Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Mara D. Afzali
May 17, 2021
There are many unconventional routes that lead to a law career.
And then there is Mara Afzali’s path.
It begins in the shadow of Gothic castles in a small, bucolic “intentional” community founded on principles espoused by an 18th century Swedish mystic. The path then coils through marriage, a brief stint studying dance in college and motherhood. Next it twists through teaching pre-school, leading classes in yoga and circus acrobatics, serving as a volunteer firefighter. Oh, and, yes, becoming a lawyer.
Got all that? Let’s take them in order.
Mara grew up just outside Philadelphia in a small borough named Bryn Athyn, a society founded in the late 19th century by followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, philosopher and Christian theologian. Such societies, which cropped up all around the country, formed the center of the New Church, whose devotees included many leading thinkers of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and William Butler Yeats.
Now a nationally historic district, Mara’s hometown features rolling green hills and soaring, castle-like stone structures reminiscent of medieval Europe.
“It was like growing up on the set of Lord of the Rings, with castles all around,” Mara said.
After high school, Mara and her then-boyfriend, Javid, moved to Vermont, where she enrolled in Marlboro College to study dance and creative writing. But not long after, wanderlust set in and the pair took off traveling. Then they decided to marry and, in short order, were joined by a daughter and then a son.
In 2001, the Afzalis settled in Albany, where Javid had a job as a Volkswagen technician, they welcomed their third and fourth children and Mara developed an interest in alternative education.
“One of the oldest, independent democratic schools in the country just happened to be here in Albany,” she said. “I volunteered at the school and then started teaching there when my kids were little.”
Inspired by a lifelong fascination with circus trapeze performers and a strong base of yoga and dance, Mara also began to train using aerial silks – acrobatics performed while suspended by strips of fabric. She trained at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts and New England Center for Circus Arts and co-founded an aerial performance group in Albany. She now teaches aerial silks at an Albany yoga studio.
“It was a fun way to get back into movement and dance when I had four little kids,” she explains. “Kids and circus just go together. But there’s not a lot of opportunity to make a career out of aerial silks and support a family of six.”
When their youngest was an infant, Mara and Javid felt they were ready for the next adventure. They wanted to go back to school, finish their undergraduate degrees and then go on to law school.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves in the academic sphere,” Mara said.
Javid went first. Once he was a second-year law student and their youngest child was in kindergarten, Mara enrolled in the pre-law program at Siena College, where she led the Moot Court/Mock Trial for three years as captain.
“I had a lot of fun getting into courtrooms, arguing objections,” she said. “I enjoyed being on my feet. I liked engaging with the judge and jury and making compelling arguments. So, by the time I got to law school, I was pretty sure I wanted to go into litigation. It has a performative aspect to it.”
She graduated summa cum laude from Albany Law School in 2017 and joined Bond, Schoeneck & King in Albany as an associate the same year.
So that catches us up to the present, right? Not quite. There always seems to be another bend in the road for Mara.
After supporting Javid as he completed training in 2017 to become a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer in the Army Reserves, Mara started attending events with his local unit and saw the need for more attorneys to serve, particularly women. So she decided to test her mettle again, this time by picking up an M4 and a stack of military law books.
“The theme you’ll find,” Mara explained, “is that Javid and I enjoy challenging each other and ourselves. We’re always looking for what’s next. We love spending time together and pushing the barriers of what we can do and have done. Some people like to travel or garden when their kids get older. We thought it would be fun to join the military and become JAG officers.”
Between January and May 2020, she underwent six weeks of basic training for commissioned officers at Fort Benning in Georgia, followed by 11 weeks of Army JAG school in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Now an Army captain, Mara spends one weekend a month and two weeks a year providing legal services to soldiers. So far, the work has entailed helping troops getting ready to deploy to draft wills, powers of attorney and other legal documents. Her unit is also regularly called upon to support active duty troops stationed at Fort Drum or cadets at West Point in disciplinary hearings.
Since joining the JAG Corps, Mara was selected to become a master resilience trainer (MRT) for her unit. She completed a 10-day course in the fall of 2020, which was developed by the Army in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. As an MRT, she teaches officers how to help troops resist falling into patterns of depression or anxiety that can be brought on by the challenges of military life.
When she’s not engaged as a litigator at Bond or a JAG officer in the Army, Mara enjoys being at home, spending time with Javid, their children (now ages 15 to 22) and her mother and younger brother, who all live together in an old farmhouse.
Most of the Afzali clan (there’s at least one holdout in the family, but Mara isn’t naming names) enjoy taking CrossFit classes together. Meanwhile, Mara still teaches aerial silks … and did we mention she’s also a volunteer firefighter?
“That’s a smaller commitment,” she says. “We live in a small, rural town, and there are not a lot of incidents. But if I’m available, I do go out on calls.”