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September 21, 1999


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Legal Eagle Discovers Her Karmic Heritage

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Sonia Chopra

Preeta D Bansal In between talking about her Harvard years, her stops at the Supreme Court and the Clinton White House, and her new job as New York State's solicitor-general, 33-year-old Preeta D Bansal makes time to discuss the discovery of her karmic heritage.

"Although I was brought up in a Hindu home, I never really learned much about the underlying philosophy of Hinduism (as opposed to the rituals)," says Bansal who represents New York in courts on issues from constitutional interpretation to affirmative action.

"Through my own professional career path, I have, ironically, come to the kind of pursuit of self-realization which Hindu philosophy and other world religions teach."

Bansal, who has been described by her peers and superiors as "smarter than the smartest lawyers", also says she has "learned to look inward rather than outward".

"I try not to follow external worldly guides of success, but rather try to be true to myself. I try not to force relationships or situations with other people; I just try to relax and let things develop naturally."

Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer described Bansal an "aggressive attorney with impeccable credentials and experience". When he appointed her a few months ago, he had said he expected her to bring her "unparalleled zeal and commitment to public interest law" to her job.

Walter Dellinger, former US solicitor general and former chief legal advisor to US Attorney General Janet Reno, has called Bansal 'one of the most gifted lawyers of her generation.'

'She combines a brilliant analytical mind with mature, solid judgment,' he said.

Former chief judge James L Oakes of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has called Bansal 'a superstar.'

Her rapid rise in the legal lane has brought her to a job that challenges her most.

"I love my job. It is the perfect blend of high-minded legal analysis with real-world political impact. I really could not ask for more," says the soft-spoken Bansal.

When Bansal was a toddler, she moved with her family to Lincoln, Nebraska, where her father, Dr Mahendra K Bansal, was doing his Ph D in civil engineering and her mother, Dr Prem Lata Bansal, was a social welfare and health care advisor to the governor. They still live in Nebraska.

'The only Indians I knew in Nebraska were my siblings. There were no outlets for feelings of difference, so I spent more of my school years fitting in rather than fitting apart,' Bansal recalled recently in a New York Times interview.

Today, her brother Sanjay is a laser eye surgeon in San Francisco and her sister Ameeta Bansal Martin, 37, is a pediatric cardiologist and stock portfolio manager in Nebraska. "I am grateful for the support I have got from my family," she says.

One of the things she cherishes most about her parents is that the freedom they gave to chart her career.

For awhile, after she graduated from Harvard which she found 'stifling, narrow and more of a professional school, with the gunning mentality,' Bansal was looking for opportunities to quench her thirst for knowledge than to establish a specific career path.

But her former professors cajoled her into joining the Law Review. She did so, reluctantly, standing out among many of her classmates who seemed focused on the end of graduation.

"I didn't know what all those students were looking for at the end of the rainbow." Bansal said in an interview.

For Bansal, the end of the rainbow came quickly. She clerked for Judge Oakes and then moved on the Supreme Court where she clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens.

Of that privileged time, she simply says, "it was fun" and she wasn't like those guys "who lived and breathed the court."

She also moved socially in privileged sections: Justice Sandra Day O 'Connor invited the women clerks to her regular aerobics class and it was understood that Bansal should go. She did.

She joined the Washington office of Arnold and Porter, where she concentrated on First Amendment cases. She also worked at the Department of Justice as senior counsel, evaluating policy about violence on television and against women.

At the White House Counsel's office, she focused on health care task litigation and judicial nominations. Bansal was surprised at the nitty-gritty aspect of working there.

'It wasn't high-minded analysis. It wasn't thoughtful. It was about how to package a thoughtful person into a brief sound bite.' Bansal told the Times.

She also worked in the antitrust division, specializing in international enforcement of copyright laws.

"Each experience that I have had has helped me gain a better understanding of myself -- my strengths, weaknesses, and needs," she says. "My time in law school and clerking on the Supreme Court made me realize I like analytical and academic thinking, but in those more rarefied environments I felt an outlet for my social skills and interests was lacking."

Her restlessness in moving around was also because she wanted a "more practical, real-world environment where I would have regular contact with 'normal' people".

"At the White House, I had that experience -- I was in the middle of the hurly-burly world of politics which can be quite gritty and real world-focused. In that environment, I enjoyed the social interplay, but I like analytical and academic thinking... I like to be in the real world rather than in the academy," she says.

But then she relocated to Manhattan to practice with First Amendment lawyer Robert D Sack, who has since become a Federal Appeals judge. And then came the solicitor-general's job.

With what she describes as a perfect job came the bonus of living in Manhattan where she makes time to read fiction, cook, exercise, hike and enjoy opera and modern art.

People keep asking her about marriage, Mr Right and children. Especially her typically Indian mother.

"Most people don't understand that marriage has something to do with your career. It does affect things," Bansal says. "I remember something someone told me once, 'You can have it all, but you can't have it all at the same time' and I try to keep that in mind. And one day I hope to be married with kids," she says, adding that Mr Right could be American or Indian, "it doesn't matter."

Outside the courtroom, she is comfortable in the kitchen. A good cook, she gives dinner parties and experiments with international cuisine.

"I buy a lot of Indian cook books. I recently bought (one of) Ismail Merchant's cookbooks and I think I must have made all the recipes in it," she says.

Asked about the responsibility of being a role model for young Indian attorneys and students, Bansal said, "I don't see it as a heavy burden. My advice to them is be true to yourself in whatever you do."

About her own future, she has a vedantic approach:

"I train myself to not think ahead too much. I am happy with my job, I really love it," she says.

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