Zahra Karinshak speaks Arabic with a strong Southern accent
One day as the millennium dawned, Gov. Roy Barnes dropped a bombshell on his staff: He wanted to change the state flag.
“We all said, ‘You’ll lose the election,’” recalls Zahra Karinshak, who was his deputy executive counsel. “He said, ‘I know, but it’s the right thing to do.’”
“There were a lot of misperceptions about it,” Gov. Barnes says today. “Many people believed [the flag] had always looked that way.”
In fact, the Confederate imagery was added in 1956, as a middle-finger to integration.
“Zahra researched the year 1956 to give context to the times,” Barnes says. “She found legislation denying police their pensions if they didn’t enforce segregation. She played an integral role in changing the flag. She helped me draft the legislation, and she helped me work the legislators by educating them on the true history behind that symbol.”
Still, the initiative proved highly controversial, and though it finally passed, it ultimately cost the governor another term.
“It was a scary time; there were protesters screaming at us,” Karinshak says. “Even my Paw-Paw [maternal grandfather], who was very astute, asked me if I’d be able to find a job when it was done.”
The day of the big unveiling, she was in possession of the new flag design, charged with keeping it under wraps. “Reporters were offering me bribes to get a sneak peek at it,” she says. “That was a proud moment, because of the governor’s political courage.”
Karinshak’s résumé is so formidable, and includes such a strong military background, that on first meeting her one expects a super-serious person with ramrod posture. Instead, at Krevolin & Horst in Midtown, where she’s a partner, Karinshak is earthy and accessible. She winks a lot, as if everyone is in on the joke. Her Southern accent is especially heavy.
She was born Zahra Sheikholeslam, the daughter of a Persian father and an American mother, and grew up in LaFayette in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis. Her father, she says, was a curiosity in the small town, where folks would drop in on Saturdays to invite the Sheikholeslams to church. “We didn’t get called names or anything, the way some people did,” she says. “People stood up for us; they protected us. They accepted my dad; and they had intellectual and religious conversations with him that you would never expect in small-town Georgia. That’s the beauty of a small town, which I didn’t always appreciate when I was young. But then I got out and saw what it was like in other places. And I appreciate it now.”
She was the oldest of five children in a family of limited means; but her family was very patriotic, especially her father. “He loved being in America and all things American.” So military academy beckoned as a promising option. Karinshak’s “Paw-Paw,” who was a Marine in World War II, sought guidance from their congressman, Buddy Darden.
“At that time, my district encompassed suburban Atlanta and rural areas, including LaFayette,” Darden says. “Usually, the kids with higher test scores were from the suburbs, so, to be honest, I was skeptical at first. But the more I got to know Zahra, the more impressed I became with her potential.”
Darden nominated her for an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, where she was awarded a full scholarship. “And this was important to me at the time: I would be guaranteed a job when I graduated,” she says.
Karinshak was part of the ninth class to admit women, who were outnumbered roughly 12 to 1 by male cadets. It’s her understanding that no female student from rural Georgia had ever graduated from the academy. “I really stood out with my twangy accent,” she says. “People would say, ‘So you’re from Podunk, Georgia, huh?’ It was tough. It gave me the sense that, if I could survive that, I could survive just about anything. It’s one of my greatest blessings and the foundation of everything that came afterward.”
She didn’t just survive; she thrived. The rigor suited her. She ran cross-country and worked as an instructor pilot, making the cover of USA Today while she was a cadet. She earned a B.S. in international affairs with a minor in Arabic. “I speak it with a Southern accent,” she says. She was then commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force and attended intelligence training, where she achieved the highest academic average in the program’s history. Then she was sent to Washington, D.C.
“I was involved with this cool project that was known at the time as ‘Star Wars,’” she says, “but I really can’t talk about that. Or I’d have to kill you.” She winks. While she was in D.C., she met her husband, Bruce, a West Point graduate. “We added it up, and between our two families, we have a combined total of 130 years of military service in our generation alone,” she says, beaming. She likes to note that she has “served” in some capacity under five presidents—from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the military doesn’t just fight in wars but also engages in a lot of humanitarian and diplomatic work,” she says. “I wanted to make a career of public service, and I regarded the law as a way to do that. Someone comes to you with a problem, and your mission is to solve it.”
So she returned home to Georgia and enrolled in law school at Emory University, where she was a Sidney Parks Scholar, editor-in-chief of the Emory Law Journal and a member of Order of the Coif. While in law school, she interned for the Hon. Robert Benham. She then clerked for the Hon. J.L. Edmondson on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. “I pretty much didn’t sleep at all during my clerkship, but it was another blessing in my life because Judge Edmondson was such a great role model.”
From there, she joined Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan as a litigation associate. A highlight of her tenure was The Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, which required her to live in a Manhattan hotel during the work week for about six months. “I loved living there without really living there,” she says. “Riding the subway, working in the attorney general’s office at 2 a.m. I was there during the Amadou Diallo protests. I never dreamed I’d be doing that when I was growing up in LaFayette.”
All the while, Rep. Darden stayed in touch with her, keeping tabs on her progress. When the governor asked him to recommend a “real nuts-and-bolts lawyer, not just a politician,” he suggested Karinshak. “There are people who are highly intelligent and people who work very hard—Zahra combines both of those qualities,” Darden says.
“I loved that job,” she says of her work in the Barnes administration. “I loved the little details of it. I heard from people all over the state who needed help. For example, this 86-year-old woman in south Georgia called me and said the power company had cut down some trees and left them in her yard. She wasn’t able to move them herself—could we help? ... I was always trying to get something done for somebody when I wasn’t trying to get a legal opinion done in three minutes. It was a lot like The West Wing, but with less walking.”
Barnes valued Karinshak for her sense of humor, among other things. “It was such a pressure-cooker environment that if you couldn’t pause to laugh every now and then you’d go crazy,” he says. “Zahra disarms you with her humor and her graciousness.”
After Barnes’ ouster, she went to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia in 2003. “I was focused on violent crime,” she says. “I was involved in two task forces I’m proud of: Project Safe Neighborhoods, which identified and focused prosecution on repeat offenders in gun-crime hot spots, and the Human Trafficking Task Force, the first one that focused on the trafficking of children for the purposes of prostitution. Sadly, Atlanta is a hub for sex trafficking.”
She especially enjoyed working with federal agents. “It was like being back in the military,” she says. “They’re highly dedicated to their mission, and they’re not paid enough.”
In 2011, Karinshak joined Krevolin & Horst, where she works on white-collar criminal defense, whistleblower cases and complex civil litigation. “Some of my whistleblower clients are people who have had a moment of moral clarity, but most of them were fired from their jobs,” she says. “I handle securities fraud, bank fraud, financial aid for students. ... Medicare and Medicaid fraud—that’s really rampant. I represent a lot of government employees who have been fired from their agencies.”
One of her first clients at the firm was whistleblower Vincent Cefalu, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who began voicing concerns about corruption and Operation Fast and Furious. “He had been a Marine, so he was a duty-honor-country guy,” she says. “I went out [to California] to represent him. As luck would have it, the judge was a Jimmy Carter appointee, so we had a Georgia connection.” On the eve of the trial, the agency settled.
Karinshak also serves on the Criminal Justice Act panel for the Northern District of Georgia, where she offers her services to indigent defendants facing federal prosecution.
“Zahra has a very down-to-earth style,” says Natasha Perdew Silas, a senior litigator with the Federal Defender Program. “She works with an eye toward the mitigating factor. She’s the kind of attorney who can sit across from you in a conference room and work to hammer out the most just result, not only the winning result. She’s so compassionate that she worries about how cases will affect people; she looks for the humanity in a case rather than just sticking to a script.”
Douglas Chandler, of Chandler & Moore Law, went to high school with Karinshak and now collaborates with her from time to time. “There really are too many great qualities about Zahra, but the absolute best quality is that she will always treat you the way she wants to be treated, and you can take what Zahra tells you to the bank,” he says. “In a day and time when distrust among lawyers abounds, you can count on Zahra’s word. She is a handshake lawyer. If she tells you she is going to do something, you can believe she will follow through.”
When she is not pacing the courtroom, Karinshak spends time with her husband, who is a vice president of Coca-Cola, and their two teenage daughters at their Lawrenceville home. “My life has been a series of blessings and mentors who invested in me,” she says. “If Buddy Darden hadn’t tapped me for the Academy, I would’ve never escaped poverty. Instead I saw the world and met this great guy from up north, and now I get to do what I love in a Midtown law firm.
“I came from nothing,” she adds. “I wouldn’t have even known how to dream any of this.”
Photo by: Stan Kaady