Speaker: Sheela Murthy

Serving the Stranger: Extending Hospitality Even Through Inhospitable Times

When the photographer/artist husband of renowned immigration lawyer Sheela Murthy suggested more than 25 years ago that she should freely give away detailed information about navigating the immigration laws and system on the then-nascent World Wide Web, Murthy was skeptical. Legal information, after all, was the stock in trade of immigration lawyers. “If I didn’t love this man, I’d think he wants to bankrupt me,” she thought. But she had also learned over many years to heed and listen deeply to his instincts.

Her husband persisted: Knowledge is free, he told her, or at least it should be. “Life has been good to us. Let’s pass on the goodness to those who need it. What you do as a lawyer is something that no amount of information can replace. Giving people information will never get in the way of that. It will only empower people to fulfill their dreams a little more easily.”

And so Murthy Law Firm, of which Sheela is Founder, President & CEO, began pouring informational resources freely onto the web, at a time when few law firms recognized the reach, much less impact, of the Internet.

Sheela began by answering hundreds of questions online from immigrants to familiarize herself with daily, real-life issues which would not necessarily reach the stage of requiring professional legal advice. She started the weekly Murthy Bulletin, an e-mail newsletter, which lawyers weren’t really doing then, and which now has a massive global audience. She attracted an online immigrant community of hundreds of thousands and supported their peer-to-peer sharing of information and knowledge via a moderated bulletin board, with no hard sell — its priority not being to bring in clients “but to help. We clarify the most complicated laws, using tools like teleconferences, podcasts and blogging” where senior attorneys explain immigration law and processes.

Having been so frustrated by her own experience navigating the system and in obtaining legal status following her own arrival in the US, Sheela reveled in the opportunity to help people feel empowered and respected. And she soon discovered that her husband, Vasant, had been right: the firm’s website at one point became the most visited law firm website in the world. Yet even then, Murthy declined opportunities to monetize the site through paid subscriptions or even advertising. “We’ve been approached by insurance companies, travel agencies and airlines about doing ads,” Sheela told The New York Times in 2013. “While we like the idea of getting $5,000 a month with no effort, we don’t want clients wasting time looking at a bunch of ads before they get the information they need.”

This opportunity to freely offer information to the world was, in many ways, the culmination of a dream and a drive for service. As a young girl in India, Murthy read To Kill a Mockingbird, with little thought that she would someday travel to, much less live in, America. Though the world portrayed in the book was beyond her full comprehension at the time, she connected deeply, even at her young age, with the drive to right injustice that the book so powerfully captured. Having been raised by middle-class parents with a somewhat complicated marriage in India, Murthy had felt propelled from an early age to stand on her own and to serve others.

She now runs, out of Maryland, what has become the world’s pre-eminent U.S. immigration law firm, with a satellite office in Seattle and affiliate offices in Chennai, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, India. The Murthy Law Firm represents a wide range of clients, including large corporations and mid-size and small companies, entertainers, entrepreneurs, physicians, researchers, and others, pursuing both employment-based and family-based immigration options.

Murthy has skillfully and compassionately guided clients through the massive and often disruptive changes in the US immigration system following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. Guiding her throughout has been a commitment to offering deep hospitality for her clients, building trusted relationships with all players in the immigration system, serving the legitimate needs of her adopted nation, and working tirelessly to help meet her clients’ needs creatively in multiple ways.

The success of her firm allowed Murthy and her husband, Vasant Nayak, to co-found the MurthyNAYAK Foundation in 2001, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working on socially transformative projects designed to improve the lives of women, children, and immigrants, both in her birth country, India, and in her adopted country, the United States. Her life story has been captured in a biography recently released, Being Sheela: The Life Journey of an Immigration Lawyer (2020).

Murthy was born in Baroda, India, and attended University Law College in Bangalore, where she took first among law students from all over India in the Jessup Moot Court competition, organized by the American Society of International Law. She then was selected to represent India at the world level competition in New York City, and demonstrated her formidable advocacy skills even before the trip by persuading the state government to fund her and her partner's travel to the US!

Sheela met her husband, a photographer and digital artist, in Bangalore while he temporarily exhibited some of his photos there. He was leaving to study in the United States and encouraged her to apply for additional schooling there as well. She graduated with a further one-year LLM (Master of Laws) degree from Harvard Law School in 1987, worked for big firms in New York and Baltimore, before she started her own firm in 1994.

Join us in a fascinating and far-reaching conversation with this remarkable entrepreneur, attorney, and philanthropist – a conversation about the meaning of home, extending hospitality to newcomers, overcoming childhood obstacles, and stories of immigrants. Underlying all is a remarkable love story and a heart of love.


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