The waiting room at the law office of Gell & Gell in Lower Manhattan was packed with men, women and little children, all dressed in casual clothes, and not in business suits as one might expect. The phones rang relentlessly, overwhelming the young receptionist. She answered each call and, from time to time, spoke in both Bengali and Hindi.
Amid the chaos, a white middle aged man came into the reception area from inside the office. He accompanied a Bangladeshi woman. Dressed in a pale green shirt and black pants, he tried to comfort her. Holding her hand, he repeatedly told her “chinta korona,” a Bengali term meaning “don’t worry.”
The man, a pillar of comfort amid the chaos, was Roland Gell, 51, who has been practicing immigration law for nearly 25 years. Born to Jewish parents of French descent, he often goes beyond his duties as a lawyer to help his clients, from finding jobs to offering internships to students, interested in the field of law. He also speaks phrases of Bengali and Hindi along with some French in order to accommodate his clients, many of them from the Indian subcontinent.
“I decided to get into the field of immigration law because that’s where I thought I can do the most good. Illegal aliens are not part of the franchise, their rights are limited and I thought they needed strong advocates,” he said. “Because I was interested in helping the poor, immigration law was appealing to me.”
Born and raised in Long Island, he attended Stony Brook University, majoring in Philosophy and English. A passion for social injustice led him to Brooklyn Law School and a long career litigating a wide range of immigration cases.
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, he has always been driven to help people who are facing persecution and difficulties in their native countries. “My grandfather was in a concentration camp in Poland and my mother spent her years between seven and 10 living in darkness in the basement of a church hidden by nuns,” he said. “As a Jewish person who’s extended family was nearly destroyed by hate I feel very strongly that all people deserve to live with hope and without fear and this has always guided me professionally.”
Gell, who stands a little less than six feet tall, wears glasses and is clean shaven. Despite having lost much of his hair, he retains a youthful demeanor, continuously laughing and joking with his employees and youngsters who come to his office. But stress and frustration can be observed in his face at times when problems with a case emerge or a client fails to cooperate.
“Sadly the law as it stands makes things very very difficult for illegal aliens. In addition to the laws of the United States being stacked against this class of people, many challenges arise from the type of people I deal with,” he said. “Many are uneducated with no English language skills, few understand the laws or the standards they must meet in order to qualify for benefits.”
The recently painted blue interior walls of his office were decorated by large framed certificates, diplomas and memberships to various levels of courts and organizations. Several files remain piled up on the left side of the desk and more paperwork, law books, binders and documents fill up the closet.
The work atmosphere at the firm was chaotic, especially on days when he was available. He had appointments every half hour and many additional clients often showed up unannounced. The firm does not do any form of advertising. Referrals from former clients ensure that the list of new clients keeps growing regularly.
“Mr. Gell is an excellent lawyer and businessman. He understands the law very well and he also understands people and how they need honest advise but yet an understanding ear to hear their problems and come up with sensible solutions,” said Veerat Kalaria, an associate lawyer.
Kalaria, 32, had been impressed by the attitude of his employer and his relationship with the rest of the staff.
“He does not rule with an iron fist and that makes people want to stay with him and work hard for him. This is clear by the fact that there are a few employees who have been with Roland for over nine years. That is impressive retention of employees,” he added.
Through his work as an immigration attorney, Gell has been able to help thousands of families escape war, poverty and oppression, something he always cherishes about his occupation. This is also what keeps him going despite the difficulties and stress that is associated with the work.
“Roland was always nice to me and my family. He always took the time out of his busy schedule to see us,” said Naznin Luxi, a paralegal and a former client, who has been working here since 2002.
Luxi, 27, was hired by the firm, while she was still in high school and needed money for college. She still shares a special rapport with her employer as she did as a teenager.
“My working relationship with him is a little unique cause I could joke around with him and he would not get upset. However he is still the boss and I do respect him. I can never repay or thank him for everything he has done for my family and me,” she said.
In his impressive career as an immigration lawyer, Gell continues to work passionately in his field regardless of the challenges and hopes to be around for a few more years to come.
“I’ve made a nice living and I’ve helped a lot of people and I’m not excited about working into my 70s or 80s. In the future I imagine I’ll be doing the same type of work I’m doing now at least for the next few years,” he said. Although he does not have any interest in running for public office, he hopes to contribute more to the field in a different role.
“Maybe at some point I can work as an advocate for immigrants in the political spectrum rather than a litigator in the courtroom, not in elected office of course, but maybe in an advisory capacity somewhere.”