Hon. Zainab Chaudhry '98, the first Muslim-American on Court of Claims, is one of 10 women featured in this year's alumni magazine.
We spoke with her about her historic appointment, her experience as a legal professional, and how her time at Albany Law School helped make it all possible.
Albany Law: Tell us what it means to you to be selected for this historic appointment. Chaudhry: It is an incredible honor and privilege to have been chosen by Governor Hochul for appointment to the New York State Court of Claims as part of her commitment to making sure the courts of this State reflect both excellence in skill and experience, as well as the rich diversity of our State. I am the first Muslim nominated by any Governor for the Court of Claims, or for any judicial seat in this State. In addition, along with two other of my fellow appointees this year, the three of us are the first South Asians on the Court of Claims. And in upstate New York, I am the first South Asian or Muslim judge on any court. As a first-generation American, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, I was the first in my family, and the first in the local Muslim community, to go to law school. My parents taught their children the value of education, hard work, and perseverance from an early age. But no one in my family could ever have dreamt of such an honor and it has meant so much to them. I never even imagined when starting out as a young lawyer that I would have the privilege of an incredible career in public service. And I certainly never imagined the possibility of becoming a judge. The possibility simply never occurred to me—not while I was in law school, and not in the following two decades as a practicing attorney. In all my years of appearing in various courts all over this State, I had never seen a judge that looks like me on the bench. And even if I had, I still might not have believed enough in myself to dream of attaining such a position. But I am here today because there were countless people who did believe in me and who saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue this path. I was inspired to seek judicial office and have a more visible role in our court system as I thought of my nieces and nephew, growing up in this country, in the times in which we live. After experiencing the social and political events of the past several years, I realized in a way that I hadn’t before why representation on the bench, as in all other spheres of government, is so important. I wanted them to know that this is their home and that they belong here; that they are a vital part of the fabric of this country and this State; and that anything is possible if you work hard, believe in yourself and dream big—that you can be judges or have a role in government or be anything else you want to be. 2 I know this is an incredible privilege and opportunity, and also a huge responsibility that I have sworn to uphold. As I begin this new journey, I am nervous yet excited about the task ahead. I pledge to ensure that each proceeding I conduct is as fair & just as possible; to apply the law as I understand it to reach equitable results; to treat everyone who appears before me—regardless of background—fairly & with respect & empathy; and to never forget that each decision I render will directly impact someone’s life.
Albany Law: Think back to your days at Albany Law School, what experiences or opportunities helped you prepare for both your overall career and serving as a judge? Chaudhry: I truly believe that my formative experiences at Albany Law School, and the incredible professors and opportunities available there, really set the stage for my entire career. Prior to my recent appointment, my career had been focused on appellate practice. After graduation I was fortunate to have the opportunity to clerk at the New York State Court of Appeals, both as a staff law clerk and for then-Associate Judge the Hon. Richard C. Wesley, and then later to do a wide range of state and federal civil litigation in the Appeals Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. Immediately preceding my appointment, I had returned to the Court of Appeals as part of a supervisory team overseeing the work of young court attorneys just coming into the court. The key to success in all of those positions was effective legal writing—the foundations of which I learned in law school—during my legal research and writing classes and participation in law review, as well as through several brief writing experiences in moot court competitions. My interest in appellate practice also grew out of a few other key experiences in law school, including participating in appellate oral advocacy competitions, as well as two judicial internships in state and federal appellate courts. From those additional experiences, I learned that I truly loved doing legal research and writing, diving deep into cases analytically, and thinking about the law from a broader perspective, all of which has served me well throughout my career and which I will now carry with me into my judicial position. I also credit Albany Law School for helping me to begin building my professional and mentorship network from the earliest stages of my law school career. For example, one of my internships during my 2L year was in the chambers of the Hon. Edward O. Spain (Albany Law Class of 1966), then 3 an Associate Justice on the Appellate Division, Third Department. Not only was it an incredible learning experience for me, but Judge Spain wrote a reference letter for me when I was applying for my first legal job after graduation at the Court of Appeals—which I believe was key to landing the position. We have remained in touch over the years and he was an enthusiastic supporter of my nomination to the Court of Claims, and was even present at my swearing-in ceremony as a judge this summer. I firmly believe that my time at Albany Law School and all of the opportunities the school provided have led me to where I am today. 3. What led you to a career in law? To be honest, being a lawyer was never a career that I had considered as a child. My parents were both physicians, and in college I was on track to be a doctor too, as was expected in many South Asian families back in the day. But my father died suddenly shortly after my graduation from college and, while helping my family cope with that loss, I met my parents’ estate attorney. That was the first time I had ever encountered a lawyer—and one who definitely did not have a culturally competent practice. I started to think about how my community was really unrepresented in the profession, which led me to think, “Well, maybe I can do that.” Service to others has always been an important part of my life generally, so before even beginning my first day of law school, I knew that I wanted to use my law degree to that end as well. I originally thought that might take the form of a private practice that would serve an unfulfilled need in the South Asian and Muslim communities in New York’s Capital Region, where I live. I never imagined that after graduation I would embark upon a career in which I have been able to use my skills and experience to serve the people of this State more broadly—and now to do so from the bench—which has been and is such an incredible privilege.
Albany Law: What are some challenges you may have faced as a woman of South Asian descent? And now that you have made history, what does it mean to you to be representative of many more women to follow your path? Chaudhry: There certainly were challenges, but they have all made me stronger, both professionally and personally. At the time I went to law school in the mid1990s, I knew of no South Asian or Muslim lawyers— let alone any South Asian or Muslim women lawyers. I’m not even sure there were any in the 4 Albany area then. And, given my background and being the first in my family to go to law school, I had never really met any lawyers before, and I really had no idea what to expect. I navigated through law school mostly on my own, learning how to succeed as I went along, and without much guidance initially on what kind of legal career to pursue or how to go about figuring it out. I felt like I had a lot to prove to overcome the stereotypes I was explicitly and implicitly made aware existed about me, both at school and in the workplace. I did that by focusing on the tasks at hand and working hard, cultivating confidence in myself as well as an internal resilience, taking on every opportunity and challenge possible and excelling, and dedicating myself to being the best law student and lawyer I could be. I have often been the only woman attorney of color—and sometimes the only attorney of color—in the legal offices in which I have worked, or the appellate courts in which I have appeared as an advocate (including among the panel of judges). At times, especially early in my career, I felt like my experience was unique and that maybe I didn’t belong. There were no organizations upstate to offer a network of support from those of a similar background, and the world was not so technologically interconnected then. But I have been fortunate to have had incredible and supportive employers and mentors throughout my career that have invested in me and my development as an attorney, as well as so many other wonderful colleagues who have generously shared the wisdom of their experience as I have tried to forge my own path. Their support, advice, and assistance over the years has been invaluable— and I would not be where I am without them. I hope that my appointment will inspire other Muslim and South Asian women, and women of color more generally, to pursue a path to the judiciary or other service in our state courts. The judiciary should be truly representative and reflective of the population it serves. Diversity on the bench bolsters public trust and confidence in the courts and helps litigants of all backgrounds believe that they will be fairly heard. I also hope that my appointment will open the door wider for other women, as many trailblazing women judges have done so that I was able to walk in their steps and rise up on their shoulders. But it is also a huge responsibility to be viewed as a representative of all who hope to follow; so while I am proud to be the first of my community, I hope I will not be the last.
Albany Law: What advice would you give to our current and future Albany Law students? Chaudhry: My first piece of advice to law students would be to prioritize excelling academically and strengthening your writing skills. That will always serve you well, no matter what field of law you choose to go into. Ask for feedback on your writing and spend time really incorporating that into your work going forward. Also, law school is also the time to try everything! Consider law review, moot court competitions, clinical programs, and internships or other work experiences, and see what does—and doesn’t—interest you. Talk to people in different fields and learn as much as you can from them about their work. I think it’s very important for students and young lawyers just to get out there and meet people—in person or virtually—at bar association events or through alumni networks or by volunteering with legal organizations in your community. You never know who you will meet or what doors will open or what you will find you love doing. In addition, I would advise students and young lawyers to seek out good mentors. Mentorship has played an extremely important role at all stages of my career. For most of my career, up until recently, I never had any mentors that looked like me or had a similar life experience or background. It certainly would have been wonderful to have been able to talk to or seek advice from someone in the profession that I could relate to in that way. And I love that there are now so many ways for young and aspiring South Asian or Muslim attorneys to connect with others like them through the affinity bar associations such as the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY), the Muslim Bar Association of New York (MUBANY), and the South Asian Bar Association of New York (SABANY), that can help build these important networks and provide support and guidance to the next generation of lawyers. I myself have now had the privilege of mentoring several such law students and young attorneys, and I have been grateful for those opportunities to pay it forward and plan to continue to do so. But I would advise students and young attorneys not to limit themselves in looking for mentors. Don’t discount seeking someone’s advice or mentorship because they do not share your background or life experience, or based on your perceptions or assumptions about them. Most lawyers love talking about themselves and their career to almost anyone who wants to listen. And others may surprise you. For example, one of my earliest and greatest 6 mentors is the judge I clerked for, the Hon. Richard C. Wesley. We come from very different walks of life. Yet he has been my biggest champion, even during some really difficult times. To this day, going on more than 20 years, I am still in regular contact with him and have relied on his support and advice continuously throughout my career. He has encouraged me to try for opportunities I would never have thought I could attain. And he also wanted to learn about my culture and our differences and our commonalities; he protected and defended me whenever he heard of any bias or prejudice being directed at my community, even in judicial circles. Both of our lives have been incredibly enriched by this relationship. Look for someone who shares your interests or has broad experience in the profession, and someone who is approachable and willing to share their advice and guidance. But remember that it takes time both to network and to cultivate a successful and meaningful relationship with a mentor. Follow up with mentors if they have advised you to do something or connected you with someone else. Don’t make them feel like they are wasting their time. Importantly, build your network before you need it. And think past formal mentorship roles too and try and cultivate as many good professional relationships as you can—you can never have too many! Finally, for anyone feeling like they don’t belong in certain spaces, try to let go of your self-doubt and trust yourself and your work. Don’t self-select out of trying for certain opportunities. If you’re qualified for something and have distinguished yourself—and you happen also to come from an underrepresented community—go for it. Instead of saying to yourself “why me?”, I encourage and challenge students and young lawyers to think “why not me?”