The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Ishan Bhabha, Partner—DEI Protection Task Force, Education, and Technology
Regarded as one of the nation’s preeminent lawyers for institutions of higher education, as well as large corporations and organizations facing issues related to the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, Ishan is a leader in helping clients navigate the impact of the US Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Students for Fair Admissions.
Ishan has been recognized by both Bloomberg Law and The National Law Journal as one of the 40 best lawyers under 40 in the United States. He is a Co-Chair of the firm’s Education Practice, a Co-Chair of its DEI Protection Task Force, a leader of its Technology Practice, and a member of the firm’s Management Committee. In his TED Talk, viewed more than 1.4 million times, he discusses how organizations can foster productive and responsible debate while protecting free speech. Large institutions and companies turn to Ishan when they face complex challenges with significant financial, operational, or reputational consequences.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I have long been involved in our firm’s Education Practice, so when the US Supreme Court agreed to consider race-conscious admissions in 2022, I immediately understood that my higher education clients could face legal risk should the Court decide against such programs. Along with forward-thinking colleagues at the firm, I helped launch our DEI Protection Task Force in the fall of 2022, months before the Court would deliver its decision. Because of our insight into the Court and the issues involved, we were prepared when the Court ruled in June 2023 that that race-conscious admissions programs violate the US Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
Today, my practice entails guiding not just education clients but also corporations that embrace DEI policies as they navigate the new legal landscape. I am proud to carry on Jenner’s tradition of protecting diversity, equity, and inclusion in our society.
What types of clients do you represent?
I generally represent higher education clients, large corporations, and pro bono criminal or civil clients. Among my corporate clients, I represent United Airlines, Honeywell, Uber, Marriott, Prudential, Stripe, FanDuel, Exelon, Grindr, Kimberly Clark, Qualcomm, American Express, and Endeavor. My higher education clients include Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, Amherst, Columbia, Emory, Brown, the University of Illinois, the University of Michigan, and Syracuse.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
With the impact of the Court’s decision on SFFA still unfolding, much of my work involves counseling clients on how to avoid potential legal risk. I try to be part of the larger public dialogue on these issues and regularly publish and comment in the media, including The New York Times.
Outside of this area, my work has included representing an Ivy League institution in a putative class action claiming antitrust violations arising from financial aid and admissions issues and numerous higher education clients on COVID-19-related matters. I successfully defended numerous Big Ten, Big 12, Ivy League, and ACC institutions in Title IX lawsuits regarding both students and faculty and in First Amendment challenges to the institutions’ bias response policies.
How did you choose this practice area?
The DEI Protection Task Force represents two key interests of mine: protecting DEI policies and programs and solving complex legal problems. I come from a diverse background, so I know firsthand the vital role that race-conscious admissions programs play in advancing opportunities for all. As a lawyer, my background includes extensive experience at the appellate level, including litigating in state and federal courts and before the US Supreme Court. Working on the DEI Protection Task Force, I can leverage my skills and interests to help my clients mitigate potential risk in a post-SFFA landscape.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
With the caveat that there is no “normal” day, most days have some combination of counseling my clients on whatever is on their plates at the moment, working on a brief or a dispositive motion, getting ready for an upcoming oral argument, and perhaps mooting one of my colleagues for an argument they have.
Every day, I communicate with a client in one way or another, and because I work on teams, I’m constantly meeting with fellow partners and associates. One of my favorite things about Jenner & Block is how collaborative all the work is and that I’m always interacting with smart, fun, and kind colleagues.
On my favorite days, of course, I’m arguing in court!
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Legal writing is critical, so joining a journal, moot court competition, clinic, or classes that really expose you to legal writing is very important. Another great way to gain practical experience is to clerk in an appellate court. If you don’t like getting up in court and arguing, this probably isn’t the field for you, so it’s worth doing activities in law school that will let you figure out whether this is an experience you enjoy.
What do you like best about your practice area?
Far and away, what I like best about being a lawyer is interacting with clients, leading large teams, and seeking answers to unchartered legal questions.
What is unique about this practice area at your firm?
Our DEI Protection Task Force, which I co-chair, is a unique practice area that shows the firm’s innovative approach to solving complex legal questions as well as our commitment to DEI.
The task force is integrated with other teams within our firm. Members come from all six offices and practice in a range of areas. Collaboration is a core value at Jenner, and the task force displays our commitment to drawing on strengths throughout the firm to best serve our clients.
What is your routine for preparing for oral arguments?
First, I re-read the briefs and the key cases we rely on, trying to really understand what the other side takes from them and how those cases fit into the bigger legal area within which the case falls. Second, I’ll do two moot courts or, if the case is in the Supreme Court, perhaps three. Moots are by far the most useful way to prepare for a case because you get to see what strikes people about your case when they haven’t been thinking about it and living it like you have. Third, in the days before the argument, I’ll just practice the answers to what I think are the big questions that the case turns on. practice these answers when I’m walking on the street to pick up lunch, driving home on my scooter, or getting dressed in the morning. It can make for some weird looks from the public and my family alike, but it’s what works for me!