It was a case she couldn’t win. “There was such bad law in our area that we felt like we were hired to go down with the ship,” says Annapoorni “Anna” Sankaran, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig, of her defense of former employees of Arthur D. Little. “These people needed to be represented, but the law was against us and there was nothing we could do about it.”
Arthur D. Little, the world’s first management consulting firm, filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and ended up liquidating. The employee-owned company required its workers to buy its stock through a variety of plans, some governed by ERISA, the Federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Little had deferred payment to some departed employees, and when Sankaran’s firm took the case, the bankruptcy plan administrator was suing about 1,100 current and former employees through the uncommon strategy of a defendant class action. The administrator’s intent was to “subordinate” — essentially push to the back of the line — the former employees’ claims for stock option benefits. Given Little’s financial straits, that meant they would get nothing.
“We came up with some very creative arguments that hadn’t been tried before,” says Sankaran. “I was scouring the earth for what I could possibly say.” Meanwhile, Merrimac Paper Company was involved in a similar case that came before the First Circuit in June 2005. Sankaran filed an amicus brief in that case and persuaded the U.S. Department of Labor to file one too, feeling validated when its argument paralleled hers.
To much surprise, when the decision came down around Labor Day, the court overturned old propositions and opened the door for the types of claims the Merrimac retiree, and by extension those from Arthur D. Little, were filing. The opposing side in the Little case went from assuming a slam dunk to discussing a potential settlement, which is where it stands as this issue goes to press.
“It was an exciting case to have been involved in,” she says. “A lot of times in business litigation, you feel like [you’re] just helping one big company after another, but in this case, you felt like you were helping out a bunch of employees. That felt really nice.”
Sankaran, who is 33, grew up in Los Angeles, although her family keeps close ties to their native India. Her grandfather had been India’s first ambassador to the United Nations after the country’s independence, and she was born in Madras (now Chennai) because her mother observed tradition by returning to her parents’ home to give birth.
In her generation, children of ambitious Indian families were directed toward medicine, engineering or mathematics, Sankaran explains. The law barely registered. “A lot of times I think lawyers [in India] are seen as con artists,” she says. “It was never a profession that Indian children were encouraged to go into.”
Still, she knew early on that she wanted to be a lawyer. She was argumentative by nature and intrigued at a young age by “the fun courtroom stuff on TV.” She came east for college, which was what many of the grads of her private girls school in California did at the time, and studied political science and math at Boston University. She continued at BU for law school, finishing in 1995.
Her first job was at Tedeschi & Grasso, a small Boston firm that merged with Rubin and Rudman. In January 2001, she came to Greenberg Traurig, where she has recently made shareholder. She concentrates on commercial litigation, which she defines as “any kind of trouble a corporate client can get involved in.” That includes bankruptcy litigation, a focus that interests Sankaran because of its effect on retirees, an increasingly vulnerable group. “When you file for bankruptcy, first thing you do” — she snaps her fingers — “is terminate all retiree benefits.” Congress revamped the bankruptcy code last year, putting some restrictions on how companies treat their former employees, but that law has yet to be tested.
Sankaran’s is a recondite specialty, which is part of the appeal. “I like the intellectual rigor that’s involved,” she explains with the enthusiasm of someone who enjoys a good puzzle. “Figuring out the strategy and the best way to represent your client and putting together a good written product for a court and arguing at a high level. I really enjoy all of those things.”
Her most unique case does sound like a puzzle, or maybe a law book version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? While at Rubin and Rudman, she represented a Massachusetts insurance company whose managing general agent in Brussels had issued a policy to a Swiss company that bought sugar in Brazil to transport to Beirut on a Turkish ship. When the Turkish ship collided mid-ocean with a Japanese vessel carrying cornstarch, some of the sugar was ruined. The rest was later stolen by Turks and sold to Russian pirates, all of which raised the issue: What was covered by the insurance policy?
“This case took me around the world, which was terrific,” Sankaran says, laughing. It also taught her the value of collegiality. “The nice thing was how you can really represent your client zealously but still not be a jerk to the lawyers on the other side. I think it’s the way law should be practiced.”
Sankaran advocates her ideas about good legal practice through involvement with the North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) and its Boston chapter. As vice chair of the judiciary committee of NASABA, she vets judicial candidates seeking the organization’s endorsement and helps promote South Asians to the bench. As president of the Greater Boston chapter of the South Asian Bar Association (SABA), she hopes to serve the professional needs of its nearly 200 attorney and law student members and the legal needs of the area’s South Asian community.
Sankaran weighs carefully the question of how much one’s cultural background matters in the practice of law. She says she has never experienced bias because of her background. Still, when she goes to a court where there are few South Asians, she says, “I feel I have to be close to perfect because I never blend in.”
The value of her background, Sankaran proposes, comes in cultural sensitivity, and in understanding that is bred in the bone. For instance, SABA has begun to work on domestic-violence issues, which can call for legal expertise, bilingualism — Sankaran speaks Tamil — and alertness to the subtleties of other cultures. Many cases involve arranged marriages where a wife is in the United States on her husband’s visa; if the marriage ends, she gets deported, a cause of shame for her family. “It wouldn’t even occur to most American lawyers what the issue would be,” Sankaran says.
SABA’s membership is young enough for Sankaran to be considered an elder. “When I came out of law school there were probably five [South Asian lawyers] in the city,” she says. “Now there are so many talented lawyers in really good firms and government and all different areas of the law. It will be interesting to see what they make out of it over the next 20 years.”