Mitra Shahri: Fearless, Focused & Funny
Standing Up for Justice in more ways than One
On October 5, 2017, despicable sexual misconduct charges exploded across the headlines when the New York Times outed entertainment mogul, Harvey Weinstein, as the sexual predator he’d long been alleged to be.
A New Yorker article soon followed with enough new accusations and salacious details to fill several seasons of content in an X-rated horror series, with the monster Weinstein in the starring role.
At the same time, the trial of another powerful entertainment celebrity was making headlines. ‘America’s father,’ former superstar actor and comedian, Bill Cosby, had been suspected for decades of sexually preying on young aspiring actresses who had come to him expecting paternal mentoring. Cosby’s denials and legal maneuvering had finally been overwhelmed by the mounting accusations and evidence.
As national outrage intensified, fueled by the #metoo movement’s ‘Never Again’ mantra, emboldened women emerged from hiding to tell their own horror stories. Other big-name dominos soon fell across the media gameboard including formerly revered names Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Tom Brokaw.
It is important to note that Weinstein has pled ‘not guilty’ in court, and many of the charges lodged against the others have been denied or settled.
In the American legal system, there is no guilt merely by accusation. All defendants are endowed with the presumption of innocence as they prepare to face their accusers in a court of law.
That said, such celebrity cases have served to illustrate the magnitude of the ongoing problems insofar as male-dominated workplace misconduct. The aftershocks of these scandals have not only reverberated across the media industry, but every corporate boardroom around the globe.
A Seeker of Justice
As the sensational accusations mounted, attorney Mitra Shahri watched from just up the coast in her Portland, Oregon law office.
Armed with a Juris Doctorate degree and top academic honors from the University of Utah, Shahri began her legal career in 1993 with a prestigious Los Angeles law firm defending against just such inappropriate workplace behavior.
Due to hard work,personalized attention and an evidence-based legal strategy, she has successfully litigated over one thousand employment cases in Oregon and California, including some that have received national and worldwide publicity.
“The employers of these creeps, the movie studios and television networks who are claiming they had no prior knowledge,” says Shahri, “are totally full of ‘BS’. Everyone knew what was going on, especially them.”
In 1995, Shahri opened her own boutique law firm in the entertainment hub of the world, the Avenue of the Stars in Century City California, specializing in sexual harassment and whistleblowing cases against Hollywood celebrities, major motion pictures and movie studios.
She’s seen, heard and litigated it all, and to say she has experienced success would be an understatement. “I know so much confidential Hollywood dirt that I had my husband sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) when we got married in case I talk in my sleep,” Shahri laughingly whispers.
In 1998, the Los Angeles Legal Journal praised her unique and innovating litigation style against 20th Century Fox, comparing Shahri with the top three most successful plaintiff’s attorneys in California and branding her a “literary lion.”
Standing Up for Victims
This ‘lioness’ wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the horrible reports finally cascading out of media power centers L.A. and N.Y.C. Here’s Shahri’s provocative and valuable take:
“None of the actresses or famous women given prime time exposure during these alleged incidents are really heroes, only victims,” she says, “except for likes of Rose McGowan or Gretchen Carlson who stood up at the risk of losing their careers and at their own risk.” Shahri says emphatically. “So many of these women who are now seeking recognition, stayed quiet and cashed in, becoming rich and powerful themselves. Yet, even when they were safe and had the support of the industry and their fans, they continued their silence which allowed these monsters to victimize more women. That’s unfortunate.”
Shahri went on to say, “The real heroes are the victims who oppose or report such misbehavior immediately, while it’s happening. They often pay the most severe price, like McGowan did, and are the people most worthy of our admiration.”
Speaking of her own litigation record, she says, “Many of my clients have lost not only their careers and incomes, but the dreams they’ve had since they were children. They displayed uncommon courage by coming forward, and I’m proud to have stood up for them. We all stand on their shoulders.”
Her final comment on the matter: “Even worse, some of these actresses who’ve benefited from keeping quiet, and have become rich and famous, are telling their victim stories twenty years later taking the spotlight from the ones who never had a chance and are cashing in again. Shameful.”
Perverts are Perverts, Wherever You Go
In 2002, Shahri moved to Portland, Oregon in quest of a better quality of life. There she founded Mitra Law Group, an employment law firm, exclusively representing employees. When asked if the move away from Hollywood to relatively small-town Portland affected the volume of her business, she said, “Not at all. Perverts are perverts, wherever you go.”
But the move did affect her in another, more life-affirming way. After a decade in L.A., she felt the need to escape because she’d fallen into a common trap called the ‘Show Me the Money’ syndrome.
“In L.A., it was all about the money,” she says. “I was settling a majority of my cases in private for substantial amounts – it was in the best interests of my clients but unfortunately at the detriment of other women.”
But she wasn’t feeling satisfied and describes it this way: “I wanted to out these creeps and get their crimes publicized and on the record. Instead, the settlements were all confidential, a hush money if you will. They wrote big checks and continued to operate the same way in the dark. With each settlement, I felt a part of me was dying until I felt empty. In a way, I became part of the problem. That’s when I realized it was time to pack up and leave with what was left of my soul.”
A Breath of Fresh Air
In Portland, more than just the climate changed palpably. For Shahri, it was akin to taking a deep and revitalizing breath of fresh air. “Green was not just a color of a highlighter I used in my briefs, it was the color of life and the beauty that surrounded me.”
For nearly two decades since, Mitra Law Group has developed a reputation for “making causes out of cases” and challenging the existing legal norms. They are well known for being tough and passionate advocates for their clients who have been discriminated against, sexually harassed, or wrongfully terminated (i.e. retaliation) for reporting their employers’ wrongdoing (i.e. whistleblowers).
Her firm works purely on contingency and fronts all their client’s costs. Therefore, they are very selective about the cases they litigate. Shahri estimates that they turn down 99 of 100 inquiries. “I need to feel that an injustice has been done and not just an opportunity to squeeze money out of an employer. There are lots of opportunists out there, so you have to be very selective.”
“I hear so many ridiculous stories,” she says, “some of the calls are so frivolous that I wish I could hire these people just so I could fire them too.” She say, “I can usually tell within 30 seconds if someone has been wronged because they don’t embellish the facts and they don’t start their stories by first justifying their role in the story before they even tell you what has happened to them. That is a big red flag!”
She believes the first wave of a unique group of young people are now coming into the workforce. “They’ve been coddled by their parents, given trophies for participation, protected in college, and they’ve become comfortable living in a world of entitlement. That’s not the real world, at least not for another couple of generations.” She say, “twenty five years ago, if someone changed jobs every 5 years, they were considered unreliable which affected the settlement value of the case, but now if they can hold on to a job for at least couple of years, they are superheroes and considered stable.”
Just where in the ‘real world’ did this uniquely straight-talking attorney come from?
The Making of Mitra, Seeker of Justice
The story begins in the 1970s when youngster Mitra was living in Iran during the Shah’s reign. She remembers her home country as nearly opposite of today. Its young population was westernized, modern and prosperous. Women were treated as equals, relative to today.
Under the Shah’s leadership, Iran was an economically and culturally advanced country, and a steady friend and ally to the U.S. and other democracies around the world.
“I had two brothers and my father was the director of sports in Tehran,” she recalls. “So that was my life – sports. My mother didn’t care what I did, she just wanted me out of the house, so I played basketball with the boys since there were no girls’ basketball teams. I was also on the men swim team. I wore bikinis – there were no restrictions like there is today.”
How did she become interested in the law, we asked?
Mitra grew up in a rich neighborhood, “not because we were rich,” she says, “but because my father worked in government.” Two grade schools were close by but separated by a block – one for the rich kids, one for the poor. “This was Iran’s way of desegregation of the rich and the poor, no doubt inspired by America’s racial desegregation in the 1960s.” Shahri says. The rich school had better conditions all around, including free food and other supplies. “I felt the hurt in that, the injustice in that, and I wanted to correct it in any way I could right there and then.”
As early as the 2nd grade, she would collect the apples, bananas, unopened milk cartons and other uneaten perishable food thrown in the waste baskets in her school and took them to the poor school’s playground. She also collected and delivered lost and abandoned pens, notebooks and other school supplies. She would even collect the left behind clothing in the playground and offer it to the poor kids, even once telling her parents that someone stole her favorite warm jacket, just so she could give it to a poor kid who had no jacket in the dead of winter.
“Growing up and beyond, I always stood up for anyone who was wronged, it was a natural thing for me to do. But I never once considered becoming a lawyer. The thought of all that paperwork, constant reading and all those boring stuffy big words – that wasn’t for me.”
A Whole New World
After moving to the U.S. at the age of 18, she attended Southeast High in Wichita, Kansas to finish the last semester of her senior year before moving on to Wichita State University. Shockingly, she realized that Iran was more advanced in their education system than America, especially in critical thinking subjects like math and chemistry.
“I came to American with 5 English words in my vocabulary, two of which were banned by the FCC,” she laughingly says. “Even though I couldn’t read, write or speak English in the beginning,” she said, “I could comprehend and ace my classes just by listening and producing results.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this 5-foot 3-inch lady is that she was drafted to play point guard on the Wichita State University’s basketball team. “I also wanted to be a cheerleader but sadly I was not even allowed to try out for it. I thought for sure they were discriminating against me because I couldn’t speak English but years later, I learned that you cannot cheer for the team on which you play. Oops!”
Mitra Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology with honors and got her specialised licensed in tissue transplantation testing (HLA testing). In 1996, she was selected to participate in the first ever baboon to baby heart plant at Loma Linda University. After six weeks of living in California, she fell in love with the ocean and moved to Santa Monica California.
A few years later, a friend was studying to become a lawyer, so she accompanied him to a speed-reading class on a whim. The teacher asked each participant the reason for their attendance. “Everyone’s reason sounded so grand. Not to be embarrassed or outdone; I fibbed and announced that I too was planning on going to law school.” After the class, her friend was angry with her for stealing his thunder in class and ridiculed her for thinking that someone like her could even get into law school, let alone be a lawyer. “He told me I could not speak English well enough to be a lawyer and even dared me to get into a law school. Growing up with two brothers, I had a special relationship with dares, I always took them!”
The next day she registered for the Law School Admission Test Classes (LSAT) and that’s when she learned, “I have always been a lawyer inside, I just never knew it.” She graduated from the University of Utah College of Law at the top of her class in 1993 and soon thereafter, became a member of the California State Bar.
The Making of Mitra, Funny Girl
How about Mitra – the funny girl. How did that come to be? As a young girl in Iran, she spent a lot of her time amongst chauvinistic boys. “The only way to survive when you are smarter and more athletic than most of the boys your age,” she says, “was to be funny – to take their barbs, their ‘BS,’ and sling it right back at them.” This should be a lesson for parents not to allow gender to play a role in the opportunities they provide for their children.
Later, as she settled into the unfamiliar culture of America, watching and listening to television programs had an interesting and positive effect. Popular sitcoms helped her learn the many confounding nuances of the English language, while further developing another skill she would come to rely on for socialization.
“I would especially watch Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company and Welcome Back, Kotter,” she recalls. “Before I knew it, I didn’t know how to be anything but sarcastic. I used a quick wit and a biting tongue to protect myself, my hurt feelings, and to compete. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Her ‘hurt feelings’ came from the way she was treated by many of her neighbors, peers, and even some of her professors in Kansas. “For the first couple of years, I thought my American name was God-damned foreigner. It wasn’t until later when people began to know me that they started using my other name, Camel Jockey.” She explains laughingly. “Not that there is anything wrong with that, some of my best friends are Camel Jockeys.” She continues, “It’s just that the first time I ever saw a camel, it was in Wichita Kansas Zoo and if that makes me a camel jockey, then giddy up!”
Asked if she is resentful of how she was treated in Kansas? “I don’t feel hurt anymore, in fact, looking back, I am rather impressed with how well they could even pronounce ‘foreigner’ with all their front teeth missing. Ouch – score one for the stand-up.
The opening theme song of Laverne & Shirley’s long-running hit show seems to aptly describe Mitra’s own character, the moxie she regularly displays, and it may be no coincidence. With the two stars prancing along arm-in-arm, they would belt out:
Give us any chance – we’ll take it
Read us any rule – we’ll break it
We’re gonna make our dreams come true…
Doin’ it our way
There is nothing we won’t try
Never heard the word impossible
This time there’s no stopping us
We’re gonna do it!
There seems to be nothing this accomplished lady won’t try. In developing her own comic talent, she paid close attention and studied the styles of television script writers, considering some of them “comic geniuses,” particularly Laverne & Shirley’s.
Mitra remains fascinated with the multifaceted process of telling an effective joke: the material itself, the timing of its delivery – the pause, the body language, the response – and especially, the several layers of meanings.
“I can see it when I deliver a successful joke in my stand-up,” she says. “The audience laughs, and then something further sinks in, and they laugh a second and even a third time as the various meanings occur to them. It’s the depth of the joke, the making fun of a painful past experience, but also the larger situation, the human condition.”
She is speaking to the universal nature of comedy. Across the globe, whatever our culture and language, we all experience the same bizarre situations and hurts, and sometimes, we just need to laugh at the insanity of it all. The perfect joke addresses all of this.
“When I’ve accomplished this with an audience, gotten the delayed second and third levels of laughter, I’ve had a successful night. It’s amazing how some of these sitcoms did it week-after-week-after-week.”
She still feels the pain of discrimination and sexism she has experienced in her life, and the lingering hurt informs her humor, as it does for most comedians. It’s a universal condition captured throughout time by songs such as: ‘Tears of a Clown,’ ‘Send in the Clowns,’ and many others.
“I didn’t realize how hard my life had been in America,” she says, “until I started outlining it in order to write a book.” She continued, “a lot of people have crossed my path and some of them have been cruel and bigoted just because I didn’t look, or sound like them. My sense of humor must have saved me from heartache because all I remember of my past is laughing and having a great time in life.”
Being the champion that she is, Mitra has used these unfortunate circumstances to fuel the success of both her primary career and her favorite pastime.
Comedy in Practice
Shahri helps her clients feel better by making light of the absurdity of their situation. She writes clear, humorous legal summaries, and even silly poems, all meant to put her clients at ease and even entertain the judges. She also gives it to her opposing barrister whenever they hand her the opportunity. Once she negotiated and settled a case from start to end by only using song lyrics. “The other side would not respond to me, so I did what any rational lawyer would do, I sent him the lyrics to Barbra Streisand’s ‘You don’t bring me flowers’ with minor alterations. It worked, because he responded with a Jimi Hendrix’s song with lyrics that asked what I wanted. “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want… (Spice girls).” A couple of weeks of back and forth, they settled the entire case using only song lyrics. The two lawyers never met or spoke over the phone and the case was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
She also thinks it’s funny that many of her clients have been members of the military or the National Guard who have fought in the Middle East. “They seem to really like me, and they too are often my favorite clients.” “Want to know the true meaning of irony?” She asks. “Imagine a female Middle Eastern lawyer in America fighting for the rights of Army National Guard personnel because they have been discriminated against in America for being deployed to the Middle East to fight.” That was one of her cases where two National Guardsmen were terminated for being deployed overseas. As part of the settlement, the employer also agreed to employ 25% more veterans and national guard personnel for the following three years.
She says that most of her male colleagues have often tried to demean her in one way, shape or form for being a woman who is a tough advocate for her clients. “If kicking a man’s ass in court makes me wrong, I don’t want to be right.” She says. “It’s time for men to learn that there is a new sheriff in town and the sooner they accept this, the sooner we women can go about fixing the mess some of these men have created in the world, no disrespect intended of course.”
It doesn’t stop there. When she’s in social situations, especially when she’s had a few glasses of wine, she can’t help herself. “Everyone is so thin-skinned today,” she says, “most people can’t take a joke and tend to infuse extra and unintended meanings into everything, especially when it comes out of a lawyer’s mouth. That’s too bad, we all need to lighten up.” We lawyers have feelings too, allegedly.
You’ll usually find Mitra trying to lighten people up, and she’s not afraid to offend a few deserving ones along the way, even if it is not purely for educational purposes. It’s all meant in good fun. Every two years since 2004, she has performed in ‘Laf-Off’ competitions in Portland to help raise money for the Campaign for Equal Justice (CEJ) that provides legal-aid to the less fortunate.
When onstage, she doesn’t pull any punches as illustrated by the following examples:
“There are big differences between being Arab and Iranian. For instance, you know how misguided Arab men like to blow themselves up for the promise of 72 virgins in the afterlife? Well, Iranian men would never do that. They know they can get more than that in this life just by driving a BMW.”
“Speaking of Iran, I need to clear up a misnomer that there’s no freedom of speech. That’s simply not true. We have freedom of speech in Iran– what we don’t have there is freedom, after we speak.”
“Growing up, because of my dad’s job we lived in a very rich neighborhood but we weren’t rich which kinda sucked because all of my friends had two-hump camels and our camel, barely had a hump, if you could even call it that – I think it was scoliosis.”
“When my father would camel us to school, we were so embarrassed, we would ask him to drop us off a few sand dunes away so our friends wouldn’t see our ride.”
“The truth is, the first time I ever saw a camel was at the Wichita Zoo. Incidentally, that’s not all I saw in that zoo. I also learned about the birds and the bees in that zoo, except there were no birds or bees, only elephants! Talk about raised expectations – followed by years of disappointment.”
“I love living in Oregon because it’s the only state where I find myself bragging about being Iranian, just to hide the fact that I’m from California.
“I noticed there’s a lot of bikes on the streets here in Portland. People bike everywhere. I used to ride bicycles all the time – but I don’t anymore. That’s because I became an adult. When I see a grown man on a bicycle downtown, slowing down traffic – I want to get out of my car and go shake them and say, ‘come on man, get your life together – get a job – buy a damn car.”
On Dating & Marriage:
“I went on hundreds of first dates but not because I was too picky, no. I just liked that new guy smell.”
“When you date so much, you have got to have rules. For instance, I always made sure I was in bed by 10 pm and if not, I would just go home.”
“I met my husband online – at Match.com. If you’re single out there, I want you to have hope – online dating really does work. But my advice for you is to be honest with yourself and accept that the truth has absolutely no place on your profile.”
“In my Match.com profile, I lied so much, my nose would barely fit in my profile photo. For instance, I never mentioned that I was a bitchy, middle-aged, Middle Eastern, liberal atheistic lawyer with an accent. I think that really helped my chances, especially since my husband is a White ultra- conservative Christian from South Dakota.”
“But seriously, all men care about is how you look, so just put a pretty picture on there, it doesn’t even have to be yours. I am serious, men are that shallow, and that’s a good thing. Who else would put up with all the shit we women pull in life?”
“I don’t have any children because when I was in college, this doctor told me that I could not have children, so I never tried. It wasn’t till recently that I realized he had said the same thing to everyone who rented his apartment.”
“Growing up, everyone told me I was destined for greatness, but instead, I became a lawyer.
I think we can understand why Mitra has been awarded ‘Funniest Lawyer in Portland’ for her commanding stage presence and biting humor.
What’s Ahead for Mitra
In 2019, Mitra Shahri finds herself in a very good place. She has connected all the dots, put it all in perspective, and by all measures has an extraordinary life filled with joy, love and gratitude. She is now spreading that joy to others by accepting keynote speaking engagements where she uses her humor to educate, inspire and entertain various audiences. Who knew that a funny girl from Iran could help inspire so many Americans who have crossed her path with her love, compassion and humor? Mitra is an example that mistreating people based on their race, gender or national origin is not just morally wrong but it also robs everyone in our society of the opportunity to learn, grow and become a better human being. Click here to read our Q&A with Mitra.