By Amy SpoonerNovember 20, 2017
When Reena Bajowala found herself in the surprising position of whistleblower during a high school internship, it struck a chord that directed her career path. “When you see something that’s wrong, your sense of justice has to be rooted in your own outrage.”
Today, Bajowala adheres to her belief that with the power of a legal education comes the responsibility to use it toward the common good. She practices in the Chicago office of Jenner & Block, where she is a partner in the firm’s complex commercial litigation practice and a member of the information technology disputes, class action, and labor and employment groups. She defends online and brick-and-mortar retailers, manufacturers, technology companies, automotive industry clients, and government defense contractors in technology outsourcing, consumer, and employment disputes. Yet at the same time, she maintains an active pro bono practice at Jenner and in 2013 received the firm’s award for distinguished pro bono service. The next year, she received the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s Corporate Partner award for her work on a high-profile fair housing litigation.
She also helped recover almost $800,000 in restitution for a human trafficking survivor from the Philippines, who was brought to the United States to be a nanny on a temporary visa, and when her employers did not extend the visa and took her identification documents, spent 20 years working grueling hours with little chance of escape. Bajowala helped make sure that restitution was paid under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and brought a civil case that resulted in a new 13th Amendment law, as well as the first public settlement of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act trafficking claims. “It was one of those cases where there’s a personal element of making one person’s life better, but also an impactful, large-scale element that hopefully moves the ball forward a little bit on justice.”
Bajowala’s commitment to social justice issues drove her desire to attend law school and brought her to Michigan, where “the level of engagement of the student community showed that it was the place for me.” Pivotal summer experiences taught her that she could remain committed to public interest work even within the context of a large law firm. Through the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) in Chicago, which funds public interest internships and fellowships at 60 organizations in the Chicagoland area, Bajowala spent her 1L summer at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation. She later obtained a fellowship through PILI to work for the ACLU. “PILI showed me that there was a way to be engaged and leverage the resources of a law firm, which are different than those that are available in an agency, to do public interest work. I specifically picked a firm that has a very engaged in pro bono practice.”
As a first-generation American, Bajowala says that working on immigration-related pro bono cases has been especially profound. “It magnifies the fact that being born in this country provides so many benefits that we take for granted.” Her clients have included one from Cameroon, who wanted to attend an American university because he faced discrimination at home for speaking English. “I didn’t put in thousands of hours on these particular cases, but I still was able to help these clients change the trajectory of their lives,” she said. “I don’t say that to brag, but to point out how complicated the immigration system is, and how much more unlikely asylum-seekers are to be successful without a lawyer.”
Bajowala’s commitment to her community includes board leadership with the Public Interest Law Initiative, the Albany Park Theater Project, and the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation, as well as ongoing involvement with the South Asian Bar Association. As a law student, she founded the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association’s Origins Fellowship Program, which since has awarded almost $100,000 to Michigan Law students working to advance the public interest. She recently received the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s Best Under 40 Award, and in 2015, she received the POW! Award from Womenetics, which celebrates women who demonstrate “game changing leadership” in business and the Chicago community. She previously earned the Most Powerful and Influential Woman Award from the Illinois Diversity Council and was a Fellow of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, where she chaired the committee that works to increase former Fellows’ pro bono and community engagement.
At Jenner, Bajowala founded the Mother’s Circle of the Women’s Forum and serves on the Women’s Forum Steering Committee, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and the Transgender Inclusion Working Group. She previously co-chaired the firm’s Asian Forum and was on the firm’s Hiring Committee and Pro Bono Committee. “I have a unique perspective because I am in many different buckets,” says Bajowala. “While I don’t identify as LGBTQ, I do have a certain perspective as a woman, a person of color, and a mom. Because I am at the partnership level, it is my responsibility to do whatever I can to ensure that others at a leadership level understand the challenges and don’t ignore the substantial impediments to success faced by very talented people from marginalized groups within the firm.”
Yes, it’s a lot of involvement, Bajowala acknowledges. “But it’s an extension of my authentic self, and this work stems from my gut feeling about what is wrong with the world and what I can do to help fix it. In a way, not that much has changed since I was working in that legal aid office."
During the month of November, our Grads Giving Back series highlights ways that Michigan Law graduates are going above and beyond to serve their local communities outside of the office. Read our previous story, Nancy Williams, ’81, Giving Back Is Its Own Reward, and look for the next installment in our series on November 27.
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