Sheela Murthy’s journey from young immigrant to high-powered lawyer and philanthropist

By Tina Irgang

Sheela Murthy is the very embodiment of an immigrant success story. Born in India, she initially attended law school there, but was accepted to Harvard following her stellar performance in an international moot-court competition. She then launched a career in corporate law in New York City, but soon decided to go into business for herself because she wanted to make more of a difference in people’s lives. Today, Murthy is president of the Murthy Law Firm, which specializes in immigration matters.

Sheela Murthy

Sheela Murthy

What attracted you to immigration law as a specialty?

Murthy: I just had a horrible personal experience with a lawyer who never returned my phone calls, and his treatment of me was so inconsiderate. I thought, if he can do this to me as a fellow lawyer, I dread to think how he’s treating doctors, architects, engineers and lesser-skilled people. So I decided my focus is not just going to be knowing the law, but truly making a difference by holding people’s hands and being kind and helpful. I train all my staff and employees here from the client’s perspective — I don’t care how much you know unless I know how much you care. The crux is just showing love, support and understanding.

Is it true that your father initially opposed your choice to become a lawyer?

Murthy: Very much so. In India, it’s not considered a well-paying profession; it’s considered a waste of time and money. You’re considered an ambulance chaser. If you’re not a doctor or engineer, you’re a moron. And most of us fit into the moron category. It’s often hard for Americans to imagine because the law is a well-paying profession in America, but in many countries, it’s not respected.

How did you win him over?

Murthy: I didn’t — I just said, I don’t care if I’m hungry, I’m just going to fight for rights and justice, for the underprivileged and downtrodden. And he said, “I guess if I can’t convince you, God bless you.” He was very unhappy, but he said OK. Besides, I was going to do it anyway.

You had a very successful early career in corporate law. Why did you decide to launch an independent firm?

Murthy: I was very unhappy. I just didn’t feel like I was truly making a difference in the lives of people. I just felt like it was really boring and depressing. All you were doing was transactions; it was being a transactional lawyer and not a transformational lawyer. Now in my work each day, we help transform the lives of people.

Did you ever question your decision to go it alone?

Murthy: Oh, a lot! The first few years, I almost thought, “Darn, should I just go back to the big firms?” I actually thought I would work less by working in my own firm. How naïve was I? I knew it was the right thing, but the amount of energy it took was overwhelming. I’m glad I stuck with it though, because once you cross those two or three initial years, maybe even 10 years, … and once you hire fabulous people and work hard and create a name, they do a lot of the work.

Murthy in IndiaYou support a lot of projects for women’s health through the MurthyNayak Foundation. What do you consider the biggest threats to women’s well-being in the U.S. today?

Murthy: We ourselves sometimes don’t believe as much that we have huge, incredible power and capability within ourselves. The world out there is here to support you and encourage you, but because we get a little tired or worn out, we think it’s not worth it. We give up hope and don’t believe in ourselves. We should be many more CEOs in the world, but sometimes we can be very tough and not very kind to ourselves. The minute we believe in ourselves, the rest of the world will come along. Kind of like my father, who thought I would be hungry and poor, but luckily I proved him completely wrong because I wanted to do something that was bigger than me. Our mental, emotional and physical health are intertwined with how we feel inside ourselves, our inner self-confidence.

You have a successful law practice and an acclaimed philanthropic foundation. What do you still want to achieve that you haven’t yet?

Murthy: You know, people keep asking me, what do you want to do? And I keep thinking, just continuing to do work with our foundation, just focusing on those who have loved me. Like my husband, who has given up his career and life to support my career and my success, which is obviously not the norm even in this culture, let alone in India. … I think it’s time now for me to love and support those people and give them an opportunity to do things. It’s my turn to give back. I’m so much more of a better boss than I was 20 years ago because I’m more humane and wiser. I’ve made mistakes and been burned for them. I’ve lost some of my best staff because I was such a jerk, and you learn that being busy and accomplishing a lot isn’t what it’s about. It’s having a few people love you and trust you and feel comfortable around you. To me, that’s far more a sign of success than more pieces of paper on the wall, more accomplishments. I tell everybody that money is fabulous up to a point, but after a while, it’s just zeroes — it has no value.

So are you getting ready to step back from the firm?

Murthy: Yes, I’m already doing a little bit of that. We already have another managing attorney and three assistant managing attorneys who are pretty much running the firm. I am there as a mentor, friend and guide. … I want to have the next generation, the next group of lawyers and staff, really do some amazing things with themselves and their lives.

About Human Element:

Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.