Published in 2023 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on November 9, 2023
One arrived in the United States at 3 months old after being orphaned on the streets of Kolkata. Another came at 24 to attend law school for the second time, and two immigrated as children when communist regimes fell in their respective countries. But all have one important thread in common, best captured by estate planning lawyer Savina Keaney: “As an immigrant, you have only yourself to rely on.”
These four St. Louis-based attorneys muscled their way through tough circumstances, language barriers, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty to rise to the tops of their fields. These are their stories.
Yi Sun, Yi Sun & Associates; Immigration; China: I went to law school in China. When I graduated, studying abroad was popular, but most international students were going abroad for sciences and I didn’t think law would get me there. I was interested in Western culture, and through research found out U.S. law schools did programs for international students. I was accepted to Washington University in St. Louis and arrived in August 2001.
Michael Klenov, Korein Tillery; Securities and Antitrust Litigation; Russia: I lived in Russia until I was 10. Those years preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union were politically, economically, and culturally uncertain. After decades of repression, people were trying to figure out how to survive. Entrepreneurial-minded people like my parents looked forward to what the country would look like after the collapse of communism. My parents were always open to the West and realized the strong demand for Western goods: They started a business importing Western products. The legality was uncertain, but I was too young to understand. It was very risky; there were threats of violence, murder, and kidnapping. My parents arranged for armed escorts for my sister and I. But my parents, who were intelligent, hardworking, and young, were afraid and wanted to flee. We left as political refugees in 1993 and settled in St. Louis.
Savina N. Keaney, Lowenhaupt & Chasnoff; Estate Planning & Probate; Bulgaria: My parents came over in ’90, after communism fell, when I was 2. I stayed behind while my parents did the hard work to set us up, and joined when I was 3. In Bulgaria, there was a lot of uncertainty. The currency was vacillating out of control. They had this little kid who they had to provide a future for, and they decided America was the answer. They came with no money, and one suitcase of clothes and belongings.
Joel R. Samuels, Harness IP; Intellectual Property; India: I was born in Kolkata and taken to an orphanage called the International Mission of Hope. I have no idea what came of my parents. I was adopted at 3 months by my Swedish and Swiss-German parents. We first lived in St. Louis; then in Calhoun County, Illinois; and then from fifth grade through high school, Hawaii.
Klenov: I remember driving along the highway from the airport and being dazzled by billboards. I was like, “Holy crap!” It was night, they were lit up, and I was mesmerized. I thought, “This must be that place—Vegas.” Now I look at billboards and think they’re the open-air equivalent of junk mail.
Keaney: TV during the daytime was a revelation. This was not something my parents anticipated in Bulgaria, as TV was static until 8 p.m. They did not like it for me. Naturally, it was all I wanted to do.
Sun: My first day of school, all the people I walked by waved to me. I wasn’t sure what was going on. There are so many people in China that it’s overwhelming. People hustle everywhere; there is no time for hellos to strangers. I soon thought, “How lovely!” I also was immediately shocked that people stood in lines: to get on a bus, or to buy something. It was so organized! In China, everybody rushes. It’s absolute chaos. I’ll also never forget the first time I saw an American steak bleeding on a plate. I could not believe what I was looking at.
Keaney: I remember the first time somebody spoke English to me at a supermarket. I froze. It was intimidating to have to be in a new society and interact when you’re little. I also remember having a lot less money than my classmates. If I wanted a bike, my dad would go to a secondhand store and find a piece of this bike and a piece of that bike and cobble ‘em together.
When you’re an immigrant, you don’t have a green card and you’re not a citizen, so you have only yourself to rely on. It took 10 years to get green cards, so there was this underlying fear that if you get out of line, you will get deported. There was always some Bulgarian kid in the grapevine who did something bad and got sent back.
Klenov: My parents spoke no English. I knew a little bit. We didn’t know anything about St. Louis, or know anybody. We were under the misimpression that St. Louis was on the ocean with palm trees. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment initially. The first couple of months were a whirlwind.
My parents decided to buy a house that they couldn’t afford, optimistic that they were going to grow into their potential quickly. In Russia, my mom was an electrical engineer and my dad had good business credentials. He thought, “We’re gonna make millions of dollars, ’cause that’s America.” It didn’t turn out that way: My mom cleaned houses; my dad cleaned skyscrapers. We overextended ourselves financially and went into bankruptcy. The house had to be sold. My parents got a really bad divorce. My dad gave up on the U.S. after only a few years and moved back to Russia, where he was either killed or committed suicide. We’ll never know.
Sun: A few things were very challenging, the first being September 11. I had been here for less than a month. On the way to school that day, I was listening to the radio, something I did to try to improve my English. I heard “plane,” but it didn’t register. When I got to school, there were no classes—students were watching TV. When I saw the replay, I froze. I was scared, shocked, and very anxious. I started second-guessing my decision to come here and had nightmares about terrorists coming to St. Louis. I couldn’t reach my parents for days.
The second challenge was law school, in general: the isolation and the loneliness, as I had nothing else here at the time. It was difficult because China is not common law. The way of teaching is also different. In China, it’s about statute—there’s right and wrong. Here, after a case discussion and analysis, I asked my professor, “So what’s the right answer?” The professor asked me, “What do you think? It depends.” I was very confused; to me, there was a right answer and a wrong one, and nothing in between.
Samuels: It’s been a journey for me, as it is for a lot of people, to find out who I am. Obviously, I’ve always been aware that I’m Indian. And I’ve lived in America my entire conscious life, but I get my fair share of “Son, you’re not from around here.” And I’m like, “But I actually am!”
I grew up facing many assumptions, as a kid and an adult. I had a friend of mine say, “I need to know how to say ‘I don’t speak Hindi’ in Hindi.” I said, “I need to know that, too.” I’ve tried 23andMe and Ancestry.com, but I’ve actually found out more about myself through the lens of other Indians: They take one look at me and say, “Oh, you’re Bengali.’’ When DNA data confirmed it, they were like, “Yeah. We told you. You could have saved your money.”
Finding a Foothold
Sun: Passing the bar changed everything. I passed it the first time, while some of my native-speaking classmates had to take it again. I was very proud.
Klenov: My mom was working 120 to 140 hours a week, and she recognized quickly that she should be talking to successful people. The people she worked for, those who could afford a housekeeper, were wealthier. From them, she identified the best school, and I was tasked with getting into that school, John Burroughs, in St. Louis. I got just about the 99th percentile on every test, which surprised the school, given that I only recently learned English. Once I got into the school, we finally had an anchor.
Keaney: I grew up in a small town: Carbondale, Illinois. There weren’t a whole lot of Bulgarian people there, so forging community took time. But, eventually, there was a small Bulgarian population, and a lot of that was thanks to the building my parents did: They were language professors and helped bring Bulgarian students and academics to Illinois. I think when we finally all felt like we “made it” was after I got a full-tuition scholarship for undergrad. My parents could not afford to send me to college. When I got that scholarship, I felt like I achieved what they brought me here to do.
Samuels: My parents made a concerted effort to make sure I explored and understood my roots. I went to an Indian summer camp. I went back to the orphanage when I was in high school with an organization called The Ties Program, which organizes group heritage trips for adopted kids. … One of the nurses who took care of me when I was a baby was still there. I don’t know if at that precise moment I was caught up in trying to figure out what it means to be Indian, or coming to terms with the reality that I could have easily been an orphan who grew up in the streets of Kolkata. There are a ton of moments in your life that, when you’re living in them, you don’t really feel the heft of them until later. All that hit me later.
Keaney: Bulgarian culture is a café culture—a slower pace. Things aren’t as life-and-death as here because, historically, the Bulgarian people have been through a lot. They’ve fought the dominance of other cultures. So, it’s important in Bulgaria to preserve your family unit, and we continue to live that today: We exclusively speak Bulgarian at home; we celebrate Thanksgiving with a Bulgarian turkey recipe. My ties remain strong, as I went back most summers growing up to visit my grandparents. I also did a legal internship in Bulgaria before I started practicing here.
Klenov: We quickly closed the door to Russia. There is a decent Russian population in St. Louis, but my mom made a conscious decision to avoid it. We didn’t have a large extended Russian family, and the circumstances under which we left … my mother was happy if we forgot the language existed. Even into my teens, if somebody called the house and hung up, my mom would think someone was coming for us. I do love the cultural aspects of Russia: the literature, the composers, the ballet.
Sun: I started doing criminal defense work for a lawyer I met through the Asian American Bar Association. He was not Asian—he was a white man interested in Asian culture. He became somewhat of a mentor, and asked me, “Why don’t you just start your own practice?” I wouldn’t have dreamed of that. I said, “I don’t know anything. How can I do that?” He helped me, and I now have a purely solo shop doing immigration work. I can understand my clients’ journeys, and they can understand me.
Samuels: The law was something I was always interested in, but wasn’t sure of a way in. It started when I was as an undergraduate economics student, with a guy I happened to sit next to at an antitrust meeting. He worked for Coca-Cola, and he helped me find an IP internship at the company. Now I work in brand protection litigation.
Keaney: You have two choices as a little Bulgarian kid: doctor or lawyer. I wanted to go into medicine, but found out very quickly that that was not for me. So I tried law school, and it was absolutely the right thing.
Klenov: I gravitated toward the law because I’m naturally inclined to be a reader, analyzer, and writer. I’ll never forget studying for the bar. I was always the kid who could get an “A” after putting in a third of the time others did. The bar exam was the first time I thought, “Oh, shit. I cannot fail.” I panicked. I got lockjaw and couldn’t open my mouth for days. Then, once I knew I passed it, I immediately took three more [in other states].
Samuels: Something I’m passionate about is diversifying the law. I was at a conference recently and said to colleagues, “When you hear ‘Joel Samuels’, you may not envision an Indian guy born in India.” Assumptions like that make me want to do my part to work toward a more diverse bar, and to that end, I’m part of a wonderful program called the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, which helps connect and support diverse attorneys from across the legal spectrum. It’s not always the big things that will move the needle. There are a lot of people who do great work. But it’s also taking the time to simply extend the hand to bring others up with you.
Advice They’d Give Themselves
Klenov: “One day, it’s going to be OK.” We went through some bad stuff. There was a period of years where I wasn’t really sure where I was gonna end up. When I look back … I had a lot of anger as a teen, and I could have ended up as a criminal if it weren’t for my mom and for my education. Toward my later teens, I found a balance and some peace that set me on the right path.
Keaney: “Don’t be afraid of new people. Be confident.” And while I wouldn’t have understood this as a child, I think I would have said to lean into this kind of dual identity that I hold. It wasn’t easy to come to terms with, but I appreciate it fully.
Samuels: The one thing I will never have to tell myself is to be grateful. The butterfly effect means a lot to me. One little thing—one flap of a wing—could have changed the course of my entire narrative. Knowing that makes me incredibly thankful for this life.
Sun: “Don’t be scared. The sky is the limit. America rewards hard workers, so just do the work.” Sometimes I look back and realize things I could have done differently. And if I had veered in a different direction, in America there is the space for that; you don’t really have to stick to what you learn. America is an open door if you are only brave and willing to try. I think of some people in China who have one path, one job, one purpose. And I am glad I chose the open door.
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