Seventh in a series of spotlights of past SABA GB Presidents
Manisha Bhatt is a senior attorney in Greater Boston Legal Services’ (GBLS) family law unit where she represents victims of domestic violence in divorce, paternity, and abuse prevention proceedings. She graduated from Boston College and Suffolk University School of Law.
She was the recipient of the 2009 SABA North America Cornerstone Award, which is given to an individual who exemplifies the objectives of the organization through her legal work or involvement with SABANA or its foundation and local chapters. The award recognizes those who exemplify high achievement by, among other things, serving the legal interest of the South Asian community. Manisha also received SABA GB”s Member of the Year Award in 2007 and 2018 and SABA GB’s Board Member of the Year in 2007.
In 2011, she was awarded the Boston Bar Association’s John G. Brooks Legal Services award, which honors career legal services lawyers litigating in the trenches. She was also on the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal from 2007-2013, and has been actively involved in the Boston Bar Association’s sections and initiatives on civil rights and pro bono work. Currently, Manisha serves on the Boston Bar Association’s Amicus Committee.
In 2013, Manisha was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to the Massachusetts Judicial Nominating Commission. In 2017, India New England News named her Woman of the Year. “Ms. Bhatt embodies,” said the panel of judges, “exceptional passion for service for the less fortunate through her legal service as well as broader community outreach. In the process, she has demonstrated how law can be used to create hope and spirit to elevate all of us.”
- You were born in Massachusetts. Tell us a little bit about your family background and childhood.
My parents are from Gujarat, India. My father is a civil engineer who came to the United States as student in 1967 and earned his masters from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in central Massachusetts. My mother has a masters in social work from India. After they married, my mom immigrated to the US. I am the oldest of two children - I have a younger brother. Both my brother and I were born in Massachusetts. Between ages of 3-13, my family lived in a number of other states, moving every few years, going wherever my father’s work took him. Neither of my parents had immediate family members living in the United States, thus there was no hurry to put down firm roots. Moving frequently as a child gave me a chance to experience growing up in different parts of the country from Long Island, New York, to Charlotte, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and New London, Connecticut. When I reached middle school age, my parents, especially my mother, started thinking it would be better for us as a family to settle more permanently, especially given that my brother and I would soon be entering high school. So we returned to Massachusetts, and have been here ever since.
As a child, every few years my family visited India and I would spend a whole summer there. Most of my relatives are still in Gujarat.
- How were the seeds of a future lawyer first planted in your mind?
It was pretty early. In my freshman year of high school, our social studies curriculum required students to do a mock trial. My teacher assigned each student a role, prosecutor, defense lawyer, etc. I was a prosecutor. It was life changing. I knew then and there that I wanted to be a lawyer, advocating for people.
In college at BC, I double-majored in history and Spanish. I went to law school at Suffolk. During my 1L summer, I volunteered at the Suffolk legal clinic in Chelsea, where I really had to use my Spanish speaking skills with clients every day. I loved working at the legal clinic and found it deeply rewarding. I continued interning at GBLS during my 2L year. I also interned at the General Counsel’s office of the Boston Medical Center, the Justice Resource Institute and in the Criminal Defenders clinic during law school.
My Spanish speaking skills have been enormously helpful in my work as a public interest lawyer. In fact, I speak Spanish far better than either Gujarati or Hindi. Before the pandemic, practically every day I spoke Spanish with a client or colleague. Even during the pandemic, I still use Spanish at least three or four times per week.
- There are not too many South Asian lawyers making a career in legal aid. What made you decide to commit yourself to legal services?
Fortunately, my parents were always very supportive of my desire to become a lawyer and pursue a career in public interest. My parents never compared me to others who had higher paying jobs and thus amassed more material wealth. My parents taught me to prioritize and value peace of mind and enjoying work above material success. The emotional support and encouragement from my parents, along with a deep love for the clients that I have been honored to serve at GBLS has enabled me to maintain my commitment to public service.
My journey to public service has been very personal. My first job out of law school was actually with a small general practice law firm in Chinatown.
The transformational event occurred when I had been practicing law for only about 14 months. On January 26, 2001, I was watching the 11 o’clock news at a friend’s place. There was a story about a murder/attempted suicide at an address in Brighton, Massachusetts. I recognized the address. It was the address of one of my divorce clients. “I hope that isn’t my client,” I said to my friend. But I had a nagging fear that persisted. Unfortunately, the next morning, Boston police called me at work and told me that it was my client that had been murdered and that it was her husband who had unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself. I was absolutely devastated.
At around the same time in 2001, a massive earthquake devastated Gujarat, India, causing unimaginable widespread suffering. The dual catastrophe in Gujarat and my client’s horrific murder was a very difficult time for me. Yet they were the catalyst for deep reflection and soul searching about my life’s priorities how that translated into the career I had chosen. I started working at GBLS shortly after those events. It was the best decision for me and has led me to a career in public service that I never imagined possible when I decided to become a lawyer in high school!
- As litigators, we often see people at their worst, and in very difficult circumstances. Is there anything you do that helps keep you balanced and sane?
We all need something to regularly remind us that the world is not just full of conflict and suffering. There truly is joy, beauty and goodness in this world too! Having a creative outlet that connects you to that is vital to keep a balance in life. Balance is non-negotiable - especially if one is in a field that confronts human suffering on a regular basis.
One of my creative outlets is classical Indian dance. I have been studying regularly it for 24 years now. When my client was murdered, my dance classes reminded me how much classical dance anchors me into beauty and joy: even amidst pain, darkness and despair.
- You originated the idea of the SABA GB’s award-winning Know Your Rights program which has now been running strong for almost 10 years. How did you come up with the idea for the program and what are its goals?
I have seen many people suffer because they did not know that they had legal rights, or that they suspected their legal rights were being violated but they did not know where to go to for legal help, much less afford to get legal help. This motivated me to develop the Know Your Rights Program (KYR). It was my intention to create a sustainable program, a program that would last in perpetuity. I spent significant time consulting with community leaders to develop a broad based legal rights curriculum that would be appealing as well as relevant to the community for years to come. Even today, ten years post the first KYR class, I regularly solicit feedback from the students in order to continually try and improve the program in ways that make it more useful and relevant.
KYR is legal rights lecture series that is offered free of charge to leaders of the South Asian community. The lectures are on topics such as criminal law, immigration, elder law and estate planning, family law, employment law, bankruptcy, civil rights as well as health and disability law. The classes are taught by practicing lawyers who are experts in their fields. The intention of the lecture series are to provide the students an overview of their fundamental legal rights. This trains the participants to realize their rights or the rights of their loved ones are being violated, know that help is available and most importantly, who to go to for legal help.
I am thrilled at how well received KYR is in our community and I couldn’t be prouder of its success. So far, we have close to a hundred students that have graduated from the program. Many of my students stay in touch with me- long after they’ve graduated. Their level of enthusiasm and engagement in KYR is so inspiring and rewarding. One student even told me that had she known how noble the legal profession could be, how much good attorneys can do- she never would have become an engineer. How’s that for validation to my fellow south Asian attorneys?