One of the early memories thirty-one year old Asha Hedayati recalls about her first steps as a self employed lawyer takes place in family court. ‘Usually, you don’t face such a harsh wind like in other courts here. Nevertheless, family court is were you usually have to deal with an actual opponent’.
In Asha Hedayati’s case this opponent was a certain kind of lawyer that she has met several times since, so she is adept at recognising them. They are, ‘old-established Berlin men that somehow become unsettled when meeting me.’ She’s laughing an amused and hearty laugh like she will do often during this conversation. It also sounds a little self-ironic most of the time – another trait probably distinguishing her from the aforementioned kind of lawyer. Indeed, lawyers usually wear robes when in court. But even uniformed working clothes cannot hide the fact that Asha is a young woman of 5 foot 4 inches and a very slight build.
The old-established lawyer had an arrogant streak and tried to hint to the presiding judge whilst using complex jargon that he considered the young woman too inexperienced to properly understand the case. Eventually, Asha not only had the judge’s respect but most importantly the law was on her side, letting her close the case for her client.
Beginning & Bluffing
Today, stories like that make her chuckle and she just takes a sip of her tea. A few days ago she tried a case in the court of appeal for the first time, which is the highest court in Berlin. However, she still remembers that feeling of fear creeping up on her before her first trial – which she promptly lost because she made the mistake to ‘just let the client talk’. She still knows about the nervousness her very first client could “smell” how little experience she had as a practising lawyer and that she would need to bury herself in hours of research after their first meeting.
Probably any young professional must jump in at the deep end like Asha has done but what makes her unique from others is that she set up her own business shortly after leaving university – she took a risk. There was no back-up, no relatives or partners that would have been able to support her financially if necessary. She borrowed €2000 from her best friend to buy a computer, a shelf and a desk and then moved into her first office.
It was about half a year later when she breathed her first small sigh of relief. Another six months later she ended up getting more enquiries than she could actually cover, her business was finally taking off. The original plan was to give herself three years until that point, but she was ahead of plan. Now, Asha can afford an assistant who she raves about at any given opportunity. She is very modest about her success. Unless you poke her for information about how she did it you would never know. Probably, she is just one of those people who is self-assured and does not feel the urge to promote herself.
Finding The Real Niche
Her start into self-employment might have been penniless, yet not idealess. After stop-offs in a leftish law-office (‘pleasantly unconventional atmosphere and lawyers in hoodies’), a middle-sized office (‘they were all suits and 90% of them were men’) and in Berlin’s integration commissioner’s office (‘a female boss who was an activist in women’s rights’) Asha got an idea of what place among the city’s lawyers she wanted to take. She specialized in family law and right of residence, which are comparatively unpopular types of law as they’re less profitable, but Asha found the right niche for herself in Neukölln, one of Berlin’s districts with a comparatively high percentage of foreigners.
In 1989, Asha’s parents left Teheran via the ex-Soviet Union to seek refuge in Berlin. Apart from German she speaks fluent Farsi, furthermore French and English. If a case requires a language she does not speak she works with voluntary translators, the most popular languages being Turkish and Arabic. ‘What is more crucial than language is my appearance and my name. I’m from the Middle East. I feel that’s why many clients instantly trust me. They feel understood by me even though this impression might be deceptive because I grew up in Germany and have been socialized here. Sometimes it seems to me that people are less ashamed to tell me their story. Especially in the beginning, I benefited from that.’
She mainly represents women who suffer from domestic violence and people with non-clarified residence status. This makes Asha’s job not only that of a lawyer but also that of an occasional social worker: ‘Many of my clients do not speak perfect German. You just have to take them by the hand sometimes. For example, to show them that there are women’s centers where they can go so they do not have to sleep at some friend’s place anymore.’ Such things are not among her actual duties, but without a certain degree of empathy this job just wouldn’t work, she says. Residence permits are of vital significance for the clients. Thus they tend to be stressful for the lawyer and the work often is almost pro bono. ’That’s why there aren’t so many of us and why we are desperately needed.’
When Risks Pay Off
Often enough, the tight ties Asha establishes with her clients during such cases are worth-while because they pay off. She recalls the story of a man from Nigeria who had tried to get right of residence for years. His biggest wish was permission to study in Germany. ‘I took the case, and in the beginning things looked pretty bad. In the end though, he got the right of residence. We were standing at the emigration office where they handed out the legal papers with his wife and they fell into my arms, crying. He told me that he was about to do everything so that his child would be able to study and one day do the same work as me to make people happy.’
It is one of the few parts during the conversation she does not break into a grin or a smile. She appeares very moved at the memory of that event. Usually, Asha is almost endeavoured not to sound histrionic when talking about the motivation behind her work.
Last autumn she gave birth to a daughter herself. When she returns to the office for a couple of hours here and there without the baby, she says: ‘I am blissful. It feels like I am pursuing my hobby.’ This is less down to the fact that her child demands a huge amount of attention from her, but down to the fact that Asha is one of the people that actually love their job.