Alumni Spotlight: Nora Ahmed
October 28, 2021
Alumna Nora Ahmed, Legal Director, American Civil Liberties, practiced in the firm’s Litigation Department from 2012 to 2014 and 2015 to 2020.
Paul, Weiss: What led you to join the ACLU in Louisiana?
Nora Ahmed: I think the pandemic was a moment of awakening for many. As I sat in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen unable to come to the office, I couldn’t help but reflect and ask myself, “Is there something more I could personally be doing to respond to the moment?” As a former South Bronx high school teacher I thought about the toll school closures were having on children, families and teachers. And I realized that I wanted deeply to be on the front lines again, serving the community. Every fiber of my being challenged me to make a change and do more, so I started to revisit a dream I once had when I was a law school student looking for a job during the Great Recession: being an ACLU lawyer.
The mission and vision of the organization to uphold civil rights and to reimagine what a just and fair society looked like has always appealed to me. While in law school, I interned with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, then the Criminal Law Reform Project. Initially, when I tried to secure a position in the government and nonprofit sectors right out of law school, it was a difficult hurdle not only because of the job market but also because I was a bit of an anomaly having decided, as an American citizen, to go to a Canadian law school.
But the pandemic prompted much reflection, and I decided to dabble, to see if there were any new opportunities for me to make the change.
When I saw the Legal Director posting for the ACLU of Louisiana, it read like a perfect fit. The first Black female Executive Director of this Southern affiliate was seeking to grow a racial and gender justice affiliate in Louisiana—two social justice issues that I hold dear to my heart not only because of my own upbringing but also because of what I saw pan out day-in and day-out in the South Bronx.
Moreover, the Executive Director was interested in developing a cooperating attorney program that would allow the affiliate to take on some of the greatest civil rights challenges in a state that has, for years, held the top spot for the highest incarceration rate in the country. If Louisiana were a country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world. My Executive Director’s mission and vision spoke to me—and the intractable challenge was one I was up for. If I learned anything at Paul, Weiss, it was that I love to overcome challenges—even those thought of by most as nearly impossible to overcome. So I applied for the job.
PW: Tell us about the “Justice Lab: Putting Racist Policing on Trial” initiative you are currently leading, and what the initiative seeks to accomplish in its initial phases as well as in the long term?
Nora Ahmed: Justice Lab seeks to address police accountability from a different angle. What we learned after George Floyd’s death was that, while class actions and reform efforts have led to greater transparency and improved policies, practices and training efforts in various states and municipalities, as a country we are not sufficiently monitoring unconstitutional policing practices. We appear to primarily act together as a nation once it’s too late—meaning, after yet another human being has been maimed or killed. Moreover, we are not doing it in a systematic way that addresses what the studies show us: that policing in many communities is racialized. What do I mean by that? A simple example: White people and Black people are shown to smoke marijuana at the same rates; however, our criminal legal system disproportionately targets people of color for possession and distribution.
Accordingly, the thought was: what would happen if we started to civilly prosecute those cases that the private bar does not take on because they are uneconomical? Could we effectively become a policing mechanism that reduces the numbers of encounters between police and people of color? And thus, could we start to reform policing practices in a similar way that police cars on highways tend to reduce drivers from speeding?
With these baseline principles in mind, we launched the initiative on June 10, 2020—my first day on the job. In its initial phase, the question was: can we attract the necessary resources that will allow us to actually put the necessary infrastructure in place? That required a significant effort in building up a resource base of pro bono volunteers (both on the intake side, the law firm side and the legal clinic side) that would allow us to tell the community that we wanted to hear their stories and, if possible, litigate them.
I’m proud to report that the baseline infrastructure build was successful. By July 2020, we opened up a hotline, email address and intake process forms, with a plan to start assigning cases for investigation in September 2020. By August 2020, we had secured an initial cohort of volunteers and had a robust training curriculum in place with some of the foremost experts in the field.
Right now, more than 40 of our law firm partners have cases under investigation or are participating in litigation. To date, we have one case up on appeal that we worked on with one of our legal clinic partners and that I’ll be arguing before the Fifth Circuit on June 9; 10 cases that have been filed in federal district courts in Louisiana; and more than 30 additional cases under investigation. We’re slated to file approximately 30 cases by year’s end, with more to come in 2022. Intake is continuing to go strong, as we are in receipt of nearly 300 complaints. And, this month, with the invaluable support of our corporate intake volunteers—from companies that include Amazon, Facebook, Dropbox, Ironclad, JPMorgan Chase, Ro, Via, Autodesk and Visa—we started uploading to our website the stories of those whose cases we cannot litigate due to substantive or procedural bars.
PW: What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving police accountability in the state of Louisiana and nationally?
Nora Ahmed: There is significant discussion around the country about qualified immunity and that deserves attention. But, in Louisiana, the biggest challenge is the one-year statute of limitations (SOL) that applies to federal civil rights actions. While 47 other states and D.C. have an SOL of two or more years in these types of cases—meaning that you have at least two years from the date of the incident in which to investigate and bring a civil rights claim for unconstitutional policing—Louisianians have a much shorter period of time to do so. When you’re talking about the trauma that results from a negative encounter with police, which typically leads (unfortunately) to bogus criminal charges, one year is simply not enough. Unfortunately, but predictably, when people are forced to weigh how a civil rights action might negatively impact the potential to have all charges against them dropped, they often choose the safer route—which is to get the charges dismissed even if that means losing their right to hold police officers accountable for the misconduct that led to the bogus charges in the first place. The ACLU of Louisiana is in the process of initiating legal challenges to the SOL and working on a strategy to incite legislative reform as well.
On a national level, we need to do more to educate people on how systemic racism is embedded in policing and society writ large. We need PSAs running around the country confronting people with data showing that when a white person does “X,” this happens, when a Black person does “Y,” this happens, when a Native American does “Z,” this happens, etc. And we need the data and the statistics and body cam footage to back it up, state by state, municipality by municipality. The “stop-and-frisk” data should not be difficult to obtain, nor should the body cam footage. It should be readily available, so we can start to see how policing operates around the country. There shouldn’t be any excuse that the data isn’t collected or not available. If the stops are being made, the data is readily apparent; it just needs to be recorded and then disseminated. No excuses.
PW: As Legal Director, what does your day-to-day look like?
Nora Ahmed: My days vary depending on what’s coming up. For example, I might be editing an amicus brief, an appellate brief or trial court filing. I try to make sure I set aside about 15 hours a week for such tasks, including legal research. I also spend a significant amount of time discussing real-time issues with our two intake and investigations paralegals, assessing which cases we can bring and/or need to follow-up on. Additionally, I work with our legal interns and externs, who are conducting vital fact and legal research that speaks to all the various issues surrounding our docket. Finally, I take time to speak with community and other partners about legal and factual issues of import related to our current docket or issues that we should consider putting on our docket. For example, it was of paramount importance for us to have a mental health and social services component of Justice Lab. So I spent time talking with social workers and other experts to identify partnerships that might work for the affiliate. Right before the Christmas Holiday, we initiated a partnership with the Louisiana Victim Outreach program to provide free social services to those who contact us as a part of Justice Lab. That week we also announced a partnership with the Orleans Parish Defender that will allow us to assist their indigent clients who have encountered unconstitutional policing practices.
PW: What lessons have you learned during your years litigating at Paul, Weiss that have helped you in your current role?
Nora Ahmed: No matter how intractable a problem may seem, with sufficient grit and organization, the most complex issues can be systematically analyzed and assessed and a pathway forward forged.
PW: What role do you see lawyers within Big Law and in-house playing to aid and support those who face injustice?
Nora Ahmed: Big Law and in-house teams at corporations are doing an excellent job getting involved in pro bono work when and where it counts. One thing for them to consider is how they can distribute their immense resources to states and localities that do not have local corporations or law firms contributing to pro bono ventures in the same way that you see in, for example, New York, California, Florida, Texas, Michigan or Illinois. There is an amazing pro bono culture that I know first-hand has been developed in New York, but that commitment wanes as you go further South and get to a state like Louisiana. Big Law could consider actively working to set an example in localities and states where the pro bono culture is not as robust as the states in which they most frequently practice—that alone has the potential to revolutionize legal reforms promoted by nonprofits in states with limited pro bono involvement from the private bar.
PW: Who were some mentors who inspired you? How have they impacted your work and relationships today?
Nora Ahmed: I was extraordinarily lucky to have had amazing mentors at Paul, Weiss: Ted Wells, Michele Hirshman and Dan Toal. The most important thing they did was believe in me—and never cut me any slack. They had the utmost faith that I would succeed at any task put before me, but they made me work for it, always challenging me to be a better and more thoughtful lawyer, thinker and person. They critiqued me. They told me when I got it wrong. But, most importantly, they gave me opportunities to get it right and to prove myself. So, I try to do each of those things in turn today. I am extremely realistic, but also an incredibly tough critic—nevertheless, I also tell people that the world is their oyster if they’re willing to put in the work.
Additionally, I think it’s important to mention that Paul, Weiss is the only job offer I received out of law school. Dan likes to remind me that he was on the Hiring Committee that year. As a woman of color with no other legal job opportunities on the horizon at the time, I am ever thankful for getting the job in the first place. It opened so many doors for me, by allowing me to work with veritable legal giants—I clerked for the Honorable Jack Weinstein, to which none can compare, and tried a landmark $1.6 billion case with Ted Wells, one of the foremost legal titans of the era.
PW: What advice would you give to current associates about making the most of their time at the firm?
Nora Ahmed: You have to decide what you want out of your time at Paul, Weiss. What do you want to learn and what kind of lawyer do you want to become? Relationships are important, but perhaps more important are the skills that you develop and the challenges you allow yourself to face and then conquer. You have to be willing to take on scary challenges and dabble in areas of the law you may have no background in. At Paul, Weiss, I wanted to build a curriculum of experiences that would allow me to say, Yes, I can conduct an internal investigation, I can draft a report, I can respond to government subpoenas, I can work on criminal cases and appeals, I can draft a killer MTD, MSJ, letters and trial court filings. And I can defend and examine witnesses and go to trial and, if I’m lucky, also develop the litigation strategy that carries the client on to a big win at the end of the day. I managed to do all of that at Paul, Weiss, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
PW: What is one word that best describes your outlook for 2021? What excites you the most?
Nora Ahmed: Optimistic. The nation is at crossroads and at national and local levels, we are primed for and ready to do the hard work to confront systemic racism. It will not be easy, but we already are the better for it and we only stand to see improvement.