This week, I had the privilege of talking with Melinda Sarafa. Sarafa, from New York City, has been a practicing criminal lawyer for almost twenty years. She graduated from Stanford Law School in 1995 and has represented hundreds of clients in federal, state and international investigations, enforcement actions, trials and appeals, and handled a wide array of sensitive and high-profile cases. Prior to establishing Sarafa Law LLC, Melinda was a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. Her experience includes several years of practice at the criminal defense firm of Brafman & Ross in New York, New York, and as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Houston, Texas and prior to that she clerked for two federal judges. Melinda is a Director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and has served as co-chair of NACDL’s White Collar Crime Committee and the Women’s Initiative. She is about to start a new chapter in her career as an in-house attorney working in the financial industry and her new employer is lucky to have her. She is not only a champion for her clients, but is committed to promoting women in our field and is a true defender at heart.
What inspired you to become a criminal defense attorney?
After college I spent two years as a jobs skills trainer and placement coordinator for low-income immigrants and refugees in Boston’s Chinatown. I was a strong advocate, but recognized that I could not effectively help my students combat discrimination and other obstacles to employment without a working understanding of the US legal system. At one point I received a death threat after helping a 55-year-old Chinese engineer file a complaint with the state commission against discrimination, and I knew I had to arm myself with more than just a bachelor’s degree. In law school I explored a range of public interest pursuits, but the minute I set foot in the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Houston I knew I had found my professional home. Representing individuals in such a vulnerable place tapped my protective instincts while keeping me intellectually and emotionally engaged at a very high level.
What changes have you seen for women in the field since you started? What still needs to change?
The primary change for women since I started in this field is the availability of more women to serve as colleagues and mentors. What still needs to change is the perception that women are somehow not as capable as men of handling complex, high-stakes matters, and that women do not deserve to be paid as much as men.
Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire what made them stand out to you? Why were you inspired by them?
The women criminal defense attorneys I know and admire are first and foremost dedicated to providing first-rate representation to their clients, not simply earning a fee. They listen to their clients, dig into the discovery and legal research themselves, ask questions and personally know their cases inside and out. This gives them great strength as negotiators and in the courtroom. Sarita Kedia and Justine Harris in New York are two such outstanding lawyers. Seeing them obtain phenomenal results through solid, steady work is always an inspiration.
You are the Co-Chair of the Women’s Initiative for the NACDL, why do you think it is important to create women focused opportunities in the criminal defense field?
Criminal defense remains a strongly male-dominated field in which women continue to face great challenges. These include a relative dearth of role models and established female referral sources, routine underestimation of our skills, subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that sexual favors will earn us business, and double standards for aggressive defense of our clients. These and other issues must be addressed openly and in collaboration with our male colleagues. I have found that our Women’s Initiative events, which welcome both men and women, provide tremendous and much-needed opportunities for dialogue, connection, support and development of mutual respect.
How did you find the courage to open up your own private practice? And what advice would you give a young woman in the field wanting to have her own firm one day?
I opened my own private practice, after working more than ten years in the field, because I believed it was the best way for me to establish my ability to handle difficult cases as lead counsel. Looking back, I took a great risk in leaving a partnership at a well-established firm where I worked with many wonderful lawyers, but at the time I felt the greater risk was staying there and failing to realize my own potential as a lawyer and business generator.
A young woman who wants to have her own firm one day should seek opportunities to work closely with lawyers who demonstrate: (1) professional excellence and integrity; (2) an interest in and willingness to mentor; (3) a track record of generosity in supporting other lawyers and referring business. It is not enough to work on interesting cases with colorful lawyers. A young lawyer must seek out experienced attorneys who will genuinely support her in building her own practice.
What was the most fascinating case you ever worked on? What case has most stayed with you through the years?
My most fascinating case was the representation of Maia Topuria, a Georgian national and single mother of three who was accused in 2006 of plotting to overthrow the Georgian government. She and more than a dozen others were rounded up in a blatantly manufactured political prosecution aimed at undermining a number of political opposition figures. The late Larry Barcella and I were granted permission by the Georgian Ministry of Justice to appear on behalf of Maia in the Tbilisi courts, where we worked closely with local counsel and a Georgian interpreter. We studied the Georgian constitution and recently revamped code of criminal procedure, and over the course of more than a year and a half represented Maia during hearings, trial, appeal and in several human rights forums. We came to appreciate the crucial value of an independent judiciary and the limitations on achieving that in post-Soviet Georgia. Our work took us into several different realms of international advocacy and provided an extraordinary education in the challenges facing rule of law advocates around the world.
In addition to Maia’s case, the case of Jamal Yousef has profoundly affected me and will stay with me indefinitely. Jamal, a foreign national, was serving time in a Honduran prison for passport fraud when he became involved in discussions with US government-paid confidential sources posing as FARC representatives in search of weapons. Jamal saw an opportunity to make money by posing as a weapons dealer and extracting a sizable advance payment. No weapons were ever produced or exchanged, and the recorded conversations revealed that even the confidential sources doubted the existence of any weapons. But Jamal was charged with an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty of 20 years, and he ultimately sought, on the eve of trial, to mitigate his exposure by pleading to an offense with no mandatory minimum and a maximum of 15 years.
The case represents to me so many fundamental problems with our criminal justice system. Most significantly, the use of mandatory minimum penalties effectively deprives defendants of their right to trial by ratcheting up the stakes to intolerable levels. In this case, denial of the right to trial also effectively deprived Jamal of his right to appeal, by precluding review of a very strong motion to dismiss. In addition, the use of paid confidential sources to manufacture terrorism cases where there is no actual threat to the United States creates fundamental fairness problems and diverts resources from more productive law enforcement.
What both Maia and Jamal’s cases have in common is the lengthy imprisonment of individuals who did not do what they were accused of. Such cases are the most difficult and the most haunting.
What do you find is the most rewarding and the most draining aspect of being a criminal defense attorney?
It is extremely rewarding to obtain a great result for a client and see the dark cloud that he or she had been living with for months or years suddenly lift. The stress and uncertainty of being under investigation or accused of a crime is enormous, so the moment when a client gets his or her life back is profound and profoundly satisfying. At the same time, the responsibility involved is heavy. Ensuring that a client is fully and effectively represented is consistently difficult.
If you could go back and give one piece of career advice to your 30-year old self what would it be?
On the whole, I am very comfortable with my career decisions. But if I could go back, I would advise myself to consistently take the long view of my decisions about what jobs to take, which individuals to work with and what organizations to devote time to. And when I say take the long view, I mean consider carefully the investment that is being made, and identify those firms, individuals and organizations that have the interest and ability to provide support over the course of a career.
You are about to embark on a new chapter in your career as an in-house attorney for a financial company, what opportunities or direction did you take in your own business to make that shift possible?
I did not specifically plan for this opportunity, but in retrospect a great deal of how I have managed my career prepared me for it. First, the importance of fundamentally strong academic and professional credentials cannot be overstated. In that regard, there is no substitute for consistent hard work. Second, partly due to my own innate curiosity and interest in learning about everything, I made sure that my practice was diverse enough to include a healthy mix of both white collar and non-white collar matters, and that I learned all I could from each case and each client. Third, I maintained strong networks of colleagues. These factors combined to put me in a position to be recruited for this particular opportunity when it arose.
Do you think a criminal defense practice opens doors for women who want to explore opportunities in a corporate America? And what kind of advice would you offer other women who are interested in pursuing these opportunities?
It really depends on what kind of criminal practice one has. Someone who is interested in working in corporate America one day would be well advised to work with corporate clients, as opposed to devoting oneself to the defense of individuals accused of street crimes. At a minimum, it is important to become familiar with the areas of legal practice relevant to the industry one may wish to work in. That might mean learning about insider trading, antitrust law, health care fraud, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or any number of other areas.
As a woman, what do you consider your secret weapon?
I consider my secret weapon as a woman to be a combination of listening skill, patience and empathy. I want to understand my client as a whole person and my client’s situation in its full context. I do not believe there is any definitive line separating me, as a lawyer, from the client sitting across from me. Most people, until they experience the criminal justice system firsthand, view criminal defendants as “others” who behaved in unthinkable ways. I think we are all far more vulnerable than we can imagine to finding ourselves accused of wrongdoing. This is not to say that we are all inclined to violate the law, but rather that life and law often sneak up on us in unexpected ways. This perspective tends to shrink the distance between lawyer and client and facilitate strong working relationships.
What is one thing people who know you don’t know about you?
In 1980, at age 13, I was both a card-carrying member of WRIF Radio’s Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco (D.R.E.A.D.) and the Detroit News contestant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was an exciting year. I have since softened my position on disco, but I still have my D.R.E.A.D. card.