Published in 2022 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
By Nancy Henderson on April 7, 2022
After visiting the U.S. as a tourist at a young age, Jazmin Alagha distinctly recalls jumping up and down on the bed with her sisters in Guanajuato, Mexico, pretending they could speak English. “We would just say gibberish [that meant], ‘One day, we’re going to live in the U.S.,’” she says. “My parents had their own business and their own home, so at the time it seemed completely far-fetched that one day we would leave it all behind.”
The siblings’ talk wasn’t so unlikely after all. By a couple of years later in 1989, it had become hard to say no to Alagha’s grandfather, who kept calling to persuade Alagha’s parents to join him and the rest of the family in America—she remembers his promise that his refrigerator was always stocked with five gallons of milk. “My mom lied and told my dad and us that we were coming to the U.S. and we were just going to visit,” says Alagha, who was 6 at the time. “And we never left.”
Here, five attorneys who emigrated from other countries share memories, challenges, and what they bring to the practice of law that no one else can.
Memories of Home
Oksana Holder; Scottsdale Family Law; Family Law; Latvia: I grew up in the Soviet Union, because Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union until 1991. People were happier because they didn’t have a lot of choice. Like, for example, shoes. I’m into shoes. I’m a shoe-aholic. There, it was a different story. You need shoes, you go to the store, you stand in line for two hours. Then your mom replaces you for another two hours and the neighbor replaces her so you don’t lose your place in line. When your turn comes, they don’t ask you, “Are you size 7½?” You just say brown or black. They give you a size close to yours. If it’s three sizes bigger, you put on socks.
Michael Moldoveanu; Goldberg & Osborne; Personal Injury; Romania: My dad had a restaurant. He had a store. He had a movie theater. One of the funniest memories I have is when I was on spring break and I got to spend the week with him and he was working at the movie theater. I had to watch The Bodyguard three times a day for four days. I now know the Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner movie very, very well.
LiJen Shen; Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner; Intellectual Property; Taiwan: The economy was not great, so we didn’t have a lot of things when I was a child. On New Year’s Eve we would try on our new clothes because we were so excited. For everyday clothing, you generally get it from your siblings, but for New Year’s Day, you get something new.
Olsi Vrapi; Vrapi Weeks; Immigration Law; Albania: Because of the shortages of food and everything else that were endemic during the communist system, everybody had ration cards, but you had to be first in line. My grandfather would get up at 3:00 every morning to go stand in line for milk because the milk truck came to the store at 4:00 or 5:00 and the store would open at 6:00. Some of our clients are still going through bread lines and famine and things like that.
Jazmin Alagha; Ybarra Maldonado Law Group; Criminal Defense and Personal Injury; Mexico: The first time I found out about the Day of the Dead, I was 15 years old and came across it in some Nickelodeon show where they were, for the first time, trying to show representation of Mexican culture. I rolled my eyes and thought, “This is such b.s.” My mom said, “No, that’s a big tradition.” That was the first time I realized that I’m not fully Mexican any longer, but I’m not fully from the U.S., either.
Headed for America
Vrapi: My future law partner, who retired [in 2020], served as a missionary in Albania for a number of years, and he and his wife invited me to stay with them if I ever wanted to go to college here. I had a bit of a rocky path to get the student visa issued. The testing centers in Albania were closed because of the civil unrest that was happening there, so I had to take a 22-hour bus ride to Greece to take the test. And then the school misinformed me that I hadn’t passed, which I had, so I went back and took it a second time. I was also denied a visa at the U.S. Consulate in Macedonia. It was quite the year, but I was dogged and determined.
Shen: I wanted to live in a [new] place so I could see what’s going on out there. America was kind of a natural choice because I don’t have other language skills. I learned French for a year and I knew that I was terrible.
Moldoveanu: My dad was trying to start and do businesses the right way, and he got tired of the corruption and bureaucracy. When we moved, it was about two or three years post-revolution and there was still a lot of social turmoil. One day I remember going to the train station and getting on a train, and that was that. I was 7 or 8.
Vrapi: New Mexico is very different from Albania in terms of geography and climate. The high desert grows on you. It’s kind of a shock at first. Now I’m so used to the dry weather that everywhere I go where it’s sticky, I’m like, “Get me out of here.”
Moldoveanu: We moved to Canada first. In Romania, they had opened up the first McDonald’s. We had eaten there once and I was infatuated by it. I remember being super tired after an 11-hour plane ride [from Romania to Vancouver] and just seeing all of the McDonald’s signs. I was like, “I’m going to be happy here.”
Shen: I came here on July 31, 2008. I landed at LAX and the temperature was perfect. Then when I arrived here in Phoenix, it was scorching hot. I was like, “What’s going on with this place?” Also, Taiwan is a very crowded island, so there’s always traffic, and there are always people talking. So I said, “Why is it so quiet here?”
Holder: I thought America was a bunch of skyscrapers, like New York. And then I came to Vermont and it was a city with 5,000 people and a few buildings, period. It was hard for me to get the rural part of America, where you don’t have public transportation, you need to drive a car.
Not Always Easy
Alagha: When I was 11, we got woke up one night, in the middle of the night, and my mom was crying and she woke up my sisters and me and she said, “Immigration got your dad.” We prayed the whole night as she cried. … Apparently there were [immigration] applications pending for us.
Holder: I had some barriers to be accepted into the legal world. I worked as a paralegal for four years before going to law school because of the English issue. It was hard for me to find a job as a paralegal because I didn’t have a good command of English.
Shen: In Taiwan we’re taught to be humble and not take credit for something. Sometimes people here are straightforward when they talk to you. I had to get used to that. It was a challenge for me to be straightforward. It still is.
The Appeal of Law
Alagha: My mom got a lawyer [after my dad was detained]. In the courtroom, I walked in and there was this tall man who appeared to be the biggest man ever, with curly hair, and he was our immigration attorney. I could hear the judge talking and I could hear him talking. None of it made any sense because it was all legal stuff, but at the end of it he walks toward us and he’s like, “We won. He can stay here.” That’s when I decided that I wanted to be an attorney.
Vrapi: In the movie My Cousin Vinny, Vinny said, “I’m really good at arguing, so I naturally went to law school.” I’m a very analytical person and I’m all about rules. My friends and family say I suck the fun out of board games.
Shen: This is my second career. I was a software engineer in Taiwan, and I majored in computer science. I felt frustrated because I couldn’t really see an outcome that lasted very long. I said, “I need to find something else.” I knew some big companies in Taiwan that hire American lawyers, so I thought, “If things don’t work out here, maybe I can do that.”
Moldoveanu: My parents are both engineers. I went to their work one day and saw the cubicles and all the numbers and I’m like, “I’m not doing this.” Part of the reason we moved was because the law in Romania did not protect people like my dad. That planted a seed in the sense that I wanted to help folks like my dad.
Choosing a Practice
Moldoveanu: I always knew I wanted to be in a people-centric area of practice. Personal injury is very person-driven. A lot of weird stuff happens and people get hurt in a lot of strange ways—like on trampolines, whatever you can imagine. This allows me to really interact with people and learn a lot about the world.
Alagha: When I first started practicing law, I was in a tiny immigration courtroom, waiting for my case to be called, and he was sitting across from me waiting for his case—the exact same attorney from when I was a little girl. I couldn’t get myself to go up to him, but I so desperately wanted to like tap on his shoulder and be like, “I’m here because of you.” It was such a surreal moment, because here we are as colleagues when he was this superhero for such a long time for me. … A lot of the criminal cases [at my firm]—we try to resolve them in a way that at least will minimize their immigration conflicts. It is really heartbreaking to say, “Hey, you would have qualified for this had you not pled guilty to this charge.”
Holder: While being a paralegal, I tried working in construction litigation. I tried to work with insurance. I tried to work with taxes. It wasn’t enough for me. At the end of the day, you’re defending a company or a builder or an insurance provider who doesn’t send you a thank-you note. I need to be connected to people.
Keeping Up Traditions
Vrapi: During communism, there was no religion, so we had a New Year’s tree and New Year’s presents. Instead of Santa, there was Old Man New Year. It’s kind of like Christmas and New Year’s combined into one, and we still do that with friends and family.
Alagha: We stay up till midnight on Christmas Eve and then we rock Baby Jesus. It’s old and it’s porcelain and we put it in a blanket, and then we sing and rock him to celebrate his birth.
Holder: Easter is a really big holiday in our culture, and I try to continue celebrating it. In our culture, egg coloring is more than just for the kids. We color them with special colors and techniques and have an egg contest.
Strengths of an Immigrant
Shen: Sometimes the clients don’t give a response because they are too polite. But because I am from that culture, I will be able to get them to open up to me. When I was starting to practice, I was sitting in a meeting with a client from China, and he’d been here for many, many years. There was a partner who was negotiating a contract for him and he said, “You need to translate back to me.” I didn’t really appreciate the nuances at the time. But after the meeting, my boss asked me to confirm things. And then I noticed something that was missing in their communication. And then I thought, “Yes, there is something culturally that is not there.”
Holder: I believe that I think outside the box in the terms that American attorneys don’t think. Quite often the solution I propose is rather complex, but this is something that other people didn’t think about because their brain is not wired this way.
Alagha: Too often, I think there’s this culture of, “I’m the attorney. I know what’s best.” And we forget that there’s underlying fear. As an immigrant, I have a duty to overinform my clients, because I think too often they get taken advantage of or they just get told, “Trust me.”
Alagha: Make connections. Find mentors, as many as you can, and then just pick their brains. Too often, we’re raised with this mentality that if we’re immigrants, we’ve got to pull ourselves [up] by our bootstraps and do it on our own, but we shouldn’t have to. Also, don’t underestimate the power of courtroom staff or paralegals, because, more often than not, they know more than attorneys and they don’t mind if you ask questions.
Vrapi: Remember where you came from. That’s what your client is going through. When you reach back to “this is who I was and this is how I got here,” you tend to identify with the client a lot better and they tend to connect a lot better with you.
Holder: Find an experienced mentor. When I graduated from law school, I was noticed by Angela Hallier, one of the partners in a boutique law firm. She invited me to come to Phoenix and join their practice, and she took me under her wing for four years. When I asked her why she was doing this, she said, “Because someone did it for me when I was younger and I want to return the favor. I hope you will pay it forward.”
Shen: There are a lot of things to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask. I was very shy in the beginning, so I didn’t really ask. I didn’t want people to think I was stupid and didn’t know the culture. If you don’t understand, go home and do your homework. People are willing to help.
Moldoveanu: I think there’s a tendency, being an immigrant, to really try to play down your roots, play down where you’re from, play down who you are. My dream for the longest time was, “Oh man, I wish I had been born here.” It really took a mixture of great friends, great schools, supportive employers, and a very long time for me to fully embrace that me being an immigrant is not something to be ashamed of, but to be proud of. Your roots are assets, not liabilities.
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