How would you introduce yourself to the alumni community?
I am an attorney, wife, mother, avid traveler and voracious reader. I began my law career in Azerbaijan over ten years ago. After gaining a couple years of experience, I moved to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in law (LL.M.) at Georgetown University Law Center. Shortly thereafter, I started my law practice at Dentons’ Baku office, where I concentrate on banking, Islamic finance, real estate finance & construction, mergers & acquisitions, as well as securities & corporate finance.
Did you ever imagine before going to the U.S. that you would one day study there? How did it happen?
I had done very little traveling at that point, but I knew the United States has the best universities and that studying at one of them would lead to increased career opportunities. So it was always in the back of my mind. I graduated cum laude from Khazar University School of Law and was working at a prominent law firm, yet it will still difficult to work up the courage to actually apply. When I mentioned wanting to study in the U.S. to a colleague, he laughed out loud. According to him, I could never accomplish that.
I knew I had to eventually take the shot to prove to myself that I could. I bought several books to prepare for the TOEFL. I spoke to people who had studied abroad. I put together a neat Excel spreadsheet that listed the admissions requirements for ten LL.M. programs, five were dream schools, five were safety schools. I started to suffer a bit from “analysis paralysis,” and after finishing those TOEFL books, my impulse wasn’t to take the test; it was to buy more books! My husband, who had previously lived in the U.S., gave me confidence that I was ready. I scored highly on the TOEFL and ended up getting into four out of five of my dream schools, with the fifth one wait-listing me.
I chose Georgetown—one of the best decisions of my life.
What did you think about the United States before going there? And how was the U.S. in reality? Was life difficult there?
Based on news reports and from movies, I had the impression of the United States as a tremendously rich and powerful country. While that is certainly true, I discovered that the United States is also a land of contrasts. Especially in a city like Washington D.C., it is possible to see gleaming monuments and world-class museums in close proximity to startling poverty.
I was amazed by the diversity I found in the United States. I figured I would find more diversity there than back home, but the many different types of people that make their way through D.C. is truly staggering. My class had people from sixty-five countries! My arrival in D.C. came at a historic time as well. The U.S. Democratic Party had just nominated the first black nominee of a major party, Barack Obama, who was soon elected President.
Regarding lifestyle, after the initial excitement wore off, I found it difficult to accomplish even basic tasks, such as grocery shopping. Believe it or not, I didn’t know my zip code, which made Google Maps rather useless. Fortunately, Washington D.C. is a well-planned city, with great transportation options, so I soon got the hang of things.
How did you studying in the US change in your life? Did it have any impact?
On a professional level, having an LL.M. from a respected institution has helped me advance my law career, both as a credential and through the knowledge I acquired by obtaining it. On a personal level, it broadened my horizons, as it gave me the chance to interact with people, not just from all over the world, but from all over the United States as well. I quickly learned that in order to communicate with people very different from you, you must first understand them. I have done my best to live by this lesson, and it has helped to open many doors.
Have you been back to the U.S.? What kind of feelings did you have? Do you want to go back to live there?
Yes, I have been back several times over the years, and I discover new things every time. It was my first trip back, however, that was the most memorable. I returned to be sworn in to the New York Bar in Albany, New York. The experience was amazing and nerve-wracking at the same time. Each attorney was called by name and, since I am “Zeynalova,” I had to wait until the very end. As I waited, I still had lingering doubts that this was really happening, and I almost expected to not be called. When the court clerk finally mispronounced my name, it was one of the best moments of my life.
While I don’t want to rule out eventually living there, I’m quite satisfied working out of Dentons’ Baku office, as I can put my expertise towards helping Azerbaijani businesses.
What is your formula of success?
When I was younger, I had trouble believing in myself enough to follow through with my goals. Even in the case of studying for the TOEFL, a low mark on a practice test would discourage me and make me want to abandon the idea of studying in the U.S. I stuck it out and achieved my goal, and I must say that’s been the trend—as long as I stay focused, I have experienced success. A few years ago, I came across a poster, which read, “Never give up. Go over, go under, or go through. But never give up.” I immediately adopted it as my personal motto, and I keep a version of the image in the very front of my planner to make sure that message remains at the forefront of my mind.
It would be interesting to know your future career aspirations. What are your career plans? What are your plans for the future?
I love what I do currently, and I plan to grow within my present role. As Azerbaijan grows economically and becomes more integrated in the world economy, Azerbaijani interests will increasingly seek foreign investment opportunities and vice-versa. I have already negotiated many of these types of deals and, as the stakes grow higher and the terms become more complex, I will be there to ably navigate my clients on the road to success. I am currently a participant in Dentons’ Senior Development Program, which selects high-potential lawyers and grooms them for increased leadership roles. I have used this opportunity to advocate for the advancement of female legal professionals. Achieving greater gender equality in the workplace is an important cause for me going forward.
What advice would you give to young people in Azerbaijan?
While I was a student, I worked as a computer typist and people would bring their letters and other writings for me to type and print. It was a part-time summer job for me and, frankly, I initially did not take it very seriously. As I become more exposed to the content of these letters and the purpose behind them, I began to appreciate how meaningful they were to the people sending and receiving them. I had no right to dismiss their value just because I was not going to work there much longer. This was an important lesson for me to perform every task with pride. There are no small jobs, only small workers, so regardless of your ambition, a strong work ethic and placing value in performing quality work can never happen too early in your career.
AAA has been around for 10 years. We have made certain changes and the results are starting to show. In the next 3-5 years how would you like to see AAA and the Alumni Community develop?
AAA does amazing work, but I only learned of its existence after completing my studies. As a young Azerbaijani who aspired to study in the U.S.A., having access to AAA’s network and resources would have been an invaluable asset. With this in mind, I would love to see greater outreach in our ranks to young people in Azerbaijan. Perhaps this can take the form of mentoring, setting up scholarships or sending representatives to local schools. Whatever the form, I don’t feel we should rest on our laurels. We have a lot of wisdom to pass along to the next generation and AAA is the ideal organization to facilitate that.