Meet the Bar Leaders: Hemalee Patel hopes to be Brooklyn’s first South Asian judge
Hemalee Patel was born in India and raised in New York City by two traditional parents who impressed upon her the importance of a strong education, and, because she was an immigrant, the ability to blend in.
Now she’s looking to stand out and become Brooklyn’s first South Asian-American judge.
“Indians as a community, we’re always talking amongst ourselves about this stereotype of the ‘model immigrant,’ and some of us want to shed that because it gets thrown back in our faces. We’re expected to stay out of the limelight, stay in the shadows and just work really hard.
“We have to come forward and participate in ways that we really haven’t,” Patel continued. “That doesn’t mean just getting a job at a big firm. It means that I have an obligation to be a role model and to show people that Indians can play an active role in our communities. We’re not just about 7-Eleven and blending in.”
Patel was born in the North Western region of India and moved to Woodside, Queens when she was 5 years old. Her father left Patel and his pregnant wife in India for a year while he moved to the U.S. and began to establish himself. His family joined him a year later.
Her mother initially worked at Woolworths Supermarket and her father got a job at Hostos Community College. Eventually, her mother got a job at Rockefeller University in Manhattan and the family moved to campus housing on the Upper East Side.
“That was really big for us because as immigrants, there was a lot that we couldn’t afford, but that gave our parents the opportunity to take us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Radio City, to Lincoln Center,” Patel said. “They wanted us to experience all of these things even if they didn’t grow up with it or understand it.”
Patel describes her parents as very traditional and old fashion. However, she said that they never let the fact that they had two daughters keep them from encouraging their children, and actually expected Patel and her sister Himatee to become doctors.
“They were strict — there was no dating, no wearing jeans to school, no wearing makeup until you were 16,” she said. “But even in their old fashion ways, they never said, ‘Oh, well you’re just a girl.’”
After attending Stuyvesant High School and starting a pre-med program at NYU, Patel quickly realized that becoming a doctor was not something that she was cut out for, so she enrolled in the political science program instead. This was quite a disappointment for her parents, but they quickly accepted her future when she enrolled at Brooklyn Law School.
The legal field was not something that Patel aspired to enter from a young age, it was only something she turned to to avoid the disappointment of her parents. But once she decided upon it, she took to it very quickly because of her love of research and her desire to become a bigger part of her adopted community.
Out of school, she got a job working with a law firm that dealt with a lot of landlord and tenant cases. She then moved on to a general practice firm on Court Street in Brooklyn where she handled the bulk of its matrimonial cases. She also began representing women during divorces and family court appearances through the Westside Battered Women’s Legal Project that existed in the early ’90s.
It was around this time that Patel joined the Brooklyn Bar Association and the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association. She credited these organizations with helping her to grow her network and ultimately leading to her job as a clerk for Judge Rachel Adams.
“I loved going to court to help families and when you were able to successfully help someone it felt like it really mattered,” Patel said. “When I had the opportunity to work for Judge Adams, I jumped at it.”
These days, she works as a court attorney referee and handles cases in the state Supreme Court matrimonial part in Staten Island. It’s a job she loves, but she feels that she can contribute more which, she said, can be better accomplished by serving from the bench.
“Coming as an immigrant, you have this sense in your head that you always have to live life on the straight and narrow,” Patel said. “You never wanted to get in trouble, never get pulled over because in court you are just a brown person with an accent.
“But to me, I had this sense of why can’t I? I’m an American, why can’t I be a part of this process?” Patel continued. “There are no South Asians on the bench in Brooklyn … My kids will have a different experience than me and will understand that they can participate in these things because they saw their mom do it.”
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