Cyrus Mehri, 1981 TWC Alumnus, Discusses His Fight for the Underdog

Cyrus Mehri, 1981 TWC Alumnus, Discusses His Fight for the Underdog

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Maha Neouchy
May 08, 2013

Cyrus Mehri entered the doors of the Woodner, one of The Washington Center's first housing facilities, in the fall of 1981. Little did he know, the TWC experience would shape his successful litigation career and become the driving force behind his move back to Washington, D.C. Now as one of the founding partners of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, he has served as co-lead class counsel in some of the largest and most significant race and gender cases in U.S. history. To date, he has tried and won cases involving corporate fraud, civil and consumer rights violations, as well as discrimination cases against companies like Texaco, The Coca-Cola Company, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo and the National Football League (NFL). What drives him to fight for the underdog? His two teenage children and the same question he asks himself every morning when he first wakes up: "What can I do to make a positive change in this world?"

 

Mehri took time away from his busy schedule to talk about his career path since completing his TWC internship in 1981. He shared that every life experience has helped shape him to be the talented litigation lawyer he is today.

 

Cyrus Mehri Sits Down with TWC

 

TWC: You've had quite the legal career and you're the founding partner of Mehri & Skalet. Did you always know that you wanted to pursue a career in law?

 

Mehri: Shockingly, I knew I wanted to become a lawyer when I was 13. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran and I had always grown up in a household that highly valued education. It was assumed not only that I was going to college, but that I was going to graduate school. My father was a doctor and I knew right away that I didn’t want to pursue the same career path because of all the blood and the gore. So law was clearly the choice for me early on, mostly because I was already forming as an activist. My career path was confirmed when I arrived at Hartwick College.

 

TWC: You interned in the fall semester of 1981. What did the TWC experience mean to you?

 

Mehri: It was actually the turning point. I had the honor of speaking at the Hartwick College commencement in May 2009 and spoke about the impact of my TWC experience. During my first two years of college, I was a 'B' student. I had a poor habit of never taking notes and when it came to exams, I struggled to remember what my professors talked about. I also was trying to find a home for myself in the worlds of advocacy and activism. Even though I was able to meet a lot of progressive people at college in Oneonta, New York, I felt they were disconnected when it came to facilitating change.

 

Then I came to D.C. and interned with the National Audubon Society. It completely opened my mind because I realized that working for causes in the public interest, and within the system, resonated with me. What had disenchanted me with the people I met in Oneonta was that they worked outside of the system too much. What I found in D.C. was an elaborate set of public interest groups, or non-governmental organizations (NGO), and that was a life-changing discovery.

 

When I returned to Hartwick, I went from a 'B' student to a straight 'A' student. It's because TWC helped give me a purpose. You have to find your calling and my internship gave me that opportunity. I went back more motivated and actually started taking notes in my classes. Not only did I find my calling but by doing better academically, I was able to get into Cornell Law School.

 

TWC: Did you know that you would end up coming back to D.C.?

 

Mehri: I would have never made it in D.C. had it not been for my TWC internship. The experience showed me there is a path for progressive activism and being able to do it within the system. Being able to see the NGO community in action and working with the Audubon Society helped shape my career path.

 

After college, I knew I wanted to go to law school but I didn’t want to go right away. I gained my first position with the Public Citizen's Congress Watch as a political organizer. A majority of my time was spent traveling to communities around the country and speaking to citizen leaders or organizations to rally them behind a legislative position in Congress. I would get flown into small towns, talk in churches and build relationships with other organizers. You really had the opportunity to see so many different parts of the country; that experience has made my litigation strategy much more innovative and unique. We’re fighting for the people and doing class actions. The most unique part is that I am still an organizer.

 

Some people call us “the most feared lawyers” and that’s because we’re fearless and creative in what we’re doing. We’ll issue reports like an NGO would, we work with NGO communities that have interests surrounding the same issues in our cases and we’ll work with citizen labor groups, consumer groups, women’s organizations, NAACP, etc. In litigation, I've used what I've learned from organizing and that is why we have had unprecedented results in some of our cases.

 

The bottom-line is that one thing leads to another. From the internship to working at Public Citizen to now working as a lawyer, one thing led to another. Hopefully that’s the case for everyone. Every experience should hopefully open the door to the next experience and shape it. Hopefully you’re in stepping-stones and not in dead ends.

 

TWC: Civic engagement is a large part of the TWC experience today and is actually one of our pillars now. Living in D.C., how have you been able to get involved and give back?

 

Mehri: Our work is giving back to the community. A lot of what we do is pro bono, such as my work with the NFL and the Rooney Rule, which requires providing interviews to minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. The rule was about creating opportunities. I have just returned from London, where I spent the week advocating the same thing for English football. We're giving it a new name: “Coaching Fair Play.” Even though it’s pro bono, I’m doing it because I think that sports shape young people and how they think. It has a huge impact in breaking down stereotypes and can impact thousands. Now, if we can change English football, we can impact thousands more.

 

A lot of our cases are fee-generating cases that are really done in the public spirit. We don’t take cases because we think they’ll have a commercial reward; we take cases because we think they’ll have a public-spirited impact. Mehri & Skalet has changed several major companies and now we’re in the process of changing the entire financial services industry, mainly how women are treated as financial advisors. We’ve had successful cases with Morgan Stanley, Smith Barney and Wachovia.

 

TWC: Do you have any advice for the next generation of TWC students?

 

Mehri: It’s a different world now than the one I grew up in. In some ways it’s better and in some ways it’s more challenging. I think it’s better in terms of social media. If I had done an internship with today’s technology, I would still be in touch with everyone I met in 1981. I think that’s a huge benefit. I also think the country is more open-minded, more diverse and more progressive. It's way better to be living in the Obama era than in the Reagan era as a young person.

 

Unfortunately though, the level of competitiveness has escalated and the economy is still in a recession. I really worry that this generation will not have the same opportunities that previous generations had. In my commencement speech at Hartwick College I addressed this issue by saying that “the way to lift yourself up is to lift others.” One question I didn't address at the commencement was asking the graduating class of 2009 about what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. That is something you should focus on answering while you're in college.

 

Now, I have come to the conclusion that the way to find your happiness is to find how you can make the most impact and help others. If you can figure that out, then you’ll be happy. It might be that you’re a school teacher, it might be that you’re an environmental activist, it might be that you’re a doctor or a firefighter. There are a million ways. If you can find a way to make other people’s lives happier, then you’ll find the way to make yourself happier. I’m fully convinced of that.

 

TWC: Since the end of your program in 1981, how have you stayed involved with TWC?

 

Mehri: In the last two years I’ve reconnected and I have really enjoyed it. It was a turning point in my career and I’m happy to be supportive and talk to young people. If you can make this a turning point for 10% of the student groups you bring in each semester then it’s a hugely successful program.

 

TWC would like to once again thank Cyrus Mehri for taking the time to sit down and talk about his successful career! He is a truly inspiring story of what TWC's family of 50,000 alumni are capable of accomplishing.

 

[Read about other alumni stories on our TWC NOW channel]

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