Most divorce lawyers would never dream of calling the parents of the couple in to have a role in the proceedings, but to Supti Bhattacharya, right, it’s an occasional necessity. That’s because Bhattacharya, who this April became a partner at the Hill Wallack law firm, specializes in working with Indian clients. And since marriage and family are different in the Indian culture, divorce is as well.
Bhattacharya is one of a limited number of lawyers in central New Jersey who are familiar enough with South Asian culture to successfully deal with a thorny issue like divorce. She said clients from Indian backgrounds have very different needs and expectations than people who were raised in more Western households. She knows this firsthand.
Bhattacharya was raised in Nebraska in a traditional Indian family, and she speaks Bengali fluently. “A lot of clients come to me because of my cultural background,” she said. “It’s really important to have a variety of attorneys with understanding of different cultural backgrounds to give clients service in a very personal area. There is something of a business case for diversity, and that alone is reason to have lawyers of different backgrounds.”
Bhattacharya, who is chairperson of Hill Wallack’s family law practice group, promotes diversity in her role at the state bar association on its family law executive committee.
When working with clients, Bhattacharya’s fluency in Indian culture and ability to speak Bengali plays a vital role, since divorce is viewed very differently in Indian culture than in the West.
“The most significant difference is the level of family involvement,” Bhattacharya said. “Divorces usually involve not only husbands and wives, but parents and uncles as well. It’s a very patriarchal society.” As a lawyer, Bhattacharya must balance privacy rights of her clients against the need to involve other family members (as long as the client wishes to do so).
“Marriages in Indian culture are often marriages of families, not individuals,” she said. “A divorce is a divorcing of two families, and you can’t ignore the wishes of the elders of the families.”
She said clients often call her and say their parents need to speak with her about some issue. A lawyer not familiar with Indian culture might respond that they could only speak to the client, not their parents. But Bhattacharya says she is willing to talk to other family members, which clients appreciate. She often ends up explaining to parents, who often still live in India, that divorce in America is very different than it is in India. “Being a divorced person in the U.S. carries much less of a stigma,” she said. “In India, getting divorced is a problem, especially in conservative families,” she said.
Before joining Hill Wallack, Bhattacharya ran her own practice. She made herself known to the Indian community by attending religious services and by advertising with her name and face prominently displayed. “Just by putting ads out there, Indians can recognize your name. People can tell by my last name what language I speak, and they can figure out something from a person just by seeing them.”
Bhattacharya finds her work immensely satisfying despite the ugliness of some divorces. The daughter of a geneticist father and a stay-at-home mom, she went to college at the University of Pennsylvania with aspirations to be a social worker, majoring in sociology and urban studies.
However, she had an internship with a public interest law firm in Philadelphia, where she learned more about how the system worked. The more she found out, the more she came to believe she could have more impact on people’s lives as a lawyer. She went on to earn a law degree at Rutgers.
Ideally, Bhattacharya likes to resolve divorces quickly and amicably. “I don’t like seeing people hurt each other,” she said. “At one point, these people sat down and got married thinking they were going to have a beautiful life together. The stressful part of my job is when there is an inability to quickly reach resolutions.”
When cases get more complicated, Bhattacharya said she still finds it satisfying to get clients out of bad marriages. “The ones that really make a difference to me are the ones where they literally hug me and thank me for their freedom,” she said. For example, she recently took on the case of a woman who had been negotiating her divorce for the past two-and-a-half years from a husband who had a history of domestic violence. Bhattacharya was able to reach a settlement and spare the extreme expense and stress of a trial.
When the woman first met Bhattacharya, she was shy and quiet. But by the time the separation was complete, her demeanor completely changed. “I feel like she came out of it and had this lightness to her,” Bhattacharya said. “She said she felt like there was hope in her future. She and her kids are doing great now, and she feels a lot of freedom.”
At just 40, Bhattacharya has risen far in a field that she said is still more difficult for women than for men. “I’m very proud of having been able to build a career and practice,” she said. “A lot of young women can do that, but they’re not really encouraged to follow their dreams. They need to find mentors that are willing to help them achieve whatever that is. You can do anything you want in life if you put your mind to it and focus on the work.”