By Laura Billiter, 3L March 11, 2020
Azadeh Shahshahani, ’04, provided Michigan Law students many points of advice for pursuing a career in public interest at the recent “Inspiring Paths” dinner. A prolific speaker and writer on immigrants’ rights and a staunch advocate for Muslim communities, Shahshahani distilled years of public interest expertise into an hour-long Q&A session moderated by Clinical Assistant Professor Rachael Kohl, director of the Law School’s Workers’ Rights Clinic. But Shahshahani’s main advice for students seeking to break into the profession was simple: “Follow the need.”
Shahshahani has been following the need throughout her career. She currently serves as the legal and advocacy director of Project South in Atlanta, a grassroots leadership development organization, and previously was the president of the National Lawyers Guild and the national security and immigrants’ rights project director of the ACLU of Georgia.
“I feel really fortunate doing the work I’m doing,” Shahshahani said. “Feeling like a part of the movement is great. Any victory that we achieve, in some way, gives me joy.”
Shahshahani’s storied career in advocacy started in a very different direction. “I had already been admitted to Michigan Medical School,” she shared. “My parents wanted their daughter to become a doctor. That’s the only thing I knew and that my family knew. As I started college, I realized my true calling was not medical school—I wanted to do human rights work.”
After applying to law school “on a whim,” Shahshahani focused on taking human rights courses at Michigan Law and getting involved with student organizations like the National Lawyers Guild.
“The idea I always had about doing human rights work was being placed in Geneva or The Hague,” she said. “At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I could be in the United States and actually be doing human rights work.”
From then on, identifying the need was simple. Shahshahani spoke of her experience moving to North Carolina after graduation and seeing a gap in the services being provided to the state’s Muslim community.
“Coming from Michigan where there is a very large Muslim community, I wasn’t expecting at all to see that in the South,” she said. “But that was not true. There was a large Muslim community, but no organization and no program to cater to the legal needs of the community. So, I decided to basically start something myself.”
Finding employment, however, was more of a challenge. “I thought that, graduating from Michigan Law, everyone would hire me,” she said with a smile. “No, they didn’t care.”
Shahshahani instead volunteered with local human rights organizations while studying for the North Carolina bar to build the connections that would eventually chart her career. “Getting a job is all about connections,” she shared. “Being in the South with no connections, I had to establish my own.”
Her message was clear: “It’s going to be hard.” But, she also shared tips for public interest students looking to enter the competitive field.
“For folks wanting to do public interest, a fellowship is a way to break in,” Shahshahani said. While a recent graduate’s chance of getting hired as a staff attorney is difficult, she noted, a fellowship would provide recent graduates the opportunity to break into the public interest market and also “the freedom to devise your own job description.”
She also encouraged students to take advantage of any opportunity to gain practical experience in the field, with particular emphasis on the public interest clinics offered at Michigan Law.
Most important, Shahshahani said, is “following your passion. This work is so difficult that if there is no passion, it’s easy to burn out and leave.”
The Inspiring Paths program was created “to bring exceptional alumni back to Michigan Law to honor their careers in public service and to show current students examples of outstanding alumni who are in the field advocating for justice.”
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