Eighth in a series of spotlights of past SABA GB Presidents
Hinna Upal is an attorney at Littler Mendelson, where she practices management-side employment law. She specializes in defending employers in litigation and providing advice and counsel to multinational entities on issues affecting the global workforce.
Before joining Littler Mendelson, Hinna was the deputy general counsel at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She has also served as a law clerk to the Hon. William E. Smith, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, and as a law clerk to Justice Francis X. Flaherty of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Hinna currently serves on the Board of Directors of Roger Williams University School of Law, and as a co-chair of SABA North America’s employment law section. She is the past-Treasurer of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys (“GRAWA”) and a founding member of the Women of Color Committee for GRAWA.
In 2019, Hinna received GRAWA’s President Award and in 2017, the Rochester Business Journal Named Hinna in its “Forty Under 40” List.
Tell us a little bit about your family and background.
I currently live in Pittsford, New York, a suburb of Rochester, with my husband and three children. My eldest daughter is a student at Boston University, where she is in her second year of a seven-year medical sciences program. My next eldest daughter is a junior in high school, and my youngest, my son, is four years old.
When did you first decide you wanted to pursue law as a career, and can you briefly describe your academic and career trajectory?
In college, I studied anthropology, thinking I would continue to graduate school and complete my Ph.D. Instead, I got married after my second year, interrupting my studies to move across the country with my husband, who was attending graduate school at Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario. Eventually, I re-enrolled in undergraduate studies, but then found out I was pregnant in my senior year of college.
I graduated with honors from college with a then-six-month old in my arms. My husband and I were, at this point, trying to figure out the next steps, and I decided I wanted to take some time with our daughter while I decided what I wanted to do.
We ended up in Rhode Island because my husband enrolled in graduate studies at Brown University. I decided I wanted to go back to school and applied to several graduate programs, and, somewhat randomly, to one law school. I ultimately chose to attend law school at Roger Williams University, which is located in Rhode Island. I was pregnant with my second child at the time I started as a 1L, and I had been so fortunate to receive a ton of support, including a full ride from Roger Williams. That, in conjunction with the fact that they had a night school option I could attend, pushed me to enroll and helped me to succeed in my studies.
I had my second daughter on December 29th, only a few days after my 1L Civil Procedure exam. Roger Williams was incredibly flexible in working with me to balance my parenting responsibilities with my academic ones. By taking advantage of both night school and summer school options, I graduated with the rest of my class. I then clerked at the Rhode Island Supreme Court with Justice Francis X. Flaherty (retired). I also worked in private practice for about a year, and, after that, completed another clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island with Judge William Smith.
You have had a varied career so far, having held academic positions, clerkships, positions at law firms, and in-house roles. What inspired your pursuit of those different opportunities, and in different practice areas of the law?
What I realized very early on is that people in our profession become burnt out and unhappy when they feel pigeon-holed into one area of law that doesn’t necessarily spark them. But we are ultimately the masters of our own careers and we shouldn’t be afraid to pivot. For me, it’s all about my personal and professional growth. The clerkships I held—the opportunities to observe experienced practitioners and to cultivate professional relationships with the judges—were phenomenal experiences, and I would recommend them to anyone. Working in a private law firm environment also provided me with the best training with respect to writing, research, and litigating.
I’ve worked in multiple different practice areas since graduating from law school, and that exposure allowed me to really understand the breadth and complexities of the law. At one point, I concentrated on energy law at Pierce Atwood, and then I pursued an opportunity to become an in-house government attorney to focus more on the policy aspects of clean energy initiatives. The in-house experience was vastly different from practicing in firms. It was exciting to work on matters of immediate political and environmental relevance in real-time.
The catalyst for my move to Littler, my current firm, was a little more personal. My husband got a job offer in New York, and we decided the move was the right one for our family. I was able to leverage existing connections to get an interview, and that’s how I began practicing employment law at Littler.
What do you find most interesting or rewarding about your current practice area of employment law?
Employment law is so fascinating because every set of circumstances has an interesting story behind it. In addition, it’s a rare event where one of the employers I’m representing doesn’t want to do the right thing for its employees. I can act as that conduit to help an employer meet its obligations to its employees, and, what’s more, help creates a better workplace for everyone. I feel that the opportunity to do so is really a privilege, and as a woman of color, I can offer an especially valuable perspective when counseling my clients about these issues. One piece of advice I often provide is that when management takes the time to listen to all segments of its workforce, and have them feel like they’re heard, this minimizes legal exposure with fewer claims and results in a better environment for everyone.
Almost everyone has to work, and we all spend so much of our time at work. It’s an area of law that is always evolving and changing as our cultural sensitivities change. For example, we weren’t talking about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion even six or seven years ago to the extent that we are talking about it now. For all of these reasons, it’s a really meaningful, interesting, and nuanced type of work that I enjoy.
What did you find most fulfilling about your time on the SABA GB Board, and in particular, during the period you served as President of the Board?
I really loved being part of SABA GB. When one of my friends moved from Rochester to Boston a few years ago, I immediately encouraged him to join the organization, because I had found the network so rewarding and the friendships of SABA GB’s members as invaluable. Through SABA GB, I met people who understood my background and the different kinds of challenges I faced as a mother and attorney of color. As the only lawyer in my family, it was also inspiring to get to know and look up to an entire legacy of people in front of me who came from similar upbringings and who were so generous with their time and career advice.
Have you remained involved in SABA since you moved to New York?
Yes, I’m currently the SABA NA employment law co-chair, which has provided a great opportunity to connect with employment lawyers all across North America. We’re pretty active with planning webinars and hold quarterly calls as a section to discuss upcoming events. Feel free to connect with us on LinkedIn to keep apprised of all new events by joining our SABA NA Employment Section Group – https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8986510/.
And you can follow our Section page here – https://www.linkedin.com/company/employment-law-section-saba-na/.