Growing up in India, Sheela Murthy learned there were two career paths that would garner her respect: becoming a doctor or an engineer. Any other position, she says, and she’d be considered a “nobody.”
There was just one problem with that choice.
“I hated blood, and I hate math,” says Murthy, 61.
Instead, she was driven to pursue a career in law, despite her father’s opposition. She asked an aunt, who had earned a law degree, about the field when she was in eighth grade. Murthy was determined even then to “fight for justice and the rights of the downtrodden and underprivileged,” she says.
After earning a B.A. from Stella Maris College in Chennai, India, she went on to graduate from Bangalore’s University Law College and from Harvard Law School in the United States, where she stayed.
In the U.S., the field of law garners “respect,” Murthy says. Growing up, she says she considered the country a “fabulous bastion of rights and freedoms and liberties.”
After kick-starting her career as a lawyer at firms in New York City and Baltimore, Murthy opened her own in Owings Mills in 1994. It was originally known as the Law Office of Sheela Murthy, but today is simply the Murthy Law Firm. There, she oversees around three dozen lawyers, some based in India, who are working to help clients from around the world, both individuals and companies, navigate U.S. immigration law — from seeking work visas to bringing their families to join them in the United States.
Murthy’s days are filled, in large part, with client consultations; she’s intimately familiar with the hurdles to making one’s case as an immigrant.
“I went through the immigration process personally, and I felt that the lawyer never really cared about me, took care of me,” she says. “I was determined to start a law firm where the focus was in helping, educating, empowering and taking care of others so that they would never feel like how I felt with my immigration lawyer.”
She’s also made a point of taking care of the lawyers at her firm.
Aron Finkelstein, a Baltimore native, started as an associate attorney at the Murthy Law Firm in 1999, after earning his law degree from the University of Baltimore. Today, he’s the firm’s managing attorney. He was only the second lawyer hired, he recalls, and right from the start Murthy took him under her wing, poring over cases with him, late into the evenings.
“Sheela decided that she saw something in me,” Finkelstein says. “Sheela literally built me from the ground up.”
During “pizza Fridays,” a tradition Murthy started early on at the firm, she took note that Finkelstein wasn’t partaking. When she learned that he was keeping kosher, Murthy brought in pizza that Finkelstein could eat, he says.
Her level of care — in work and in interpersonal relationships — strikes Finkelstein as special. “Sheela has an amazing skill to be able to trust people to do what they need to do, but also to educate them along the way,” he says.
Says Murthy: “As I’ve grown a little bit older, and I hope wiser, [running the firm has] also been about building a strong team, being a visionary, being the team leader and mentor.”
As a child, Murthy acted as a protector to her two sisters, both of whom became doctors. She was “a great role model even back then,” Suman Nabar, an ophthalmologist since 1993, says in an email.
“The work Sheela is doing now is phenomenal,” Nabar writes. “I would love to contribute a fraction of what she has to society.”
Murthy’s father, who initially balked at his middle daughter’s chosen career, also came to appreciate the impact that she has had because of it, both in the field of law and via philanthropy.
Through the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, started in 2001 by Murthy and her husband, Vasant Nayak, she supports nonprofits in the Baltimore area and nongovernmental organizations in India, with a focus on women’s and children’s health, education, human rights and more. In 2009, Murthy pledged $1 million over five years to United Way of Central Maryland, and she’s currently in the midst of another $1 million donation, over 20 years, to the American Immigration Council, based in Washington, D.C.
“If you are fortunate to make money in your lifetime, more than you can use for yourself, to feed yourself or to put a roof over your head, the rest has to be given to empower other people,” Murthy says her father taught her. “It’s a moral and ethical obligation.”
Hometown: Bangalore, India
Current residence: Lutherville; Jacksonville, Florida
Education: B.A. from Stella Maris College in Chennai, India; LL.B. from the University Law College, Bangalore University; LL.M. from Harvard University
Career highlights: President and CEO of Murthy Law Firm; associate attorney at Shapiro & Olander; associate attorney at Gordon Feinblatt
Civic and charitable activities: Board member at Baltimore Museum of Art; Board of Advisors JHPIEGO; vice chair of the board of trustees at the Maryland Institute College of Art; founder and chair of the MurthyNAYAK Foundation; legal adviser of IT Serve Alliance; chair of the Tocqueville Society of the United Way of Central Maryland
Family: Married to Vasant Nayak