Since joining McCarter & English as pro bono director two years ago, Michelle Movahed has helped bring about increases in firmwide pro bono hours (by 3,000 hours annually) and in pro bono-to-billable hours ratio (even as billables increased, according to the firm). The program also has taken up a broader range of cases under Movahed, including immigration detainee asylum matters. And she recently saw through the firm’s creation of a pro bono fellowship to benefit the city of Newark, which includes a full-time attorney position. David Gialanella interviewed her on November 2018 for the New Jersey Law Journal:

What’s your single best piece of advice for handling a crisis?

Focus on what you can control, take ownership of all of it, and move forward.

Name a mentor or someone you admire, and why.

I deeply admire my clients. I’ve been very lucky to work for human rights defenders, for individuals who have stepped up to right a wrong, and, most recently, for asylum-seekers who have made harrowing journeys to escape truly horrendous trauma.

Best advice you ever got…

I’ve never been as nervous as I was the night before my first big oral argument, on our motion for a TRO to keep the doors open at the last comprehensive reproductive health clinic in Mississippi. By around 10 p.m., everyone I worked with was telling me to go to sleep and stop preparing so I’d be well-rested. I just didn’t feel like it was time yet, but I also knew I didn’t know enough to make that judgment call. So I asked for help: I wrote to the judge I’d clerked for, whose opinion I value more than almost anyone, to ask for words of wisdom. The advice he gave me was incredible, and I must have read his email a hundred times over the next 12 hours until I went in to the courthouse. He reminded me that I couldn’t lie to myself about how nervous I was, how high the stakes were, and how hard my case was. So, he said, “don’t f— it up.” If I could have that embroidered on a pillow, I would. I stayed up late, prepared until I knew I had done everything I could to avoid f-ing up, and was completely on my game at the argument. (We got the TRO, and the clinic stayed open.)

What has the #MeToo movement meant to the legal profession?

The hashtag is new, but the issues aren’t. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #TimesUp are reminders that lawyers have a responsibility to use our privilege to challenge oppression wherever it appears. Our professional obligations include the duty to speak up when we know another lawyer has violated the rules of professional conduct; but our ability to promote justice is much broader, and we should use it.

In 50 words or less, what does the legal profession need to do to improve opportunities for women lawyers?

Every lawyer should seek out opportunities to teach, mentor, and otherwise make space for lawyers with less privilege: not only women, but also lawyers of color, who are LGBTQIA, who have disabilities, who are from other traditionally marginalized groups, and who are at the intersections of those identities.