Alumni Spotlight: Menaka Nayar (’07)
Attorney Menaka Nayar (’07) loves her job. “It’s the perfect mix of the concrete (because you have the specific realities of your client to deal with) and the abstract (every question of law involves some broader value judgment about how our society should order itself, what is fair, what is just),” she explains. “Additionally, my work has a very strong international component, so I get to use the foreign languages and knowledge of the globe I first learned at MLWGS nearly every day!”
As a high schooler, Menaka appreciated the spirit of the student body and the culture at Maggie Walker. “I loved that people were free to be their unabashedly nerdy, passionate selves at a place as supportive and nurturing as MLWGS,” she says. She also enjoyed diving into the “broad and diverse curriculum.” “Global Studies was a major favorite,” she says, “as was the fact that my reading assignments in 9th grade English class included authors like Arundhati Roy, Naguib Mahfouz and Alexander Pushkin!” She fondly remembers the faculty, especially teachers like Mrs. Dwelle and Mr. White. “I could go on to list about a million things about MLWGS that made it such a distinctive experience for me,” she says. “The excellent We the People program, the fun times dancing at Fall Festival and Asian Assembly, the fact that we had nearly a dozen foreign languages to choose from (!), and many more. Most especially, I remain incredibly grateful and humbled that this world-class education was afforded to us at a public high school.”
After graduating from MLWGS, Menaka attended Duke University. During her time there as an undergrad, she spent three summers abroad studying global institutions in Geneva, Switzerland and working on refugee and migrant rights in Dublin, Ireland. On campus, she led a multicultural dance troupe called Defining Movement, wrote a senior thesis on public attitudes towards citizenship in Europe, and was part of a women’s leadership program called the Baldwin Scholars. “I always had a packed academic and extracurricular schedule – all of which enriched my life considerably and has stood me in good stead since graduating – but the most important part of my undergrad experience, without a doubt, has been the enduring friendships I made while at Duke,” she says.
Her interest in refugees and migration, which she cultivated while interning in Dublin, led her to her decision to apply to law school. At Duke Law, Menaka enrolled in the joint-degree JD/LLM program. “The additional Masters in International and Comparative Law was the perfect fit for my personal and professional interests,” she explains. “Through that program (I earned both degrees in three years), I learned about international human rights from amazing faculty and had the opportunity to apply that learning in a variety of contexts, both domestic and international.” During her externship at the Durham District Attorney’s office, she assisted in the prosecutions of various misdemeanors, including domestic violence cases. She also served as a research assistant at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, working on various doctrines of international humanitarian law, and spent half a year in Cambodia at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal charged with addressing the genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
“My time in Cambodia was both deeply transformative and deeply challenging,” she says. “I worked in the Office of the International Co-Investigating Judge, and helped to draft memoranda and decisions that were reflected in the jurisprudence of that tribunal. While the legal issues involved were fascinating, the most compelling (and difficult) part of the work was learning about the horrific abuses that took place during that regime,” she says. “On my return to Cambodia in 2014 (in lieu of a post-bar-exam trip, I chose to volunteer my time at the tribunal for a second stint), I had the immense fortune of being at the tribunal on the day that life sentences were rendered against Pol Pot’s second and third in command, for their crimes against humanity. It was incredibly moving to see survivors and their descendants, bussed in from the Cambodian countryside, rejoicing in justice finally delivered. “
Menaka currently serves as a member of the United Nations Committee of the New York City Bar Association. “The Committee engages with the work of the United Nations in a variety of ways, both as a commentator and observer,” she explains. “Most recently, I served as Secretary of the Task Force on Good Governance in the Secretary-General Selection, which was a joint initiative of the committee and my law firm, Linklaters. The Task Force was aimed at infusing principles of good governance – like participation, accountability, transparency – into the previously closed and opaque process of selecting the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. I’m proud to say that our work was part of a coordinated push by a variety of organizations, including the UN itself, to create a more open and participatory selection process. I’m glad that our efforts played some part in moving towards better governance in our global institutions.”
What advice would Menaka give to someone interested in pursuing a career like hers? “If you’d like a career that involves a strong international component, I’d recommend studying as many languages as you can, to as high a level of fluency as possible, and taking advantage of every opportunity to study and work abroad (if feasible). The cultural competency you will develop from doing so will make you an asset in any workplace.”
When we originally spoke, Menaka was looking forward to attending her ten-year reunion at MLWGS in October. “I’m excited to catch up with friends and classmates, and to return to Richmond, which I have only fond memories of,” she said. We had so much fun having Menaka and her classmates back for the weekend!