After a half-century career in social services as a child advocate, Kiku Mehta could have left the workforce for a well-earned retirement. But he decided he still had more to give the world.
This time as a lawyer.
“I recognized that with what little time I have, I want to use it in a meaningful manner to help poor, neglected, dependent children and their families" in the courtroom, said Mehta.
So Mehta, 82, postponed retirement to practice law — a profession he trained for decades ago but had to set aside to raise three daughters with his wife, Gira.
Mehta was already a lawyer when he immigrated from India in 1970 with just $7 in his pocket. At that time, he fulfilled the needed requirements to practice in the United States and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. But few firms were willing to hire a foreign-born attorney, and Mehta didn’t have the financial means or connections to hang up his own shingle. So he took a job as a social worker with the nonprofit Children’s Services, Inc. in Philadelphia and set about raising his kids with Gira.
“He had few resources and a family to feed" so when he had to abandon the law he never looked back, said Mehta’s youngest daughter, Tejal, 37, now an attorney with TD Bank. “The focus growing up in our household was on education.”
Oldest daughter Tulsi, 45, now a physician in Arlington, Va., recalls that when she was accepted into the city’s prestigious Julia R. Masterman Middle and High School her father drove her daily to and from their home in Roxborough to the school’s downtown campus.
“My father literally took that on for seven years,” Tulsi said, and she was never late to school once. “Just by that, he showed me that higher education and academic excellence are important no matter what the sacrifice.”
Middle daughter Toral, 44, as accomplished as her sisters, is now an entrepreneur and CEO of Master Brands, her start-up food-products company.
All three of Mehta’s daughters credit their dad’s social-services years for much of their success. His hard-earned salary helped pay for their degrees from colleges and grad schools that include the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, and Villanova University.
Although Mehta had let his law license lapse while he worked at CSI, his legal knowledge came in handy on days when he had to accompany his young clients to court. He also attended many conferences sponsored by the Philadelphia Bar Association, which kept him abreast of legal matters of great interest to him (particularly immigration law, which he had practiced in India).
When Children’s Services closed its doors in December of 2017, Mehta, then 80, was out of a job. He was in great health, attributing his robust constitution to staying active, practicing and teaching yoga, and eating a vegetarian diet. In fact, in all the years he worked, he had never even taken a sick day.
“Age is not a factor,” he said. “I’m in good shape.”
He was pondering his next career move when he got an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Why don’t you come back into the law and work with me?” asked attorney Stanley J. Ellenberg, who has his own firm. The two met about 25 years ago and had stayed in touch. Ellenberg felt that Mehta’s five decades of social work, understanding of immigration law, and fluency in five languages — including Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati — would be an invaluable asset to the practice.
“Social work is a helping business, but [its] roots are in law,” Mehta said. “I’m able to do both."
First, though, he had to activate his law license — neither a cheap nor easy undertaking.
He had to complete more than 40 Continuing Legal Education credits, which can run $300 to $400 per class. In a bit of a role reversal, his daughter Tejal helped her dad pay some of the costs.
Then he had to undergo lengthy interviews with the state’s disciplinary board before his license was reactivated by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
“They really check you out,” Mehta said.
There was still one more formality to go: Mehta needed a sponsor before he could be admitted to practice before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
While most candidates enlist sponsorship from a law partner or colleague already authorized to practice law in the federal court, Mehta asked his daughter, the attorney.
“It was one of the greatest privileges and honors of my life,” said Tejal.
On Feb. 12 — Lincoln’s Birthday — the father and daughter were joined by Ellenberg and Daniel DiCinno, another law colleague, for the swearing in before federal Judge Wendy Beetlestone.
“You should know you are walking in the footsteps of giants,” said Beetlestone to the roomful of 12 candidates: Ben Franklin and George Washington had once walked the blocks surround the federal courthouse on Market Street. She then asked each sponsor who they were sponsoring, and why.
“He still had some wind beneath his wings,” said Tejal when it was her turn to speak about her father. “I am proud to attest to his character and fitness.”
Beetlestone then addressed Mehta.
“Unlike you, Mr. Mehta, Lincoln did not have a formal education,” she said, giving a nod to the holiday. But like Mehta, the 16th president had a deep interest in learning that continued throughout his life.
“Through learning comes grace,” she said to Mehta.
All of the candidates then stood before the judge who then read the oath, which called on them to “support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“I do so affirm," said Mehta and his fellow candidates.
“You are now members of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,” said Beetlestone, who then offered special congratulations to Mehta:
“Good job, Dad,” said the judge.
And then, as they assembled to take photos with the judge, Tejal reached over and gently smoothed her father’s hair into place.