Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Sanjeeve K. DeSoyza
February 1, 2021
Grand plans didn’t feature much in Sanjeeve DeSoyza’s whipsaw ride to a legal career.
Exhibit A: The words printed on his favorite T-shirt from college, a secondhand find from the Salvation Army: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (From Shakespeare’s Henry V.)
Exhibit B: He majored in philosophy with no plans for grad school when he was done.
Exhibit C: Two weeks after he started dating his future wife, Amy, he followed her to Boston, where she would pursue a master’s degree at the Massachusetts College of Art.
“I’ve never been a big planner,” Sanjeeve said, chuckling.
Born in Sri Lanka, Sanjeeve left there in 1980 at the age of 4 with his mother, 80-year-old grandmother and twin baby sisters. It was a trying 22-hour journey toward greater safety, more ample opportunity and his father, who had arrived two months earlier and was waiting for them in the Bronx.
“Necessity makes things happen,” Sanjeeve said.
He attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, then traded New York City’s urban canyons for Western New York’s snowbelt when he matriculated at SUNY Buffalo, 400 miles away.
When he and Amy moved to Boston after graduation, Sanjeeve found work as a recreational therapy director at an assisted living center for Alzheimer’s patients. His work at the center – engaging the unraveling minds of doctors, lawyers and other professionals in steep decline – moved and inspired him. He began to consider (some might even say “plan for”) a career with a strong focus on advocacy.
He started taking LSAT practice tests after work. And two years later, he began his legal education at Cornell Law School with one simple goal: Don’t fail out.
“I met people who were highly disciplined, highly successful students with impressive pedigrees,” Sanjeeve said. “I was more of a goofball.”
The Ithaca school’s relatively small class size enriched the experience for Sanjeeve, who counted himself lucky to be surrounded by “really good people.” His many clinical courses, meanwhile, introduced him to the world outside the classroom and inside the courtroom.
“I got to work with practitioners and learn aspects of actually practicing the law, appearing in court, and working directly with clients in dire need,” he said.
After graduating cum laude in 2002, he and Amy settled in Queens and he went to work in the Manhattan office of Bingham McCutchen, a global law firm with locations in the United States, Europe and Asia. He worked on giant commercial disputes, often with billions of dollars at stake. The work was important and often required as many as 50 attorneys on a case; Sanjeeve was “a tiny little cog” in a colossal machine.
After a few years and before the couple’s first child was born, they moved to Niskayuna outside Schenectady, where Sanjeeve worked briefly at Lebouef Lamb Greene & McRae, handling environmental litigation, before he interviewed for a labor and employment position at Bond in 2006.
“I had not had any real labor and employment experience,” he said. “But I told one interviewer (who shall remain nameless) that I was passionate about the subject; he immediately questioned this claim and I figured I was found out and should just go back to being myself. Somehow, I managed to claw out an offer – luck does smile on you at times.”
What might have started out as a well-intentioned “stretch” to land a job proved prophetic.
“I truly enjoy the human element of this practice area,” Sanjeeve said. “We don’t simply advise clients on the letter of the law; a big part of the job is also helping them navigate the personal relationships with their employees.”
He realized his experiences working in the assisted living center years ago helped build a sturdy foundation for the work he’s doing now.
“One of the things that I was struck by was the socioeconomic divide between the really wealthy residents and the staff members who cared for them by performing difficult, emotionally taxing tasks and getting paid very little to do it,” he said. “I think it has helped me better see the other side in negotiations with nursing home unions, for example. I understand the challenges that face employees and that has helped my approach in trying to get my clients to a resolution.”
Sanjeeve and Amy, now an art teacher in Niskayuna public schools, have three children between the ages of 8 and 15. So while still not a big planner, Sanjeeve loves his time with them, including annual vacations on the Cape, coaching the kids’ myriad sports teams and even attending music recitals.