By Olivia Klein
Keeping Tabs is a Q&A series that follows alumni on their careers after graduation, the lasting impacts of their clinical and pro bono experiences at HLS, and their experiences in a variety of sectors of law.
Tara Ramchandani, HLS Class of 2008, is a partner at the private public interest firm Relman Colfax, where she focuses on civil rights litigation. At Relman Colfax, Ramchandani maintains a varied practice, representing individuals and organizations in housing, lending, and public accommodations discrimination cases. She joined the firm in 2010 after clerking for Hon. Algenon L. Marbley in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio and working as an attorney at Goodwin & Procter, LLP. In addition to her litigation work, Ramchandani has also taught as an adjunct professor at University of Michigan Law School since 2015. In 2016, she was awarded the Harvard Law School Wasserstein Public Interest Visiting Fellowship, through which she counseled students about careers in public interest.
We had the pleasure of hosting Ramchandani as a panelist during Pro Bono Week 2022, when she talked in depth about the work and advantages of private public interest firms. In this interview, we caught up with Ramchandani about the value of her clinical experiences, the challenges and joys of litigation, and avenues for doing civil rights work as a practicing attorney.
Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): Please tell us about your role as a Partner at Relman Colfax. What types of cases do you work on?
Tara Ramchandani (TR): As a partner at Relman Colfax my job entails both management and client responsibilities. On the management side, our partnership divides up the responsibilities of running a small firm. My management time includes overseeing case assignments, workload and professional development for our attorneys; evaluating potential cases in our case selection process; and working with our office administrator on issues related to our physical office space, events, and technology. On the litigation side, I run litigation teams on a variety of subject areas, usually in federal court. My current docket includes fair housing, disability discrimination, sexual harassment, fair lending cases, and discrimination in the for-profit school industry. I love that I get to be a civil rights generalist and work on a wide variety of cases. My work also includes advising non-profits and other organizations on civil rights issues.
OCP: What is the mission of Relman Colfax? What advantages does the private public interest law firm model offer for tackling issues in the civil rights sphere?
TR: Our mission at Relman Colfax is to use civil rights litigation to combat systemic discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), disability, and other protected classes, to seek remedies for individuals and organizations that have been harmed by those forces, and to counsel companies, governments, and organizations about progressive policies that increase equity and opportunity. As a private-public interest law firm, we are able to bring our resources to bear on the most pressing civil rights issues without having to worry about fundraising, restricted grant funding, or many layers of approval. This means that we can move quickly and with a nimbleness that is not always possible in government or non-profits. For attorneys working at our firm, it means that they can explore their own areas of interest, without feeling restricted to a particular practice area or specialty.
OCP: Your practice spans the areas of fair housing, predatory lending, public accommodations, and more; throughout your experience working on these cases, what have you learned about advocacy? What do you think makes for a successful advocate?
TR: I’ve been so lucky to get to learn from talented litigators, both at the firm and through co-counsel relationships. I’ve also learned an immense amount from amazing advocates who have been my clients. There are three things I’d point to for successful advocacy: 1) determination – proving discrimination is often a steep climb, and you have to go in knowing that you will be at it for a long while; 2) comradery – it is much easier to do that climb with a team (and this team includes your clients!) who has the same goal so that you can buoy each other when each of you, inevitably, flags in energy; 3) humility – if nothing goes wrong in your cases, you probably aren’t taking enough risks, without doubt you will realize you could have done something better, and approaching the work with humility and a willingness to listen allows you to learn from your mistakes and course correct.
OCP: In Saint-Jean, et al. v. Emigrant Mortgage Co., et al., a case that you spearheaded, a jury ruled in your favor, finding Emigrant liable for discrimination for targeting African American and Hispanic neighborhoods with predatory home refinance loans. When you work on prominent cases such as this, what are some of the unique challenges? How do you stay motivated throughout the process?
TR: In a case where your individual clients are suing a large institution, one unique challenge is information asymmetry. Emigrant Mortgage Company controlled most of the information we needed to prove our case. It took many lawyers and many discovery disputes to get what we needed. In a similar vein, well-resourced institutions can hire large law firms, so we are often faced with a David versus Goliath dynamic. In terms of staying motivated, there are two principal ways I stay motivated. First, connecting with clients is always a great motivator, reminding me about the people behind the long hours of legal research, document review and skirmishes with opposing counsel. Second, remembering to celebrate smaller victories along the way. There are lots of successes through the life of a case that merit celebration, whether that is finding a great document in document review, winning a discovery motion, or surviving a dispositive motion.
OCP: How do you see the law as a tool for advancing racial justice?
TR: This question is phrased well, because the law, and litigation even more so, is exactly that, a tool for advancing racial justice. It is not, and cannot be, the only tool. Our civil rights laws are incredibly important to the functioning and fabric of our society. We can hold powerful actors accountable through enforcement actions and send signals to others about the consequences of discrimination. When a large company gets sued by an individual, it must respond in court, even if that company has a profit sheet showing millions of dollars and the individual is living on SSDI. But of course, a law that is never enforced is not so effective. While it would be wonderful to think we would keep moving towards racial justice without enforcement mechanisms, it is simply not the current reality. But knowing that when discrimination inevitably happens, we have tools at our disposal to both seek redress for discrimination that has already occurred and send a message to others, we can move the needle a bit. Often after a successful jury trial, I’ll have other similar cases resolve because the defendant suddenly realizes what might lay ahead, and so while each case has merit on its own, these ripple effects are also part of the change we are hoping to create.
OCP: While a student at Harvard Law School, you participated in the Prison Legal Assistance Project, the Criminal Justice Institute, and the Employment Law Clinic. What lessons or memories stick out to you when you reflect on your clinical experiences?
TR: I learned so much from my clinical experiences. Unfortunately, as law students, unless you seek out clinical experiences you don’t get to discover whether you enjoy stand up litigation work. Interacting with clients in my clinicals and representing clients in court through CJI was what led me to seek out trial level litigation jobs after law school. I’m not sure I would have gone down that path had I not realized during law school I enjoyed it. It was a wonderful complement to my doctrinal classes, helping to draw a link between black letter law and the real-world impacts. I also found wonderful mentors in my clinical courses. Their advice and mentorship throughout my legal career have been invaluable. I would be remiss not to mention the incomparable Kristin Muniz, who passed away in the fall of 2020. She was my CJI clinical instructor, and I am indebted to her for her compassionate teaching, unwavering passion and skill as a public defender, and deep warmth and kindness. I miss her.
OCP: What advice would you give students looking to stay engaged in civil rights work after graduation?
TR: The advice I always give to students is that I have never met someone who wanted to be a civil rights lawyer who didn’t find a way to make it happen. If this is the work you want to do, keep pounding the pavement and you will find a path. And you won’t regret it, almost 15 years in I continue to love what I do. Look out for pro bono opportunities, reach out to the network of civil rights advocates, and build a personal board of directors (thanks to the wonderful and much-missed Lani Guinier for introducing me to this concept) to hold you accountable to staying focused on your goals.
Filed in: Alumni Profiles, Pro Bono
Tags: Class of 2008, Criminal Justice Institute, Keeping Tabs
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