“While I was preparing for my college admission exams, I had to study under the candle light in a room where my whole family slept,” recounts Yelena Nersesyan. Witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nersesyan experienced a turbulent shift in her studies—from communist laws to an independent legal system, mirroring that of the West. “While we were studying, new criminal and civil codes were adopted. It was an exciting and interesting time to study the law and witness those fundamental changes,” she tells the Weekly.
She jokes that “beautiful and confident female attorneys in Hollywood movies” were one of her inspirations for seeking a profession in law, a field where men far outnumbered women in Soviet (and newly independent) Armenia.
Although her work today mainly deals with residential and commercial real estate and business law, Nersesyan is also involved in organizations that educate adolescents about their civic and political roles in society.
This past September, the Armenian lawyer participated in the New York State Bar Association’s Law, Youth, and Citizenship Program, where attorneys volunteer to educate school children about the Constitution and the freedoms bestowed on the population. In 2004, Congress passed legislation requiring all educational institutions that receive federal funding to present a program each year on Constitution and Citizenship Day, which is celebrated annually on Sept. 17.
Nersesyan explains that “the program makes a specific emphasis on the importance of children in society and understanding their role in a representative democracy. They are made aware of the fact that all elected representatives represent each and every one of them—not only their parents. They also learn that they could send letters to their local elected representatives and their opinions really matter.” Nersesyan is hopeful that a program like this can one day be started in schools in Armenia.
“Armenia is a civil law country, based on statutory laws, while the U.S. legal system is based on the principles of common law, which are rooted in precedent. Nevertheless, in 2005, Armenia joined the trend toward a hybrid legal system, incorporating the use of case law in its judicial system to a certain degree,” she explains.
As a 20-year-old nation, Armenia has made many advancements in government, and is slowly on its way to becoming a fully integrated representative democracy, although the journey will be grueling. According to Nersesyan, “Armenia has to undergo a number of phases to increase the transparency and accountability of its elected officials”. She also emphasizes government’s ability to ensure that the current legal system enables its citizens to exercise their constitutional rights. “We have to remember that Armenia is still a relatively new nation and these changes will not come easy. But I remain confident that they will happen.”
Nersesyan considers hard work, networking, professional curiosity, and confidence the four main factors in attaining a successful career. “When I meet young Armenian students or professionals who consider moving to the U.S., whether for study or just to gain some work experience, I always share my conclusions and observations, which are based on my personal experiences. Luckily, those cold winters, the lack of electricity and heat is all behind us, and the current generation is in a better position, equipped with better tools, to plan their future,” she continues.
Nersesyan is part of entertainment lawyer Mark Geragos’s defense team for the high-profiled Medicare scandal that shook the country last year. She became acquainted with Geragos through the various Armenian social, professional, and political networks in the U.S.
“When I started working as a foreign law consultant, I discovered the Armenian Bar Association of America (ABA). I immediately decided to get involved and contribute,” Nersesyan explains. The ABA reached out to its members in the fall of 2010, looking for a New York attorney who spoke Russian and Eastern Armenian to assist Geragos and his legal team on an off-consul basis. “I responded immediately, and joined the team a few days later. For a new attorney like me, it has been a unique opportunity to work with an attorney of this caliber and class,” Nersesyan says.
Although the case is still pending in court, the experience has been anything but stalled. “[This case] has been a great opportunity to expand my experience as a young attorney,” she says. “All aspiring Armenian attorneys should consider joining the ABA.”