Piyumi Samaratunga: A Journey of Great Purpose

Piyumi Samaratunga
2024 Feature Nominations

Since 1946, the firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP has exclusively represented management in labor law and employment matters. With more than 170 attorneys in 28 offices across 15 states, one might expect to encounter a formal and impersonal legal culture. But Constangy has a soul, and no one better exemplifies that soul than Piyumi Samaratunga, who joined the firm to open its Minneapolis office in 2015. She brings heart and humanity to her practice and leadership at Constangy, making her the right choice for the firm’s bid to bring greater diversity to the practice of law.

Samaratunga’s personal and professional journeys are inextricably entwined. She is a “born optimist” who has practiced around the globe, and her vibrant spirit radiates in the way she lives and leads. “Young people ask me, ‘How did you get to where you are?’ And I always say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it. It doesn’t take superhuman powers. It takes staying authentic to who you are and always having faith in humanity.’”

“Young people ask me, ‘How did you get to where you are?’ And I always say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it. It doesn’t take superhuman powers. It takes staying authentic to who you are and always having faith in humanity.’”

Samartunga grew up in Sri Lanka. By third grade, she already understood herself well enough to know that her calling was to become a lawyer. She attended college and law school in Sri Lanka, and went on to practice international corporate law with one of the country’s largest firms. The next stop on Samartunga’s journey was the University of Cambridge. There, she earned her Master of Law with an emphasis in corporate law and finance and spent time at two London firms before returning to Sri Lanka. Shortly thereaft er, she met her husband.

Samaratunga’s husband, an engineer, had migrated to Minnesota with his family out of high school. Circumstances called for his return, and as Samaratunga prepared to join him, she encountered firsthand the complexities of the U.S. immigration system. “We planned to stay only a short time, but when I applied for a tourist visa, I was informed that I was not eligible since my husband was a U.S. citizen. Instead, I was required to apply for an immigrant visa. A few months aft er our arrival, my father-inlaw met with a fatal car accident, and since I was here as a permanent resident, I had the ability to remain indefinitely. We stayed, and 20 years later, we’re still here.”

But Samaratunga’s journey did not end there. In short order, she learned that her legal credentials were not transferable to Minnesota. For her to practice law, she would have to return to law school for a third time. At first, she thought she might simply go to work with a firm as a research assistant. “I remember combing through the yellow pages of a huge telephone book and calling law firms, leaving voicemails asking for informational interviews, and not getting a single call back. In fairness to those I called, I think a strange-accented woman with an even stranger name was not a priority,” she laughed.

Undaunted, Samaratunga accepted a friend’s help, which resulted in an off er to work at Medtronic as a legal consultant. Meanwhile, Samaratunga also went to law school at Hamline University School of Law. To make matters just a bit more challenging, she was the mother of a toddler and pregnant with twins when she started law school again. “Through adversity you find these beautiful moments. Human resilience is incredible. We have no idea what each one of us is capable of when we feel our back is to the wall. It’s amazing what people will do to help and reach out. There is no way I could ever have done any one of those things without the help I got from family, neighbors, friends and even strangers at work who took an incredible interest in my career and family.”

In time, Samaratunga was invited to join a boutique immigration firm, where she began to hone her expertise in employment-based immigration law. “I was called to my new life as an immigration attorney, and today my focus is global mobility. I am well-positioned to speak to foreign nationals, having migrated myself. I understand the frustrations and joys of the journey to live here legally. I can also relate completely to the employer, having worked on that side of the fence in corporate law. I get to speak to both constituencies with a very authentic voice.”

Samaratunga’s expertise has been widely sought by corporate clients and top employment immigration firms alike. But when she was contacted by the chair of Costangy’s executive committee, Neil Wasser, about heading up a new office in Minnesota, Samaratunga found a kindred spirit. “What was supposed to be a quick phone call simply to get a time on the calendar, turned into an hour-and-a-half conversation. We spoke about our vision for the future of the law firm landscape, how we serve our clients, the challenges of commoditization and our desire to embrace and be at the forefront of much needed change to our industry – change in terms of how we serve our clients and how we perceive ourselves while still cognizant of the need to run viable business operations in a manner that is always consistent with and attuned to our moral compass. Neil talked about his desire to bring together people of very different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity is a personal passion for me, and I saw this opportunity as one with greater purpose.”

As Samaratunga has built her kaleidoscopic team of attorneys, she reveals the gritty truth – diversity is messy. “We all bring many different experiences to the table, and it really has been a social experiment. I realize that when I say something, or when I dissect what someone else is saying, I bring to it my own set of experiences. These are things that someone else may or may not have intended. Even a phrase or a word might have diff erent context to me than to you. So, when we talk about diversity, we need to learn and be comfortable in each other’s spaces. This is something easier said than done. Diversity is much more than how it looks in terms of numbers or hues and colors. We all bring our gift s and baggage to every conversation, every interaction with a fellow human being. But when we as a group are committed to valuing the humanity in each one of us and start from a premise that we are one humankind, amazing things begin to happen.”

She opined that to get there, people must be open to authentic conversations, even when it is not easy; achieving consensus is oft en a process of trial and error. It may even involve frustration or hurt feelings. “Yet, if we commit to continuing the journey, we will get to a place of true understanding and appreciation of one another,” she said. “That commitment can only occur when we have taken the time to get to know each other. It is through that understanding of the ‘other’ that we build empathy, acceptance and the commitment to make a better world.”

“My interactions with people of various perspectives and backgrounds over a 20-year period have certainly enriched my life and experience, and they have helped bring me to where I am today. I am grateful for and enriched by every conversation I have with another human being that affirms me, challenges me and compels me to self-assess. It has been a very affirming process for me to be a part of this firm whose mission and purpose is completely aligned with my personal values. I am honored to help grow a different kind of national model for law firms.”

At the heart of it all is Constangy’s deep commitment to understanding the business landscape of its clients. Its attorneys recognize that the U.S. employers and corporations they serve are competing in a global landscape, and that to remain competitive, these employers must attract and retain the best talent. “We’re looking for the same things our clients look for in building great teams – smart people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

“Our clients range from startups to Fortune 500 corporations, and every employer wants to hire the best and the brightest. Like us, our clients don’t come to diversity in terms of, ‘We need a diverse workforce so let’s hire a diverse candidate.’ They just want to hire the very best, and because of global mobility, the chances are that any pool of candidates will include people with different backgrounds and ethnicities. We don’t have to go to the world at large to recruit; the world is at our doorstep.”

Constangy, which specializes in the full range of employment and workplace law, is well-placed to assist the high concentration of Fortune 500 corporations in Minnesota with the legalities of attracting, retaining and promoting the very best talent, irrespective of where that talent comes from. This includes sending U.S. citizens overseas to set up, handle and lead business operations as well as the full complement of employment law needs. “As a whole, our firm helps to further a U.S. employer’s ability to comply with the law, compete in a global marketplace and in doing so, ensure their long-term sustainability. We have had incredible successes around the country in partnering with employers. In the end, what we do directly impacts the ability of employers to be successful in generating new jobs and opportunities for U.S. citizens.”

Along with a culture of inclusion at Constangy is a client-centric work ethos with an emphasis on the development of lasting relationships. Samaratunga is an advocate of “straight talking and plain speaking, but in a way that lift s everybody up. Clients tell me, ‘You consistently give advice that is against your financial best interests when you could do more to drag something out.’ Trying to earn an extra fee is not of value to me, and the trust that comes from serving the clients best interests always, is priceless. I’d rather have trust and long-term relationships.”

At this stop on Samaratunga’s journey, she is gratified to be working in a place where people’s differences inspire global connection and original ideas. “When we bring people together who have very different experiences, we start looking at things differently. That’s how innovation happens. Real creativity does not come from one person, but from multiple persons sharing their multiple experiences. This is necessary for the U.S. economy to continue as the number one in the global marketplace.

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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