If I had known I was going to spend my career in the financial industry, I would have paid attention in math class. Actually, I did pay attention in math and even turned to my father (algebra’s #1 fan) for additional “tutoring.” Unfortunately, he would first make me sit down and do my multiplication tables before even glancing at the math problem. Which meant that I would never get my math question answered since I had a hard time multiplying anything over seven; thus the stand-off would begin. The “tutoring” session usually lasted for five hours and ended in tears.
When I graduated from law school, I had a plan to work for the United Nations and utilize my sense of justice and the archaic international law I had learned to save refugees all over the world from sadistic dictators and occupiers. Then I got my first school loan statement and immediately got a job at a general practice law firm.
Working in a small but busy firm gave me the opportunity to try different types of law. I handled a few bankruptcy cases but found some of my clients a bit too shady for my taste, especially when one asked if he could use his credit card just one last time to buy his daughter a fancy watch for graduation.
Personal injury was out–one client who had been in an auto accident called me every day to ask when she was getting a check from the insurance company and would keep me on the phone whining about her whiplash. This only annoyed me; if I wanted to spend my day acting sympathetic and listening to someone say “oh Miss Lena, it hurts!” I would’ve gone into nursing.
For some reason, I had a real affinity for immigration law. It was the closest I would get to practicing “international law” and it kept me very busy. Every week, I visited clients being held for deportation in county jails, INS (now renamed Department of Homeland Security) deportation facilities, immigration court and law libraries. I learned a ton about administrative law and about the political and economic problems many countries faced at that time. I knew about Sierra Leone and Liberia waaaaaay before “Blood Diamond,” the sad situation in Rwanda before “Hotel Rwanda,” and learned firsthand about the terror of Bin Laden and the Taliban well before 9/11.
Most of all I enjoyed it because I felt my work was really making a difference. I’ll never forget my favorite client, a teeny 4 foot, 175 year-old toothless Afghani woman whose family had been taken by the Taliban. She had been warned by fellow villagers to leave, and having only a sister in Virginia and nowhere else to go, she escaped through the mountains of Afghanistan into Pakistan and was finally stuffed into the trunk of a car and smuggled over the Mexican border. When we won her political asylum case, she held my head in her bony hands and showered me with tearful ‘thank you’s’ in Urdu. Kinda broke my heart.
I had many clients who had escaped from Sierra Leone. They were always so jovial, loud, laughing, telling stories and always brought the whole family with them , even if the appointment was only for one person. But then the mood would turn somber as the family told me their stories, of what happened in their villages and showed me pictures of family members with arms and legs dismembered by the opposition. I would look at the photos and hear their stories in horror; they were always matter-of-fact, remembering the atrocities and talking through their memories. But as soon as the meeting was over, they were back to telling jokes.
One constant problem I faced was that my clients didn’t know who to trust, so they didn’t trust me and weren’t always completely forthcoming. This was unfortunate because at every court appearance the government lawyer (INS) would always have a damning piece of evidence that my client hadn’t told me about. It ALWAYS HAPPENED–even after I would plead with my client to tell me the truth–there was always some past arrest, not-yet-divorced wife, failure to appear, illegitimate child, bench warrant, prior deportation proceeding or domestic abuse violation that I didn’t know about.
So why did I leave such a seemingly rewarding career as an immigration lawyer? Let’s just say that after adding up the hours I spent working, I was making about $2.50 an hour, and I was getting increasingly frustrated with the “drive-bys” (the taxi driver clients who would stop by whenever they were in the area to drop off papers or just chat about their case); the genius clients (at a marriage interview, a Jamaican husband–and green card applicant–answered the INS officer honestly : “Yeah, I got high in the past. But I quit. It’s been like…what….almost two weeks.”); and the super-shady clients (the completely mismatched couple filing for a green card and after every meeting the foreign husband takes the American wife “shopping”).
Plus, by that time, I was dating my dream guy–a gweedo from Brooklyn complete with a pinky ring, wife beater, sweat pants, puffy high tops and champagne taste, who every night, would take his garden chair and go sit on the corner and chill with his boys. He was already a broker, working in a boiler room/trading floor on Wall Street. Every day, he would tell me all the crazy stories from work–the fist fights that broke out in the boiler room, the market highs and lows, skyrocketing tech stocks, cold calls to senior citizens at dinnertime, co-workers doing coke in the bathroom, crazy weekends in the Hamptons where he and his friends would jump into the pool with their lawn chairs, the money he would be making, the money being exchanged, the fancy lifestyle of the partners at his firm.
I was intrigued. I was turned on! This was sexy. This was different from immigration law and the sad, desperate stories of my clients. My boyfriend wasn’t facing a waiting room of clients from Ghana, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all wearing their native garb, none of whom had made an actual appointment with me. He was sporting Armani, eating steak and drinking bourbon. I know this might make me a superficial person, but that’s what changed me. I wanted that lifestyle.
But while the swashbuckling ways of my boyfriend might have turned me onto the financial industry, what kept me there was its diversity. I was intrigued by the fast-moving markets, how politics, economics, war and even personnel changes can affect a company’s stock price; how companies are built from a simple idea or brain-storming session and turn into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise; how politics and tax laws affect investors, how investors shape businesses, how businesses determine industries and how it all fits into the greater scheme of the economy.
I started reading about the markets. Whenever I could, I would pick up The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, TheStreet.com, Bloomberg News, Forbes– and even though it looked like gobbledygook in the beginning, I forced myself to read the articles from cover to cover. Gobbledygook turned into Mandarin Chinese, Mandarin Chinese turned into Farsi, Farsi turned into Latin and eventually I began to understand what I was reading about. Things started to make sense and I learned how the different areas of finance related to each other.
A consulting job working for a top investment bank on Wall Street further taught me the inner workings of a bank, how the trading side is separated from the investment banking side by a “Chinese Wall;” how analysts study companies and sectors and deliver analysis and information that help get deals done; how diversified one financial institution could be.
But it was my job at an insurance company that reinforced my nerdy obsession with the financial industry and showed me what my true passion was–working with advisors and clients. Not only was I learning about the other areas of finance–about broker-dealers, wealth management and building relationships–but I was getting face time with financial advisors and their clients.
Most important, I learned that the more individuals understood their finances, the more empowered they would be to make the right decisions. Someone could have a good financial advisor and could make a lot of money, but without a basic understanding of the markets and what their financial goals are, they could be totally lead astray. My seventh grade English teacher had a motto she repeated every day: “Organization is the key to success.” I’ve always thought organization was a bit overrated, and I prefer this motto “Financial education is the key to success.” Once you get your finances in place, you can hire someone to organize your stuff.
I can’t say that I miss practicing immigration law, not that I ever completely stopped. Even though I’ve been in the financial industry for over twelve years, the stigma of being an immigration attorney has never disappeared-especially since I come from a family of immigrants who are always referring me to friends and extended family. I have been known to share a couple words of wisdom with my cab drivers around the city and friends still call with immigration questions. But none of this can compete with the crazy, tumultuous, ever-changing world of finance. And the kooky cast of characters that live in that world.