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Baltimore’s International Legal Star
Sheela Murthy’s Life, Her Firm and the Foundation

April 2016
Photos by John Dean

Photos by John Dean

Sheela Murthy combined a passion for the law with a visionary use of the Internet in its earliest days to build a thriving practice that has grown into a global leader in U.S. immigration law.

Her website has been ranked the most visited legal website in the world. Her firm, which began as a solo practice in 1994, now processes thousands of cases each year. The Murthy Law Firm, headquartered in Owings Mills, has nearly 100 employees in Baltimore and a presence on the West Coast. There is also an affiliate office in Chennai, India, with satellite offices in other major Indian cities. Murthy, a graduate of both Harvard Law School and the University Law College of Bangalore in India, is a self-described “Army brat,” who grew up all over India, since her father was in the Indian Armed Forces.

Growing Up in India
Because there are so many languages and cultures in her native country, Murthy says, “Once you’ve traveled across India, you really are a citizen of the world.” As exciting as it was to be exposed to new societies and people, she also witnessed some appalling human rights abuses. Dowry deaths, or the burning of brides when their families wouldn’t – or couldn’t – come up with funds to meet additional demands, ignited a passion in Murthy for justice and women’s rights. Although the law was not a prestigious profession in Indian society, and India lacked the legal structure of the United States, she saw the law as the path to fight for women.

sheela2Murthy met the love of her life, Vasant Nayak, who was studying photography in the United States. He and Murthy met at an exhibition of his work in India, and he encouraged her to also go to the United States to study. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1987, she worked in corporate and real estate law in New York and then in Baltimore. But her own struggles with immigration, and the many, many years it took to get her green card and become an American citizen, prompted the switch to immigration law.

When she started her law firm in 1994, Nayak, who was by then her husband and teaching digital art and photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, convinced her to build the business via the Internet. He created, which provided free legal information that was unheard of at that time. Murthy laughs as she remembers her astonishment at the idea of giving her knowledge away for free. Her husband insisted that using the Internet in that way would become a huge force. Now the widely acknowledged method of Inbound Strategic Marketing, it was instinctual to Nayak, and he was certain it would build loyalty from a population desperate for answers, with no one they knew they could trust. Murthy had been through the ordeal of immigration herself, and she has trained her entire staff to imagine what it is like to be a stranger in this country. still provides accurate information and is one of the most visited legal websites in the world. It has provided a virtual town square for immigrants and others interested in U.S. immigration law to gather, ask questions, and share their experiences. It offers a forum, chat, regular teleconferences and a mobile app. The firm has developed proprietary legal software to help with complex immigration issues. Although a leader in the field, the firm is able to keep legal costs reasonable because of the volume of cases the firm handles and workplace systems that cut down on overhead.

The Murthy Law Firm provides assistance for individual foreign nationals who are either visiting the United States on a temporary basis for tourism or to conduct business, as well as students looking to continue their studies here, whether as a university student or at the secondary school level as, for example, an exchange student. Individuals who wish to remain in the United States as a lawful permanent resident also turn to the Murthy Law Firm.

In addition to individuals, businesses of all sizes also depend on the Murthy Law Firm.

U.S. Businesses Need Top Global Talent
“Every business that has been successful relies on and needs good people,” Murthy says. Employers particularly need highly skilled, high-tech workers. In addition to the obvious areas like technology, hospitals want doctors in certain specialties, biotech companies are searching for scientists, and universities need faculty from other countries. Even in manufacturing, Murthy notes, “Everyone is using technology on some level, so there is a huge demand for tech workers.”

sheela3The firm’s clients cover the range from Fortune 500 companies to a small business that might need just one or two workers from overseas. The Murthy Law Firm has a global reach and sees it as a great compliment to the United States that the best and brightest from around the world still want to come to this country. Because immigration law is federal in nature, the firm can represent clients regardless of the state or country where they reside.

Attracting top talent is a challenge for any business; however, when attempting to hire foreign candidates, employers need to ensure that they comply with all the laws and regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor and Homeland Security, which is why many entrust a law firm that specializes in immigration law. Murthy Law Firm attorneys can consult with employers to determine what immigration categories may be the most suitable for current and potential employees, according to the firm’s website. The firm can also help employers prepare and file documentation that must be submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and provide representation to employers in matters such as “requests for evidence (RFEs), notices of intent to revoke (NOIR) and notices of intent to deny (NOID),” according to the firm’s website.

To ensure that companies are complying with proper record keeping with H1Bs (a visa classification that permits a foreign national to work in the United States for a temporary period) and I-9s (used for verifying the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States), the Murthy Law Firm also provides internal audits for companies of all sizes.

Murthy’s Awards and Accolades
Murthy has received numerous accolades and awards, including:
• Highest possible AV rating, a legal profession benchmark
• The region’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009; she was invited to judge the competition from 2011 to 2013.
• The State of Maryland’s Global Leadership Award
• 50 Most Influential Marylanders, The Daily Record
• One of Five Distinguished Women in 2016, Girl Scouts of Central Maryland
• Chairman of the Board, Maryland Chamber of Commerce
• Board member, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Stevenson University, JHPIEGO and Harvard Law School’s Dean’s Advisory Committee

As with online sections dedicated to individuals, has a wealth of information and useful articles for businesses to help them better understand the process.

MurthyNAYAK Foundation for a Better World
Following the tragic events of 9/11, Murthy and Nayak co-founded the MurthyNAYAK Foundation. Their family foundation is dedicated to the support of socially transformative projects with the goal of making the world a better place. Their efforts are focused in their homeland of India and their adopted home of Baltimore.

Murthy’s father was a source of great inspiration to her. From a large, poor family, he studied at night under streetlights from borrowed books he had to return the next morning. But his diligence got him into engineering school.

“He used his poverty not as an excuse, but to do better,” Murthy says. “He told me, ‘When you know you’re at a certain place where you’re comfortable, give it away while you’re alive. It will have to be given away for others to use after you’re dead, so pick your causes.’” A civil engineer and retired colonel of the Indian Army, he developed a nutritious breakfast mix for poor children, who often come to school without having had dinner the night before. It is now known as the Murthy Nutrition Plan.

Although he died a year and a half ago, the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, which is privately funded by the couple, continues and honors his work. Murthy is still devastated by his death. “No one warns you how difficult it is,” she says in an uncharacteristically somber moment. But then she smiles broadly and says, “I want to choose our causes now and I want to get thanked while I’m alive.” I95