Patriotic clichés are easy to spout. But for three young Los Angeles-area attorneys, immigration to this country really did grant them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Published in 2008 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
By James Walsh on June 13, 2008
KGB: Nyet! Olga: Da!
Olga Berson came to America as part of the first bilateral U.S.-U.S.S.R. college exchange program in 1988. Before her semester at Dartmouth even began, however, the KGB warned her that her family would face problems if she was tempted to not return to Russia. Berson finished her semester and promptly headed home to continue her science education in Moscow.
But as the Soviet Union crumbled, so did the Russian economy. There were lines in Moscow for milk and bread. Career prospects for the young, would-be scientist dimmed. While she was finishing her first year in a prestigious graduate program, Berson says she felt she had few real options.
“While science had been the best career path under the Soviet system, the economy made it out of the question for me at that time,” she says. “I wanted to have a professional future. But, at that time, there was nothing on the horizon for me in Russia.”
So when family friends invited her to spend the summer with them in Los Angeles, she leapt at the chance. The Southern California sun held its usual seduction (not to mention the freedom and wealth of America), and Berson began looking for a way to stay. An educational extension did the trick. She enrolled in an environmental science graduate program at Caltech,
earning a master’s degree and a doctorate. Over the next several years, she worked for a small company as a research scientist on science projects such as environmentally friendly detergents and fuel additives.
But soon, the bank account for the overextended company emulated that of the Russian economy. Paychecks became sporadic and Berson knew it was time to find a new career. But “after all those years I had been studying, I really didn’t want to be too far from what I know,” she says.
Following a friend’s advice, she considered patent law, and became the technical consultant with an IP group at Hogan & Hartson. Now, as an associate at the firm, she works in the areas of life sciences and chemical and pharmaceutical litigation. She cultivates, among other things, Russian businesses interested in understanding and using U.S. patent law.
“I love it. It’s fabulous,” Berson, 42, says of her work with medical devices and new drugs. “I can work in so many technical areas. You sort of get exposed to the best of the best.”
It hasn’t been easy. Married while she was attending Caltech, Berson has juggled marriage and raising two boys with graduate studies, law school and now a growing practice. Her parents now live in the United States—her younger brother stayed in Russia, where he works in environmental consulting—and Berson says she is trying to “find some balance between work and family.”
Her prospects, though, are much improved from her days spent standing in milk lines. “The hours are long and sometimes you stay up all night,” she says. “But this is the life I wanted. I absolutely love it.”
The Diplomat’s Daughter
Rita Diaz doesn’t remember life in Guatemala, the nation of her birth. She was not even a year old when she left. Her father served as the Guatemalan consul in Los Angeles and, later, the Guatemalan ambassador to Japan. But in 1982, when political corruption and warfare completely overtook Guatemala, her father’s ambassador post was not renewed and the family sought safety in the United States.
Growing up, Diaz often talked with her father about politics and leadership and the many problems facing the world, and the teenaged Diaz was no yes-woman. She liked arguing different points of view with him, she says. In time, she would go on to participate in debate in high school and, later, major in political science at UCLA. While in college she decided that those skills would fit well into a legal career, and she began studies at USC Law School. This natural debater knew she wanted to be a litigator right out of the chute.
“I find the adversarial process challenging and fun,” says Diaz, a partner in employment, trust and estate litigation in the Pasadena firm Hahn & Hahn. “I like formulating arguments and arguing in court.”
But this diplomat’s daughter doesn’t believe that courtroom contests need to turn hateful, even though much of her work must cut through the longstanding rivalries and broken feelings of fractured families, not to mention fights over how to divide sums of money and property.
“I find that if you deal with opposing counsel in a respectful way, there is no reason the adversarial process has to be ugly,” she says.
Diaz says that good communication is essential before moving forward on a case. Because of that, she says, she must first understand her clients’ issues—and their personalities. Sometimes, she says, that’s easy. Many clients want to share their histories, talk about their families, their points of view, and how it got to the point where a trust or estate issue can only be hashed out in a court of law.
“Other clients,” she says, “you really have to probe, ask a lot of questions to get them to open up. Sometimes that takes a little bit of time, especially if it’s the first time they’ve talked to you.”
But the absence of openness is not the only problem she must deal with. For many clients, the litigation process is a mystery. Worse, it’s something they believe they know, having seen legal stories in movies or on television. Clients often don’t understand that litigation can be a long, slow and painful process. Explaining all this, it comes in handy to be the daughter of a diplomat—she must gently, tactfully but honestly communicate with her client.
“Then you are truly a counselor,” Diaz says. “Sometimes you get great cases. Sometimes you don’t. You have to be forthright with the clients.”
Still, she says, when it comes to siblings who have battled for 20 years and now are battling over their dead father’s fortune, it can be difficult to temper expectations and expect no tempers. Especially when clients know they are right … but proof is hard to find.
“That’s a tough pill for a client to swallow,” she says. “And it’s really not fair.”
Diaz, who is married with a new baby boy, knows she still has much to learn about strategy, about planning, about laying the groundwork for her clients’ financial futures. But if those talks with her father taught her anything, it was to keep up the fight—and keep communicating.
Khomeini Arrives, the Dayzads Leave
In February 1979, the Islamic Revolution engulfed Iran. Navid Dayzad’s father was an engineer and business executive in Tehran. As a religious minority, he knew he had to move quickly to save his wife and children from certain danger, as young Islamic radicals overthrew the secular government of the Shah. By April 16, the family was in the United States.
Everyone, that is, but Dayzad’s father. He sent his wife, his daughter and 4-year-old son ahead but he stayed behind, losing his chance to leave the country. It would take another six years for Dayzad’s father to make his way out of Iran and reunite with his loved ones.
“My entire grade school years … there was a lot of missing my dad,” says Dayzad, 33.
He majored in psychology at UCLA, but had a “strong feeling,” he says, that he would go to law school. Still, psychology appealed to him.
“I knew it was going to help me in life, and whatever career I was going to decide on,” he says. He focused on social psychology, understanding how people interact. Such skills would come in handy after Dayzad earned his J.D. from the University of California-Berkeley.
“I’m half-attorney and half-psychologist,” he jokes.
Dayzad started his legal career at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, where he focused on employment law. Then he worked at two specialty firms, focusing on immigration law. He opened his own small firm two years ago. Dayzad Law Offices specializes in two areas of immigration and citizenship law: Employment-based immigration, representing employers that are trying to obtain work visas for foreign-born workers or transfer employees to U.S. offices; and family-based immigration cases where he works to help family members stay here or reunite with one another.
“Business immigration is as compelling as any other,” Dayzad says of his efforts to help employers keep qualified employees who nevertheless often find their ability to stay in this country blocked by U.S. law and quotas.
“They’re working here because they want to give a great start to their families and their kids,” he says of the foreign-born workers. “I grew up in a house where words like ‘visa’ and ‘consulate’ were household terms. All we wanted was to continue with our lives.”
Immigration is a demanding and emotionally rewarding area of law. It’s hard to watch a grandparent be deported or see an employer lose a top-notch engineer. But Dayzad has been successful, prevailing in more than 95 percent of his cases.
Dayzad knows there is the perception of the “sleazy” immigration lawyer, taking desperate people’s money and poorly representing them. In fact, Dayzad says, some of his clients were victimized by just that type of lawyer.
“They’ve been ripped off, they’re facing deportation proceedings, and they come to me for help,” he says. “I take pride in providing responsible and honest legal services to individuals and businesses that need legal counsel.”
At the same time his clients include Fortune 500 and international companies, hoping to bring key employees to this country to perform services or develop new products. It is these immigrants that can boost the local economy and strengthen the brainpower of a profession.
In his relatively short career, Dayzad has become deeply involved in efforts to reform immigration law. He has volunteered for the American Immigration Law Foundation, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Immigration Equality and other organizations. He was asked to serve on the Los Angeles Mayor’s Advisory Board to advocate for immigrant rights.
And much of what he has seen makes him wonder at what he sees as the seemingly arbitrary—sometimes counterproductive—decisions made by the U.S. Congress to restrict immigration. Consider, for example, what has happened with the H-1B visa for professional workers. At one time, the law allowed 195,000 work visas to be granted each year. Now, only 65,000 visas—plus 20,000 for those with master’s degrees from U.S. universities—are granted, thanks to Congress not renewing the earlier quota. Yet, Dayzad says, in 2008, there were 160,000 applications within the first seven days of the filing period. The result is that many employers will not be able to hire workers they were recruiting, and thousands of professionals will have to leave the U.S.
“We’re pushing workers we need to build our economy out the door,” Dayzad says.
Another example of our immigration law: While opposite-sex couples can obtain green cards and permanent resident status through their relationship, same-sex couples have no such pathway to legal status. Many meet, live together and share lives, only to face separation when the foreign national’s work or student visa expires.
“Clients are forced to make heartbreaking decisions,” Dayzad says.
Still, he’s seen some progress. Lobbying efforts at Congress to correct such disparities are making headway. But, “It’s a long way away,” he says.
Looking back to the days when his father remained in Tehran and his mother battled to win the right for him to come here, Dayzad can’t help but feel that fate led him to this particular area of the law.
After graduating from law school, he learned the father of a good friend he’d made at Berkeley was the immigration lawyer who got his family their green cards. An accident?
“Karma,” Dayzad says.
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