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“I’m driven by a passion to make a lasting difference”

Azerbaijan-born Los Angeles associate Zaur Gajiev offers a unique perspective on the ongoing civil unrest in the United States gained from his experiences as an immigrant and former auxiliary police officer in the New York Police Department.

A tough start transformed by good fortune

During his life, Zee has experienced everything good about the 'American dream', but he's also seen the negative side of a society blighted by historic inequality and police brutality.

He says: "I was born into poverty in Azerbaijan and my early life was extremely tough. The only reason my family got to move to the US was sheer luck. We entered a state-wide Green Card lottery and somehow won. Within a year, we found ourselves in New York City, starting a new life. I owe a debt of gratitude to the US, because it offered us a clean start and transformed our lives."

He says: "The area of Brooklyn I grew up in was poor and marginalized, with a large proportion of immigrants. We lived in fear of crime and gang violence and, when I was 14, I had a gun pointed in my face for the first time."

Making a positive difference to his community

This experience inspired Zee to help communities like the one that he grew up in, and he signed up to become an auxiliary police officer in the NYPD after he finished college. The role saw him providing backup to full-time officers and involved completing an 18-week training course.

Zee was determined to help mend the relationship and mistrust between local people and police. He says: "One of the things I loved most was getting to talk to fellow immigrants and to explain that the police is here to help them, not abuse them.

"I hope I played a small part in improving community relations and building trust as part of the major outreach program the NYPD was running at the time." Although he has now moved successfully into a new career as a lawyer, Zee notes that, "More needs to be done. We need to re-evaluate the role of policing in society and to re-imagine public safety in a way that invests in communities and neighborhoods."

A passion for law and a new career

Zee's time as a police officer inspired him to further explore his interest in the law and, after completing a JD at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, he clerked for judges at the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and on the US District Court for the Eastern District of California.

He joined the Firm in 2017 and is a Commercial Litigation associate in our Los Angeles office where he's currently working on a major pro bono case against the City of Ferguson, Missouri.

Zee says: "We're representing the people of Ferguson in a class action alleging that the City engaged in discriminative policing and used its police force, jails and local courts to generate profits through the routine arrest and imprisonment of poor, primarily African-American, residents in violation of their constitutional rights.

“The killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson was one of the original cases that gave national recognition to the Black Lives Matter movement.”

"It prompted the Department of Justice's investigation into Ferguson's prolonged and widespread civil rights abuses against its Black citizens, committed at every level of Ferguson's law enforcement system."

"We need to learn how to listen"

Zee is passionate about the role the legal profession must play in bringing meaningful change, not just to the legal system in the US, but in changing perceptions in society.

"Nobody is born angry or violent. These are symptoms of underlying suffering, neglect and heartbreak. And we need to learn how to listen if we want to make any meaningful difference."

Transferable skills, including negotiating and keeping calm

His experiences in the NYPD have taught him lessons that he can apply to his career with White & Case. Zee remains determined to contribute to positive change through his work at White & Case.

"My parents had to overcome so many challenges and have made many sacrifices for me. They are the reason I’m so driven to make a lasting difference."