February 10, 2016

Jodi Goodwin

The ABA Fund for Justice and Education

The Division for Public Services is pleased to honor the accomplishments of ABA lawyers associated with our Division committees and commissions. These lawyers are dedicating their time and energy to the public interest, and we hope that their stories will inspire you.

Jodi Goodwin is a private immigration practitioner in Harlingen, Texas. In addition to her regular slate of clients, she also supports ProBAR, a direct legal services program operated by the ABA Commission on Immigration in Harlingen.  She also speaks on multiple panels each year and has spearheaded and coordinated an ongoing effort to provide daily “Know-Your-Rights” presentations to Central American families being released from ICE custody in the Rio Grande Valley.

Ms. Goodwin practices immigration law in the trenches on the border in Harlingen, Texas. Since 1995, she has represented thousands of asylum seekers, economic migrants, long-term permanent residents, businesses, families, and United States citizens in removal proceedings. She also represents immigrants in federal court in both criminal and civil proceedings. Her advocacy includes support for ProBAR, a direct legal services program in Harlingen operated by the ABA Commission on Immigration. She speaks on multiple panels each year and has spearheaded and coordinated an ongoing effort to provide daily “Know-Your-Rights” presentations to Central American families being released from ICE custody in the Rio Grande Valley. She believes that the heart and soul of every lawyer should be deeply grounded in truth and a search for justice. She enjoys teaching, especially to new practitioners, and devoting her time to community and pro bono projects. She has received many accolades including Texas Super Lawyer and Best Lawyers in America and Texas Lawyer’s Top Notch Immigration Lawyer. One of her most coveted achievements was receiving the Arthur C. Helton Award for Advancing Human Rights in 2007. Ms. Goodwin holds a B.A. from the University of Texas (Hook ‘Em!) and a J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law. In her spare time, she devotes hours and hours to her children through active education and Girl Scouting.

We invited Ms. Goodwin to reflect on her career.

At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to dedicate your career to public service?

Half-way through undergraduate school, I realized I had to seek a career path where my talents would be best used. Growing up in a small town meant helping people was a way of life. I knew helping people would have to be part of the talents I would share with others. I chose law school as a means to an end of public service and made that decision before I even applied. My intent and focus in going to law school was to give back to a community of voiceless people by using my talents of careful compassion, language, and tenacity.

What were the major influences on your choices and career path?

Although there were many influences leading me to a public interest practice in immigration law, the most important were: an upper-level course on Migration Patterns in the Government Department at the University of Texas (which led to volunteering with the Political Asylum Project of Austin); spending four years as a fabrication operator at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), where I worked with primarily Asian and Southeast Asian immigrants; and realizing my skills and talents uniquely fit into working with immigrant communities.

How did you gravitate toward a small firm practice setting?

Thanks to Congress defunding the Legal Services Corporation in 1994, I went from having a set career path to having no job prospects as I entered my third year of law school. I was fortunate to receive an offer as part of the Attorney General Honors Program to clerk for the Immigration Judges in Harlingen, Texas. I assumed I would stay for the one-year clerkship and move on. After seeing the incredible need for immigration attorneys in the border region, and with considerable prodding from the judges, I decided to open a small practice on October 1, 1996. I have fancied with leaving small firm practice many times, but I am brought back without ever acting on those thoughts of departure because this is the best way I have been able to serve a unique segment of our population with highly specialized legal services.

What led to your interest in immigration practice?

I couldn’t do my homework in my first Spanish Literature class in college. I could speak well enough, but realized quickly I could neither read nor write well at all. I met many immigrants during my time in college and learned much about the world and the unsettled nature of life in much of the globe. I started looking more into what caused people to move from one place to another, to migrate. I saw an incredibly complex system too difficult for people who greatly needed that system to work for them. I learned to understand that system and make it work despite bureaucratic shortcomings. I continued and remain in the practice of immigration law because it allows me to be a lifelong learner. I am constantly learning new things about politics, culture, religion, food, music, daily life…and myself.

What is your greatest career satisfaction to date?

To date, I am most proud of one individual case and class of cases that defines who I am as a lawyer. Living along the border, there is a no-man’s land, a strip of land where you are in the United States but not free to roam about past the checkpoints that hinder travel about 50-plus miles north of the actual border. I had the chance to litigate the case of a young man who had never been north of the checkpoint, but was admitted to every Ivy League school in the country. I litigated his case so that he could be able to cross the checkpoint, get to Harvard and eventually be hired as the youngest ever for the World Bank. I won a green-card for him in court. He is now in graduate school in England.

As a class of cases, I am most proud of being awarded the Arthur C. Helton Human Rights award in 2007. Advancing human rights is something I focus on daily in my practice. I cannot protect legal rights or civil rights without a focus on human rights. A holistic approach to lawyering taught me to always keep the dignity and respect we are each owed at the forefront.

What has been your greatest professional challenge to date?

The greatest professional challenge has been finding a sufficient work/life balance. After years of working many (many!) hours each week, I hit a wall. I had a professional breakdown and forced myself to make a decision to focus on myself and my family at least as equally as much as I focused on my clients. This paradigm shift meant my practice changed, the kinds of cases I would accept changed, my income changed, and in turn my life changed. If there is one thing I could teach to younger lawyers, it would be how to make your work meaningful and fulfilling at the same time as having a wonderful life.

What seems to be the most acute challenge facing immigration law practitioners today?

Acutely, the biggest challenge is the lack of clear guidance with respect to priority enforcement of the immigration laws and the lack of uniformity among adjudicators for immigration benefits. Clearly, however, the chronic problems are of greater concern as we languish with no changes in the immigration laws for 30 years! Our system of immigration laws is terribly broken and needs to be fixed comprehensively.

To what extent has ABA involvement helped in your career?

Being a part of the ABA has helped my career in many ways. First, ABA membership has provided me access to group insurances I would not have been able to afford on my own. I have also benefited from the varied CLE offerings (sometimes free!). And, finally, I have grown a network of colleagues through the country by participating on committees and task forces related to immigration issues.

What advice can you give law students and young lawyers considering a career in state or local public service?

The best piece of advice I have for those law students considering a career in public interest law is to get out of law school with as little debt as possible. Law school is expensive and being saddled with a large debt is burdensome. So, if it means you don’t go to the Tier 1 law school and instead go to the Tier 3 law school with a large scholarship….choose the one where you will leave with less debt! The next advice I would give would be to continue to maintain a work/life balance from the very beginning of your career.

Do you have advice for lawyers seeking to change course mid‐career or in a final career phase and wishing to work or volunteer in this professional setting?

For those wishing to switch gears and work in immigration law, I would highly suggest taking on a case pro bono with one of your area legal service providers. Generally, this type of experience in immigration law is “happy” law and you are most likely paired with a mentor. Pro bono cases let you get your feet wet without drowning because your mentor will be there at your side to make sure you stay above water. After doing several pro bono cases, you will be much more comfortable accepting a case for a fee.