the Murthy Law Firm, one of the foremost immigration law firms, Sheela Murthy dedicates her life to helping people through immigration process, which can range from challenging to downright harrowing.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Sheela Murthy had plenty of sleepless nights. As she tried to navigate the immigration process, she found little help from the attorney who was handling her case. Instead, she discovered a direction for her ambition and an impetus to establish and run one of the world’s leading law firms specializing in immigration law.

Growing up in India, Murthy never imagined she could ever get admission to Harvard University or come to America. Her father, who was the son of a school teacher, served in the Indian military, which meant her family was constantly on the move. While her parents instilled in her the importance of working hard, she credits her then boyfriend and now husband, Vasant, for helping her find the confidence she needed to apply to Harvard. “He actually inspired and made me feel like there was a shot at getting admitted. So I did it with a focused mind. Like they say, ‘what your mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.’ I started to believe that that was a reality,”Murthy says.

Settling in America

Since her childhood, Murthy had a strong instinct for social  justice—she found that she could be a voice for people who couldn’t speak for themselves. “Somebody has to stand up and fight for others. I was always a person who questioned things and wasn’t happy with the status quo. I was probably a total misfit in India,” she admits. The culture of questioning, analyzing and challenging appealed to her when she moved to the United States to study at Harvard. “In India and many parts of the world, particularly in Asia, you’re supposed to give respect and deference to your teachers and not ask too many questions because that might look like we’re challenging them or disagreeing with them or questioning their knowledge,” she says. “Here, in the United States, people appreciate you asking questions or giving people a hard time. It was a wonderful, new, and different experience, but I had to get comfortable with it.”

From Manhattan to Maryland

New York City was the easy choice to commence her career as many International law firms were based in the city and were willing to give employment to people from other countries since they had offices around the world. “I joined a law firm there as I thought that was a great place to get practice, learn the law and enjoy Manhattan and its eclectic international atmosphere.” However, having lived all her life in military cantonment areas in small cities in India, Murthy detested the overcrowding of the city and living in an apartment. “I just found it very impersonal, not warm or caring. When I would visit my sister and brother in law in Ellicott City, MD, I really liked the warmth and the friendliness there, even in a grocery store. People say Hi, how are you, chat with each other. I’m a very extroverted personality. I get energy from people,” she explained her move from the hustle of the big city to the languid pace of Maryland. 

Centering on Immigration law

“I was doing corporate law initially and then real estate law for the larger law firms. While it was interesting, I did not feel an emotional connection on a deep mental, emotional or spiritual level. I was not making a real difference in somebody’s life,” Murthy talked about her leaning towards immigration law. While doing a couple of cases in a Maryland law firm, she was able to get a few of them green cards because of her work. The realization that she was instrumental in providing joy to them by fulfilling their American dream was something that helped her decide to focus completely on immigration law. “It felt like I completely changed their lives for the better, that I truly was making a difference in their lives,” she said. It has been almost 35 years and Murthy and her law firm has helped thousands of such people in their quest for a better future for themselves and their children. 

Turning Challenges into Assets 

Almost four decades ago she was fighting the trinity test – being a woman, being a person of color and being an immigrant. It must have been frightening . Undaunted, Murthy established a company that now has offices not just in Maryland but in Florida and all the metro cities of India employing hundreds of lawyers. “It’s the biggest feather in my cap. It’s the best thing possible, because now we can explain to individuals and families that I truly feel your pain. I understand what you’ve gone through, because I went through the same thing. I understand if you haven’t slept for many months because you’re stressing about not getting your H1B or not getting your green card approval in time for your family,” Murthy explains how she turned her experience into assets that makes her law firm the go to choice for a majority of South Asian immigrants. 

The Secret for Success 

The longevity and the success of Murthy Law Firm rest on the foundation of empathy for others. Murthy ensures that her vision of changing people’s life is not watered down due to a mechanized assembly line treatment of cases, regardless of the volume. “I tell my lawyers all the time, ‘I do not care how much you know, unless I know how much you care.” The other two pillars of foundation for Murthy and her success have been hard work and not seeing the glass half empty. “I’m going to choose to invest my energy always looking at the glass of life as half full,” the eternal optimist asserts.

The Latest Immigration Issues

Beyond the logjam many immigrants encounter, there are also challenges related to individuals  who have filed H1B cap registration cases. “A lot of employers are being investigated, and the prior approvals are being removed or revoked because of multiple filings by the employer in the cap. They’re calling it fraud and issuing notice of intentions to revoke and deny,” she explains. 

As a result of significant wait times, Murthy advises filing the applications as quickly as possible. “If you don’t do it on time, you’re  definitely going to suffer. Be proactive. Make sure you protect yourself and your family by filing your green card and starting ideally by the start of the fourth year at the latest, ideally first year. Because the earlier you filed the earlier, you get a priority date, which for people born in India, that’s a very big deal,” she says. 

However, Murthy is relatively satisfied with the progress that has been made in normalizing the U.S. consular processing times, which had been drastically impacted due to the pandemic. “There have been backlogs, but things have been vastly improved. They’ve hired a lot more consular officers. They realize the demand is very, very heavy. It’s one of the busiest consular posts in the world,” she says. 

In India, her company, MurthyIndia.com, helps clients with consular cases pertaining to the various visa categories. “The team in India, unlike in the U.S., helps people to get the visa appointments, book it for them, mentor them, tell them how to complete the forms, what to do, how to answer certain questions, etc.”

Fight for Happiness

The immigration expert acknowledges the dilemma that many, especially South Asians face in challenging a notice of denial. Murthy understands that it’s ingrained in our cultural fabric not to challenge authority and it may be unthinkable for a lot of people to take on a U.S. government agency for fear of retribution or permanent denial of application. “Life is all about believing in yourself and believing you deserve happiness and success in life. So, if somebody denies your petition, your extension, your approval, what is owed to you, challenge them,” Murthy offers. “Respond to the request for evidence, respond to the notice of intention to deny, the notice of intention to revoke. This is America. It’s a democracy. It’s a nation of immigrants. They have to respect us and our contributions as immigrants to this great country. So sue them if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

Expectations from the Modi Visit

Murthy is hopeful that Prime Minister Modi will have meaningful discussions with President Joe Biden. “I know one of the issues, from the India perspective, we want to eliminate the per country quota limits, which is causing huge backlogs in our green card processing. Adding more consular officers, making sure Indian approval rates for visas are improved.” 

She also suggests what could be used as tools by India to assist in the negotiations. She points out the investments being made in the field of education by Indians in the US. Indians are paying billions of dollars to help the U.S. economy by attending universities and colleges in the U.S. “We should use our trump cards to get the best deal for ourselves. Obviously I love my birth country and my adopted country. I want the best for both, our potential is limitless.”

Would politics beckon?

The proposition to enter politics has been made to Murthy multiple times with a near possibility of her becoming Senator representing Maryland. She was asked to run for Lieutenant Governor and could have been the first South Asian to occupy the post in the country, a feat that would be achieved by Aruna Miller. “I have been asked over the years but my husband’s a very private person. He probably would be miserable being in any kind of limelight. I feel that I can do so much good even in the position I am in. This is my role and I’m very happy in this role. It’s what I love doing. Let’s leave politics to those who love politics,” she said.

Philanthropy, Not Politics

‘If you ever make some money in life, it is your moral, legal and ethical obligation to share it with others, Murthy’s father had told her when she was young. The Murthy Nayak Foundation (MNF), a non-governmental organization, was established shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001. The not for profit organization was started and continues to identify and support a range of projects in India and the United States. “A portion of our money will go directly to help people and to give opportunities to people. To help others with a roof over their head, food, education for women and immigration and immigrant’s rights,” she listed the works being carried out by the foundation in both the countries. Murthy took her father’s advice seriously and carried out his wish. “I know that he was very proud because he was alive when I was giving a lot of money and doing a lot of things. He really felt very, very proud,” said the exultant daughter. 

Being Sheela – Book to Film

The biography on Murthy titled Being Sheela published by Harper Collins may be adapted for the screen. The book is being pitched to Hollywood and Bollywood and Murthy hopes that Priyanka Chopra Jonas can play the part. “She has a similar kind of background. Her father was in the Indian Army, she’s like a younger version of me to some extent. She’s also come from India to the United States. So that’s a possibility.” Murthy hopes that through her story people will be inspired to help others along life’s journey. “Even if someone says, ‘Hey, if Sheila can do this, I can do it.’ Nothing would give me greater joy.”

SIDEBAR 1

Role Reversal

How her husband, an artist, has been her biggest champion, in Sheela Murthy’s own words.

My husband, unlike most Indian men, was willing to give up his career to support mine. He has always been a true partner in life. Most people use the term ‘the better half’ for their wives. In my case, my true better half is my husband. To some extent, we have role reversals, because he’s more the artist, caring, sensitive, the gentle person and I am more rough and tough fighting for clients, demanding and a little annoying. 

So it’s a reversal of traditional roles compared to the way we were brought up or expected to behave as men and women in India. During COVID-19 he was helping hundreds of families in India, artists and professors. He started Photo South Asia to help photographers and artists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and all the neighboring countries giving support in terms of money to help photo education. Anything I want to do, he says, ‘go for it, I support you and I love you.’ 

He’s not been insecure about my success. He’s a big part of the reason for my success, because he’s the one who set up the website murthy.com for me. He’s the one who pushed me into understanding how the internet would change the world. He has been integral in every way, shape or form. He has been loving, caring and supportive. He has helped me with my law firm. He has helped me in life. He’s helped me to become a better human being.

SIDEBAR 2

Sheela Murthy and her favorites

Role model – As a human being, maybe Vasant, my husband.

Hobby – Love swimming. Love the water. Love arguing.

Holiday destination – Many places. I love the Maldives. I’m a positive personality, so even in a bad holiday, I’ll see something fantastic. 

Quote – Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.’

Food – Yummy. I love almost all food. I’m a total foodie. Maybe spicy nuts. .

Movie – As a child growing up, I was very taken up by My Fair Lady. I like the Cinderella kind of story. 

Legal movie – To kill a Mockingbird

Music – I love jazz music. It is so therapeutic and just lights my soul.

PQs

“Somebody has to stand up and fight for others. I was always a person who questioned things and wasn’t happy with the status quo. I was probably a total misfit in India.”

“I get energy from people.”

“I truly feel your pain. I understand what you’ve gone through, because I went through the same thing. I understand if you haven’t slept for many months because you’re stressing about not getting your H1B or not getting your green card approval in time for your family.”

“I tell my lawyers all the time, ‘I do not care how much you know, unless I know how much you care.”

“This is America. It’s a democracy. It’s a nation of immigrants. They have to respect us and our contributions as immigrants to this great country. So sue them if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

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