Plaintiff-side employment lawyer Emily Stephens Naphtal ’15 has two plants in her office: a peace lily and a money tree. She says they’re helpful reminders of what she hopes to win for her clients.
“My clients come to me at a low point in their lives,” says Naphtal, who represents victims of workplace harassment or discrimination. “As a lawyer, I can’t change what’s been done, but I can listen to them, I can believe them, I can help them understand their rights, and I can fight to earn them peace and compensation,” she says. “Which I find really rewarding.”
After graduating from NYU Law, Naphtal spent two years at employment and labor law firm Outten & Golden before opening her own employment law firm, Stephens Naphtal Law, in 2017. She credits the Law School with helping her to see how employment law could be an effective way to advocate for diverse communities. “I came to learn that plaintiff-side employment law is civil rights in the workplace,” she says. “And my time at NYU really helped guide my way there.”
In this Q&A, Naphtal discusses what she finds fulfilling about employment law, running her own business, and helping clients tell their stories.
How did you first become interested in the legal profession? Did you always know you wanted to practice law?
As an undergraduate [at Harvard University], I studied history, and I was doing a lot of researching and writing about how to tell other people’s stories. I came to realize that as a lawyer, I could help other people tell their stories in order to help them stand up for themselves.
My time as a history major also helped me appreciate the opportunities I have at this point in time: I am a mixed-race woman living in the United States, which in most other historical times would have limited my opportunities to pursue this kind of work. I realized others had won important rights for me, had made legal gains for me, and I had the opportunity to further those gains and make the world better for those who come after me.
How did you decide on employment law?
After researching [employment-related] laws during my 1L Lawyering course, I decided my 2L year to take [Clinical Professor of Law] Laura Sager’s Employment Law Clinic. The clinic allowed me to litigate a real-life employment law case in the Southern District of New York, and we were actually able to settle the case by the end of the school year, earning recompense for some women who’d been badly sexually harassed in the workplace.
The following summer, I used the Law School’s public interest summer funding to do an amazing internship in Washington, DC, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] in the Office of the General Counsel. Something that struck me during my time at the EEOC was the diversity of my coworkers and the coalition of people advocating for employee rights. The lawyers were advocating for the rights of so many diverse communities, but working with the same laws under the Civil Rights Act. It was beautiful.
I am part Mexican, part Western European, and part Jewish. During Law School, I wondered, “As a member of so many communities, how should I choose who to advocate for?” With plaintiff-side employment law, I found a way to bring my whole intersectional identity into my work and simultaneously be an ally for other groups I am not a part of.
How did you decide to join a private firm after graduation?
I seriously considered government service, but there was a hiring freeze at the EEOC that year, which lead me to Outten & Golden, which, at least at the time, was the biggest plaintiff-side employment law firm in the country. It’s rare to get to work on a specialty like employment law right away, but because of all the experience I had at the Law School, Outten & Golden offered me a two-year public interest fellowship. I had the opportunity to work as an associate in both the class action group practice and representing individual employees. I also got to coordinate some firm pro bono work.
The wide range of experience helped me to figure out what I liked best: which is working closely with individual clients and getting to know them and tell their stories and advocate for them.
How did you decide to start your own firm? What have been some of the challenges or rewards of that work?
My parents were small business owners, so I saw first-hand how great it could be to be able to control one’s own time and destiny. At the beginning, I was a young woman running a firm, and I think that there were some opposing counsel who didn’t take me seriously. But they soon saw that they had no choice but to take me seriously when I wasn’t intimidated and continued to deliver quality work on behalf of my clients.
One of the major concerns for anyone starting their own business is finding clients. In that respect, the NYU Law network was instrumental, because my earliest clients were referrals from my law school classmates. Then after that, I started to get referrals from past clients who were happy with my work.
I also started my firm the same year that the #MeToo movement took off, and I was a part of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund’s legal network, so I represented some clients who had been the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. It was really satisfying to help people obtain closure for horrible instances that, in some cases, they had never told anyone about for fear they wouldn’t be believed or because they didn’t know that they had any rights to claim. The same is true now because of Covid-related employment cases regarding remote work, disability, and a host of other issues. It’s exciting to work in an industry where you see people rethink things that they thought were givens about work, particularly unfair givens.
As far as successes, I’m very proud of securing advantageous settlements for numerous diverse clients. My clients have worked in lots of different industries, including in retail stores and finance, design, tech, the law, academia, nonprofits, and government agencies. They’ve been discriminated against for a lot of different reasons, including their disabilities, their national origin, age, race, sex, and being pregnant. When I wrap up cases, I feel really proud of having shepherded my clients through a difficult time in their life and set them up to move forward.
Posted January 23, 2024. This interview has been edited and condensed.