Rupali Sharma

Hometown: Edison, New Jersey
Current Job: Legal Fellow, Center for Reproductive Rights
Education: Northwestern University, 2007
YLS Year: 2012
Clerkship(s) (if applicable):
Hon. Matthew F. Kennelly, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Chief Judge R. Guy Cole, JR, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Activities at YLS:
Student Director, Immigration Legal Services Clinic
Managing Editor of LawFem
Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic


Why did you decide to become a litigator?

For two years after college, I worked at a domestic violence shelter in Chicago called Apna Ghar, which strives to address the needs of recent immigrants–from Asian, Middle Eastern, and African populations, among others– that often can’t avail themselves of other domestic violence services in the city due to language and cultural barriers. We ran a 24-hour shelter and also facilitated the legal side of things, including asylum, trafficking, divorce, and criminal matters. While working there, I noticed two things. First, I saw how powerful the law could be. The structure and operation of our legal system made an enormous difference in our clients’ lives. They badly needed legal counsel and representation as a result. Second, I was struck by the ways in which the laws in their countries of origin and the laws here alike shaped their understandings of what it means to be a daughter, wife, or mother, of what’s permissible and impermissible, what’s private or public (this is the case for all of us). I wasn’t sure if I wanted to practice, but I knew I wanted to study law. It’s why I applied to law school in the first place.

During my first year at YLS, I got involved in the Immigration Legal Services clinic. My clinic partner and I were tasked with representing a family fleeing religious persecution in another part of the world and seeking asylum in the US. We met with them every week, listened to their stories, and slowly converted very intimate details of their lives into legal arguments. I think working in the clinic showed me how much I actually enjoyed law, even outside the context of women’s rights advocacy and gender dynamics. I especially enjoyed the process of taking someone’s lived experience and figuring out how to make it resonate with a judge or a legal officer. And I loved the process of writing and rewriting an argument, as well as the oral advocacy aspect of it.

You’re a legal fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City. How did you get there?

Once I grew interested in litigation, I sought out any opportunity I could to develop my legal research and writing skills. I ultimately joined the Lowenstein International Human Rights clinic, which is how I connected with the Center for Reproductive Rights. Lowenstein and the Center for Reproductive Rights conducted a joint fact-finding mission on forced pregnancy testing in Tanzania, which allowed me to explore potential legal approaches to a violation of women and girls’ rights for the very first time During that trip, I became committed to the idea of working with the Center down the road in whatever capacity I could. Ultimately, I ended up getting a Bernstein International Human Rights Fellowship to work at the Center during the interim year between law school and my clerkship.

I spent my fellowship year working with the Center’s Europe Program on a challenge to Ireland’s abortion ban, which forces women to travel abroad for critical medical care at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. Since the prohibition is by constitutional amendment, we couldn’t sue in Irish courts. Even a judge who thought the ban was wrong couldn’t give our clients relief. So we decided to challenge it before the United Nations Human Rights Committee by arguing that it violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by inflicting severe suffering on women. We wanted to show the world that having to travel for an abortion is a human rights violation itself..

That litigation was still ongoing at the time I left to clerk in the Northern District of Illinois. After my clerkship, I went back to the Center for my present fellowship. By that point, I knew I wanted to be an impact litigator, and opportunities for such work aren’t as steadily accessible in the international realm to people with my background as they are in the domestic realm.

What’s your day-to-day like?
What kind of work do Center for Reproductive Rights fellows do?

As a fellow, most of my work consists of legal research, helping to draft legal documents like complaints, affidavits, and briefs, and so on. We’re the most junior members of the team, but we’re involved every step of the way. We’re not arguing in front of the courts ourselves, but we help to prepare our team members. I’m present at strategy meetings and I’ve been able to learn about what makes a promising case and when to bring a lawsuit. I love the strategic element. I’m also deeply invested in what we’re fighting for – our clients and our values. It can be challenging and sometimes sad, but it’s excellent training and hugely important work. This is definitely my dream job.

In November, the Supreme Court granted cert in one of the Center’s cases, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, which challenges the constitutionality of Texas provisions that leave 10 or fewer clinics in the state. Are you involved in preparing for briefing or oral argument in that case? What’s that like?

Fellows are staffed on as many cases as possible, including Whole Woman’s Health, which I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of. By the time I rejoined the Center post-clerkship, the team had already prevailed at the district court level. The Fifth Circuit then stayed that decision, forcing all but seven clinics in Texas to immediately stop providing abortion care and turn women away. I spent my first weekend back helping to file an application to the Supreme Court to vacate the stay, which to our utter relief was granted. Since then I’ve been involved every step of the way, including the filing of the cert petition following the Fifth Circuit decision reversing the district court. We filed our opening brief at the Supreme Court last month and are now helping my supervisor, the wonderful lead attorney on the case, prepare for argument in March.

To what extent, if any, are you able to interact with the Center’s clients?

We mostly represent independent abortion providers, both on behalf of themselves and their patients. I have to say that our clients are some of my heroes. They don’t need to be doing this, particularly in the hostile environments many of them find themselves in. For example, one of our doctors, a provider at one of the clinics in the Texas case, is past retirement age, but continues to provide because he knows first-hand the immense, otherwise unmet need for care in that state. In other words, it’s a team effort with attorneys, providers, and advocates all working in different capacities to help ensure that women’s constitutional rights aren’t in name only.

Staff attorneys take the lead on conferring and communicating with clients. But I have had a chance to do so with certain providers on occasion, and it has helped me to fully grasp what’s at stake here. I think it’s important to keep those real-world implications in mind in your day-to-day work.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience? What is the most important lesson you took away from your time at YLS?

In the spirit of being honest and actually helpful, I was amazed that I’d gotten in, and I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to make the most of the opportunity. Unfortunately, I had a pretty poor understanding of how to use the incredible resources that were available to me and felt slightly paralyzed by the school’s homogeneity. It wasn’t until I began getting my hands dirty in clinic that those sort of barriers began to fall away. As a result, I graduated with a sense of being behind my peers and a pledge to learn as much as I possibly could in the next few years.

What skills do you rely on now but that law school did not emphasize enough?

I think good writing is hugely important. But in law school it seemed like a bigger, scarier deal than it actually is. As soon as I left that environment, I started from scratch, stopped worrying about how good a writer I am, and started writing every chance I could get. District court clerkships, where you may end up working on close to fifty opinions or orders, are great for that. Some people may have learned to write in school, for me it came through clerking. And now legal writing is something I do well. I’m certainly not where I want to be in the long-term, but it’s something I know I can do.


Are there any cases or projects you’ve tackled at the Center for Reproductive Rights that you’ve been particularly proud of?

Definitely the Texas case.

I think my proudest moment was when we learned that the Supreme Court had granted our application to stay the Fifth Circuit’s ruling back in June, which would have resulted in the closure of more than 75% of Texas’s abortion clinics. We had been very crunched for time, operating in very stressful circumstances, basically not sleeping or eating. But when we learned that we’d gotten the stay, I was once again struck by the power of legal advocacy. We had submitted something to the Court and, because we were right on the law, clinics had stayed open. Appointments which had been cancelled the week before were back on. It was a huge moment when we got that call.

How have you approached work/life balance? Has that been an important consideration as you’ve mapped your career?

To be honest, I’m very lucky to have ended up where I am. I don’t come from a family of people who go to places like Yale or even have careers (as opposed to jobs). So I think I have to work a little harder than everyone else if I want to do this sort of work. And to be totally honest, that’s been my priority. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a partner (he’s also a lawyer), or a life, but for both of us, work is our priority right now. That may not always be the case, but that’s how we structure our lives at the moment.


What salient decision points have you faced in your career – what guided you and where did it lead you?

When I’m struggling to decide what to do, I try not to reason from a place of fear or insecurity. I don’t think you should ever be too scared to take something on. You may want to do something less challenging – I know that’s like a curse word at school, but it might be actually more rewarding – but there’s a difference between that and acting out of fear of uncertainty. When I was working on the Ireland case, I had this fantastic supervisor who took me under her wing. We had amazing clients, and an extremely interesting case, and I had the option of staying on, at least informally. That would have been incredible, but it would have meant not doing the clerkship. As much as I loved the Ireland case, at that point, I think I would have stayed at the Center for Reproductive Rights because it would have been easier not to jump into something so new. I opted for the clerkship, and ultimately I still got to come back to the Center. It all worked out in the end.

What is the most direct path to where you are? If you could re-do it, what would you change?

I wouldn’t change anything, because I think the experiences I’ve had have served me well. To do this work, it’s important to be comfortable with complex legal research, a lot of writing, and difficult legal concepts and problems. Fellowships are one way to achieve that. But you can do it at a firm as well, especially if you have a mentor.