In 2013, Ketu Shah became the first judge of South Asian descent to be appointed in the State of Washington when he became a judge of the King County District Court. In 2019, he was appointed to the King County Superior Court..A graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, Judge Shah began his practice way back in 1995, gradually building a specialisation in immigration law.As a pillar of the South Asian legal community, Judge Shah has played an instrumental role in not only encouraging other lawyers of South Asian descent, but also in highlighting the impact of diversity on the bench.In this interview with Anuj Agrawal, he discusses his own pathway to becoming a judge, how the South Asian Bar Association of Washington played a crucial role in his success, and also shares some advice for Indian lawyers who are looking to immigrate to the US..Going back a few decades, what got you to study law?.I studied law because I wanted to serve people, to be a problem solver. I initially started in engineering since I thought I could be helpful [through engineering] But after a year of course work, I didn't like it so much and I started looking at different fields. I eventually landed in philosophy.In philosophy you learn to be a very analytical thinker, build a 'If-A-then-B' line of thought. But after finishing my studies in philosophy I needed to get a more practical degree and law school was mentioned to me as something that might fit my interests as well as abilities. I decided to take a year to decide. So, I went to India and lived there for a year and while I was there, I applied for law school. In India, I lived with my grandparents, working with my uncles, and really enjoyed the process. I learnt how to negotiate, how to manage things and gain the skills necessary for running a good business.Back then, I didn't know any lawyers in the United States. But I applied, got admitted, and went to law school. In law school, I started taking some classes about trial court work and how to be a litigator in a courtroom. I enjoyed that very much. So, I decided to become a litigator, and I did that for the first ten years of my career. .Was there any family pushback on your decision to become a lawyer?.In the US, the legal profession has always been well regarded and thought of as a good profession. So, when I decided to go into law school my parents were happy with my decision.My larger family consists of entrepreneurs, and they did ask me to go into business or trading. “That's our culture, that is our background”, they said. I told them I might just join them in the future.After all, one of the benefits of a law degree is you have the flexibility to do multiple things in the future..While in law school, were you one of the few students of South Asian descent?.Yes. There were maybe five or six of us out of a class of say seven hundred. In my first-year class, there were only two or three of us..Did that bother you?.I don't think it bothered me. You know, we were very committed to studying the law. We were kind of forging a path, and so would tell people, “Hey, follow us. Keep coming with us.”Today, the numbers are still not huge, but more significant than what they were in my time.This was also true when I came here to Seattle to practice law. At the time, there were very few South Asian lawyers. So, the few of us that were here, we bound together and created an association called the South Asian Bar Association.All over the country, these associations formed. Now there is a National Association of South Asian Attorneys. .What were the goals of this association? How did it help?.It helped get us the much-needed support and network. If I was an expert in one area of law and I had another South Asian attorney who was an expert in a different area of law, this was a way for us to connect.[The Association] was a way to build relationships, refer clients to each other, and explore ways to support each other. For instance, we did some legal education programs that helped South Asian lawyers. These associations were helpful in developing a certain collegiality. .My view is that lawyers are a bit resistant to change. Was it difficult to break into the legal practice because you were, in a sense, an outsider?.Yes, it was hard to break in and that's why these associations were helpful. At that time there were no [law firm] partners of South Asian descent. So, how do we get to that point? There were no South Asian judges. I was the first in Washington.We helped each other strategize and supported each other. It was difficult because people would expect us to be engineers or doctors because that was the stereotype. Or people would say, ‘Oh. I didn't know you spoke English that well!”We experienced all those things..And how do you keep your chin up?.Of course, there were times when we were discouraged. We would talk to each other about how we dealt with these things. But I think we had the confidence that we knew the law, that we were smart enough and could work just as hard as anyone else. We would show people that we were as capable as anybody else.It was almost a challenge to us, “You don't think I'm good enough? Well, I'm going to show you how good I am!”We worked extra hard. We worked longer hours and we just kept picking ourselves up. If there was a setback or a difficulty we would be discouraged for a moment and talk to our friends. We would then pick ourselves up and just keep moving forward.Just like anything in life, when you face a barrier, it can be daunting. But if you surround yourself with the right people and you work hard, you can overcome it all..As a lawyer, you did a lot of immigration matters. Back then, were you seeing a lot of Indians make the move to the US? .Yes. This was in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. There still were not that many South Asian lawyers in Seattle. I created my practice to be a neighborhood lawyer for the South Asian community. I set up my office in an area where there were a lot of South Asians so they could access me easily.Often, I would get questions about the US legal system – questions from business owners, tech workers, and family members. Remember, there was a high need for immigration help because were a lot of businesses that were coming up in that dot com era. A lot of technology entrepreneurs were setting up businesses and so, there were lots of IT workers coming to the US.I worked with them, helping them navigate the immigration system. What I saw was that there would be IT workers that would come to the US and then their spouse would join them. Some of these spouses had a law degree from India and they were looking to work here. So, they would then sign up for the graduate law degree, the LLM, and then they would take the bar exam here..You worked in immigration for nearly a decade before joining the bench. What prompted the move to become a judge?.I was in the courtroom for about ten years. I liked it. I was skilled and competent at it. But then, I left that part of my practice and I focused more on immigration, which was not in court as much. It was more office work and papers.The judges saw my work and they liked the work I did. Now, part of the issue is they want to make sure our bench has as many perspectives as possible.So, they asked me whether I would be willing to be a substitute [judge] when they're on vacation or when they're sick or something, I said, “Okay, I'll try it.”I did that for a few years, and I enjoyed it. People complimented me on my demeanor and the way I managed the courtroom. So, I thought, “Okay, I could do this more and on a regular basis.” I realized that I could give a lot [back to society] if I was a judge. I had the opportunity to make changes to how the system works. I was also fortunate to get appointed a judge. Now, there are three more judges of South Asian descent. So that makes me very happy. .It must be reassuring for people to see someone who looks like them on the Bench..You know, we talk about this with respect to all kinds of communities, whether it's South Asian or Vietnamese or Mexican or Brazilian or whatever community you want to think of – we need to make sure we have representation [on the Bench].People should know that [the courtroom] is an open place, an inclusive place. Anyone from any background, if they work hard and if they are smart enough, they have the opportunity to rise to this level. That's the message we want to be presenting to people. That, “We have all these kinds of different kinds of people on the Bench and anybody can get there.”If you work hard and are talented, your skin color doesn't matter. Your background does not matter. And even if you come from a different legal system, if you learn this system and become proficient and work hard, then you can achieve these goals. .If someone was to say I want to follow in your footsteps, what is the most important piece of advice you would give? .Of course, work hard, be on top of your work, be on time. Those are kind of practical pieces of advice.In terms of the bigger picture, I would say be curious, try and learn about different areas of the law. Because when you get to be a judge, you're expected to know a little bit about many areas of law. Of course, we do have people who have focused on one area of law and become good judges. They're smart, they're hard-working, but it does take time for them to learn other areas of law. So, the learning curve to be a good judge is steeper. If you want a less steep curve, know different areas of law – this will only help you..A lot of Indian law graduates are motivated to study outside India with the hope of landing a job. But it is quite difficult to find employment, especially in the legal field. Do you think that's changing?.I am optimistic in some ways, but a little pessimistic in others.One of the hard problems is immigration. Sure, you can come here, get a law degree here and then you can work here for a while under your student visa. But after that, you must get some sort of specialized work visa such as an H1B visa, or another type of visa.This can be very difficult. In fact, it is a lottery! You don't have as much control over that. I'm a little pessimistic about that because it's hard if you're just relying on luck to get a visa to work.Of course, people are coming [to the US] and getting hired. I think it's been improving because law firms and businesses are now working internationally. They are much more open to this international world that we live in now.And people from India offer a perspective of South Asia and how things work in that region. They are also willing to learn how US system works. This bridging of knowledge is very critical, and I think law firms and businesses are excited about hiring people like that.But you know, this immigration issue is complicated, and that complicates a lawyer’s ability to work long term..Final question, what are the skills an Indian lawyer ought to develop to become a more effective counsel in the US?.This is an interesting question. There are lots of Indian lawyers that come here and think, “Oh, I did some work in India and so I can do the same work here in the US” – that is underestimating the differences between our legal systems. The US system, although similar in a common law sense, is very different in the way our courts are organized, in the way matters are litigated. Lawyers who come here should not underestimate these differences.They really will need to learn the way the US legal system works, how people study the law here, how they make presentations, or how they appear in court. If someone is coming here and thinking that they can learn it very quickly, I would caution them.Yes, there are some similarities, like the vocabulary for instance. But there are substantial procedural differences and so you will need to spend time to understand how this system works.Recognizing there is a big difference and that you have a lot to learn will help you go a long way in practicing law here in the US.