Written by: Nicole Black
Some things are worth the risk
Nothing matters more to Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Cyrus Mehri, than fighting discrimination. And, as he explains, class action lawsuits are his weapon of choice: “My goal is to be a catalyst for societal change. I believe that diversity and inclusion works. There’s power in diversity and inclusive companies are more successful.”
According to Cyrus, he learned these lessons early in life: “My parents immigrated here and I grew up with the Kennedy-style idealism which infused my early years. I had acknowledgement during my early years that race is one of America’s biggest unresolved shortcomings. I remember spending the summer of ‘74 with friends playing football and then running inside to watch Watergate afterward.”
Cyrus’ battle against discrimination began with the 1994 class action lawsuit, Roberts v. Texaco, Inc. At the time, Cyrus, an associate at Cohen Milstein, was approached by Texaco employees who were seeking counsel. Taking on the class action case was a risky proposition and other attorneys had turned it down. But, his gut instinct told him the case had merit: “I was doing class action work at Cohen Milstein in Washington, and had been asked by Texaco employees to meet with them. They couldn’t find a lawyer in New York willing to take on Texaco because Texaco had a reputation of crushing their opponents. So I showed up at church in White Plains, NY - they later described me in a book written by one of the plaintiffs as ‘Andy Garcia on a bad hair day’ - and when I saw them there, I thought, ‘These are impressive people stuck in a Rosa Parks moment where they could stand up to bring about change.’”
That case changed the trajectory of his career. After achieving one the largest settlements ever allowed in a race discrimination case, Cyrus decided to take another risk: he started his own firm.
Small firm, big impact
After the Texaco settlement, Cyrus found himself at a crossroads. It was a pivotal moment for him, but after some reflection, his path was obvious: “The Texaco case created an opportunity. Cohen Milstein offered me partnership, but I knew that if I didn’t start my own firm after that win, it wouldn’t happen. So I took a risk and started this firm - but had I known then what I do now, I might not have taken that risk. What makes this type of practice riskier to start on your own is that you have to fund cases on contingency…you have to be ready to bank roll tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
But the risk paid off. While at first glance, his small, eight attorney firm, Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, might not appear to be a formidable force of change, the results his firm has achieved prove otherwise. From the 1996 racial discrimination class action settlement of $176.1-million against Texaco, the racial discrimination class action settlement against Coca-Cola in the amount of $192.5-million or the recent trilogy of gender discrimination class action lawsuit settlements against Morgan Stanley & Co., Smith Barney and Wachovia, which collectively settled for over $112-million, this small firm gets big results in cases that matter.
As Cyrus explains: “We may be a small firm but our goal is to have a big impact on society. Our firm may see more cases on the issue of race and corporate America than anyone else. We are the engine for change and reform in corporate settings.”
Practicing what he preaches
When it comes to diversity, the legal field is not immune from Cyrus’ scrutiny. In fact, he recently co-authored an article with Danielle Davis, A Few Thoughts on Tackling the Issue of Diversity and Inclusiveness in Law Firms. The article examines the subconscious biases at work that create barriers to the advancement of women and minorities in the legal field and offers suggestions for ways to increase diversity in major law firms.
In the article, he and his co-author conclude that the legal field is just as guilty as corporate America when it comes to discrimination. And, according to Cyrus, while it is of the utmost importance for young, diverse attorneys to work hard and persevere, sometimes that’s just not enough: “When starting out as a young lawyer, you have to master this trade. You have to be dedicated to being the best and mastering the skill set. That said, it’s not a level playing field. Not even close. Mastering the skill set alone won’t get you there. Because, as a profession, we need to do more to be more inclusive—we need to keep doing more and to keep doing better. I’d like to see more diversity.”
But, does he practice what he preaches? Absolutely. The firm’s employees come from diverse backgrounds and four of the firm’s eight attorneys are women. When asked about the firm’s diversity, Cyrus replies: “There are a lot of women and diversity in the firm. We just hired a new associate, who just happens to be a blind lawyer. She had unanimous support and was the number one person we interviewed.”
Changing the world - for the better
At the end of the day, for Cyrus, it’s about making a difference, both personally and professionally. He explains that the Bob Dylan song, “Every Grain of Sand,” inspires the philosophy that he aims to live by:
“It’s a spiritual song which makes me think that every person is just one grain of sand among millions. I always ask myself, what are you going to do with your grain of sand? Because you just have this brief moment in time. What are you going to do to make your grain have a positive impact on others?”