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Immigration Law in the Suburbs, But With a Worldwide Clientele

For immigration law attorney Sheela Murthy, empathy for clients seeking to build new lives in the United States comes naturally. After all, she’s been through the immigration process herself.Murthy, who employs more than 30 people in her Owings Mills law office, came to the U.S. from her native India in the mid-1980s to earn a master’s of law degree at Harvard University. After a few stops at law firms in New York City and Baltimore, the 38-year-old attorney struck out on her own and established a successful practice boasting a 100 percent growth rate a year since 1996 — and, along the way, a worldwide clientele.Her low profile in suburban Baltimore — “Locally, I’m not known,” Murthy said, except for a few interviews on local television newscasts during the Elian Gonzalez affair — reinforces the “stealth” image of her field of federal law.“People think immigration law is just filling out forms,” Murthy said, seated in her small but comfortable office in a building across from Owings Mills Mall. “But it’s a very complex kind of law. It’s superficially simple — just filling out forms. But make a mistake and two years later, you’re hit with a deportation order. There are a lot of traps for the unwary.”It’s that kind of scary scenario that fuels Murthy’s concern for her clients, mostly domestic firms recruiting engineers, software programmers, researchers and other high-tech professionals from other countries.“Being an advocate is such a great feeling,” Murthy said. “You almost have to be from outside the U.S. to make you better appreciate the opportunities this country can afford you.”A fellow immigration law lawyer pointed to Murthy’s immigrant status as a primary reason for her success.“She knows how to treat new citizens because she’s been there herself,” said Patricia S. Wohlford, a solo practitioner in Silver Spring. “Sheela is both very competent and she’s a humanist, probably because of her own background. She’s one of the smartest people in the field.”Wohlford called immigration law a “‘sleeper’ section of the law.”“It’s all done carefully and by highly competent attorneys who help people get their green cards,” Wohlford explained. “Sheela is a real ball of fire and her clients feel they are extremely well-represented.”Robert C. Kellner, head of the labor and employment practice group at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, remembered when Murthy got her first exposure to immigration law. Murthy worked in Gordon, Feinblatt’s real estate group from 1989 to 1992.“I had a client who had to bring some high-tech workers into the country and Sheela volunteered to do it because she had been through the process,” Kellner said. “She’s hard-working, tenacious, creative and enthusiastic, with a real desire to excel.”Nor does it hurt, Kellner noted, that the field of immigration law is “booming.” “But Sheela was there early and has done an incredible job building her practice,” Kellner added.Site-based shinglePart of that success is due to her Web site, which Murthy established in 1994 — the year she hung out her shingle — and now hosts about a million visits a week, Murthy reported.“We have four people almost exclusively dedicated to the Web site,” Murthy said. “It’s a testament to our thinking. Just to create it today would cost between a quarter to half-a-million dollars.”One reason for the site’s success is that immigrants are very resourceful, explained Wohlford.“They don’t want to waste time,” Wohlford said. “So Sheela gives them a mechanism in the Web site that saves them from having to go to Owings Mills. She telecommutes with her clients.”The idea for a Web site came in 1994 from Murtha’s husband, Vasant Nayak, a photographer then on the faculty at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Currently, Nayak is a Web consultant to the law firm.“He said the computer is the wave of the future and the Web site is part of that,” Murthy recalled. “The majority of our clients are high-tech, maybe 90 percent. We’re riding the wave of high technology. As the Internet grows, we’ll ride that wave.”Three years ago, the Web site — www.murthy.com — received 300,000 visits a week. Now it’s “three or four times” that figure, Murthy said.“We were the first [immigration law firm] on the Internet,” she said proudly. “Big firms missed the opportunity. We have weekly bulletins we send to thousands of subscribers a week via e-mail. I believe in an educated client. And when they understand the depth and complexity of immigration law, they come to us.”Moreover, immigration law is constantly evolving, Murthy pointed out.“Potential clients realize that if someone is willing to share so much information on the Web site, we must understand it even more — all the gray areas in flux that aren’t available to clients,” she said. Tech, tech and techThe “meat and potatoes” of the firm’s work is assisting foreign employees of U.S. firms get temporary work permits, to file for a green card that allows permanent U.S. resident status — and, ultimately, to help foreign workers apply for U.S. citizenship.Her clients, which range from small start-ups to Fortune 500 corporations, come from three major technology areas, Murthy said.“Hardware, which is actually going down, software — which is incredible — and research, both fundamental and applied,” the attorney said. “We have a whole department working with Ph.D.s.”What’s fueling the demand for immigrants with advanced degrees? That’s an easy one.“It’s because we don’t have enough people,” Murthy said. “A lot of people in America don’t like to pursue research careers because there’s not enough money in it. It takes the type of intellectual who likes it for the thrill — for the opportunity to leave a legacy behind.”Countries leading the pack in supplying U.S. demand for engineers and researchers are India, China and England, Murthy said. But there is competition, she added.“Germany and Austria are rolling out the red carpet for immigrants to get permanent residency status,” she said, then quickly added: “But there’s the allure of America. It’s the center of everything.”Murthy isn’t concerned that the demand for immigration lawyers will fade. “[Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan says the only way America will continue its incredible high-tech revolution is to continue to bring in foreign workers,” she said. “This is the first time in history where the immigrant is making more money than the average American worker. They’re starting between $40,000 and $80,000 a year.“It’s just going to keep growing,” Murthy added. “But we’re never going to be able to provide enough people until American high school and college kids are willing to sacrifice.”The attorney said that she plans to cap the growth of her firm when it reaches 50 employees. “There’s so much work all th
e time. It’s very busy and a very fast pace,” Murthy said. “We give quality service that’s equivalent to the top firms, but we try to maintain collegiality.”Murthy, who became a U.S. citizen last year, said she is a success in spite of “three strikes against me.”“I’m a woman, I’m a minority and I’m a lawyer,” she pointed out, smiling. “But you can succeed. America is the land of freedom and opportunity. A lot of my clients say, ‘She’s been there. I trust her.’ And I can empathize with my clients.”