This is the sixteenth installment of our Alumni Spotlight series, which features interviews with former IRAP students who have become strong advocates and leaders in their fields of practice.
Meet Beneel Babaei, former member of the IRAP chapter at Columbia Law School, and current Associate at Latham & Watkins.
The views expressed here are entirely his own.
How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?
When I first arrived at Columbia Law School, I was desperate for a sense of community, particularly as an Assyrian American and child of refugees. I found that in the Middle Eastern Law Students Association, which I later became the President of. When I first joined the affinity group, countless members were already caseworkers for IRAP. A whirlwind of a few weeks later, I had attended the annual National Student Summit in Midtown Manhattan, had been assigned my first case, and had conducted my first client interview.
IRAP impacted my law school experience in a very meaningful way. I came to law school with a vague sense of the fact that a law degree could equip me with tools to help people, but had never seen firsthand the ways that could tangibly take shape. Becoming an IRAP caseworker early on in my law school career helped open my eyes to the true extent to which I could assist vulnerable populations not only as an attorney, but as a law student. This helped inform my decision to later go on to join a clinic on campus known as Challenging the Consequences of Mass Incarceration, and to dedicate a significant portion of my time so far as an attorney to assisting those who need it most. In addition, IRAP provided me invaluable substantive experience in learning how to interact with supervisors, colleagues, and clients in a legal setting.
IRAP’s law school chapter members provide aid to our clients and support for our legal, litigation, and policy advocacy initiatives. Please describe your experience working on IRAP projects to secure and expand pathways to safety for displaced people.
During my time with IRAP in law school, I was fortunate to work on direct client services as a caseworker. As a caseworker, I was able to help ultimately successfully resettle a client whose background was not very different from that of my parents. The ability to be so proximate to someone’s issues and to utilize the tools at our disposal to help remedy them was very moving. It reminded me that beyond all of the case law, readings, cold calls, and other aspects of the law school experience, there was real utility to the whole enterprise. Those early, inexperienced opportunities to interact directly both with clients and with supervisors have helped me to this day. It was a learning experience that I would not trade, as well as an opportunity to help people who needed it most.
What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?
Since I graduated from law school, I moved back to Northern California to begin my post-grad career. After taking the bar exam, I began practicing at Latham & Watkins in San Francisco. I practice mostly antitrust law, but also focus my pro bono efforts and a significant portion of my time to assisting vulnerable populations. On that side of things, I have been fortunate to merge my knowledge of criminal, constitutional, and immigration law thus far. One of the best parts of being a young associate at a law firm is the ability to work both on direct client services and impact litigation on the pro bono side. I can confidently say that the lessons I learned during my IRAP experience have directly helped shape my ability to add value to a wide variety of teams to this day.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
I think that IRAP helped instill in me the value of using words, attention to detail, research skills, and the other tools that lawyers are equipped with to effect positive change in society. I have sought out opportunity after opportunity to make this a significant portion of my practice and I owe it in part to IRAP. More than this, IRAP also molded my ability to think critically and empathetically about the world’s issues while remembering that it is necessary to try to understand the views on the “other side” in order to be a zealous advocate. More directly, IRAP solidified my personal belief that no one chooses to become a refugee – as Warsan Shire put it, “[N]o one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” I find it very important as an attorney and as a global citizen to assist the world’s most at-risk people in getting to calm waters.
At a time when refugees are more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
Refugee issues and immigrant issues are a part of my everyday life due to my personal background. In the diaspora, immigrants, refugees, and their families often lack access to generational wealth, education, and opportunities. This is true even for the lucky few who are able to find refuge through resettlement after being displaced. One thing I love about IRAP is that it handles case-by-case issues as well as large scale policy and impact litigation work. I try to model my daily practice toward these issues in the same way. Namely, I find it nearly equally important to use my position and education to help, for example, edit the resume of a child of refugees in my community when the opportunity arises, as I find it to work on changing our immigration laws. I think refugee issues do not end with resettlement, and I feel fortunate that I get to actively engage beyond that moment to this day. Lastly, I work hard not to silence all the noise, loud and sad as it may be. I find it crucial that as lawyers and as global citizens, we resist the urge to turn away from the news cycle with respect to our most vulnerable people. I do my best not only to stay informed on what is occurring but to also keep abreast of the legal and constitutional implications of the latest issues. I hope that I can look back on these early phases of my career and be proud of my contributions to these critical issues. I can say definitively that IRAP has been a big part of that for me.