Business of Law

Bad experience as immigration client and 'weird' website helped lawyer build successful practice

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A lawyer from India who has built a successful Maryland immigration boutique from the ground up credits her experience as a client of an uncaring immigration attorney and her website for the Murthy Law Firm’s success, despite her admitted past failings as a boss.

Sheela Murthy herself endured a 12-year journey toward U.S. citizenship during which she sometimes awakened in a cold sweat as she worried about her future.

“I was struck by my attorney’s lack of sensitivity and how little he cared,” Murthy told the New York Times (reg. req.). “He only called when he wanted to tell me he was raising his fees.”

This gave her the idea of specializing in immigration law after she earned a law degree from Harvard University and began a corporate and real estate practice at a large firm in New York, according to the newspaper and the Murthy Law Firm website. She later moved to Baltimore and also worked for well-known firms there before going out on her own in 1994.

It was her husband who pushed her to establish a website the same year (he also built it and currently serves as a technology consultant to the law firm) and suggested that it could help build the firm’s business by offering free online legal information.

At the time, having a law firm website that doing so “was considered weird,” the 51-year-old Murthy told the Times. Although a bit dubious about the idea, “I was so frustrated by my own immigrant experience that I decided to start a website partly to make people feel empowered and respected.”

The website, which has turned down advertising opportunities to remain focused as a source of client information, has been a huge success, topping the Alexa Traffic Rank’s Law Firm 50 in February. The website has given the firm a high profile that could lead to further growth, if she decides to pursue it. Presently, it has 110 employees, including a 27-attorney roster, and brings in about $10 million annually. About 20 workers are in India.

Although a driven worker herself, Murthy says she had to learn people-management skills. A walkout by three of the firm’s four paralegals within a week or so in 1997 brought this to her attention.

“It was like a bucket of water thrown at my face,” she told the Times. “I hired new paralegals, and my husband started coming into the office. The new paralegals started taking their problems to him. I’d be on the phone all day. I had a don’t-waste-my-time-with-this attitude. I’m not touchy-feely and sensitive like my husband. But I knew I had to reinvent myself.”

Today, new employees start by meeting with her for an hour as she explains how she was inspired to create a immigration law firm that would care about its clients by an immigration lawyer who gave the impression he didn’t. She also routinely asks prospects during interviews to describe their dream job—then does her best to create it by capitalizing on an employee’s strengths. Those who want to write spend more time in front of computer screens, freeing up those who thrive on human contact to spend more time with clients.

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