Practicing immigration law can sometimes feel like you are on a never-ending roller coaster. From the new public charge rule to new work visa processes, changes in asylum eligibility, and the expansion of unlawful acts that could prevent applicants from meeting the good moral requirement for citizenship, the US immigration system is becoming more strenuous for immigrants and attorneys.
The upside: many resources, organizations, and networks nationwide help immigration attorneys navigate the field. As an immigration attorney, you become a part of a tight-knit community of advocates. The following tips will help you start your immigration practice.
A Need for Immigration Attorneys
In the past two years, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the administrative agency that adjudicates immigration applications, has provided a new memorandum regarding changes in policy or procedure on an almost-weekly basis. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws, has rendered binding decisions that have dramatically changed the landscape of immigration and asylum law.
The impact of these changes affects the possibility of relief for thousands of immigrants. Previously winnable immigration cases may not be winnable or approvable today. Therefore, attorneys must have the tools to represent their clients zealously. Due to the complexity and fast-changing procedures and policies that make up immigration law, it is easy for new immigration attorneys to feel overwhelmed and lost in this area of law. It is difficult to know where to start when you are faced with learning the fundamentals and the new trends in the law.
Join the American Immigration Lawyer Association
The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) is a voluntary, membership-based organization with more than 15,000 immigration attorneys nationwide. AILA provides many resources, including in-person conferences, web-seminars, and an online research library containing practice pointers and alerts. AILA membership includes access to listservs and weekly emails containing updates on immigration law and administrative changes. AILA University is a new platform that offers comprehensive online courses, tutorial videos, and live-video programming on immigration topics. Annually, AILA hosts a national four-day conference that consists of various workshop tracks ranging from fundamentals of immigration law to law practice management to advanced litigation workshops. Joining AILA gives you the resources to stay informed on the law, and the solutions to overcome tough cases that come your way.
Mentorship is essential. Gain mentorship by volunteering at legal nonprofit organizations that offer immigration services and represent immigrants in removal proceedings. Take on pro bono cases under the supervision of a more experienced attorney to get hands-on practice. Before your first individual hearing, asylum interview, or USCIS interview, shadow a fellow immigration attorney at hers to prepare better and learn the appropriate procedures.
Seasoned mentors’ guidance and expertise are not only vital but also can make a world of difference when overcoming challenges in your new practice area. Organizations like ASISTA Immigration Assistance and the Center for Gender and Refugees Studies (CGRS) offer free guidance to attorneys by reviewing casework and providing invaluable feedback.
Join private Facebook groups about the immigration law area you wish to practice. Numerous private Facebook groups (e.g., CAMI589, Nerdy Immigration Attorneys, and Solo Immigration Attorneys) cater to private and nonprofit immigration attorneys focusing on different topics within immigration law ranging from asylum law to working with unaccompanied minors. To join these groups, you will need to verify that you are a licensed attorney and part of the private bar (working for a nongovernment agency). As a group member, you can ask questions and obtain advice from experienced immigration attorneys. Attorneys in these groups often share suggestions for particular types of cases and links to favorable case law.
Invest in law publications. An investment of $750 provides you with a one-year subscription to AILALink, an online research database that has electronic editions of the Immigration Law Sourcebook by Ira Kurzban, statutes, regulations, Supreme Court cases, US Courts of Appeals cases, asylum cases by topic, and Administrative Appeals Office and Board of Immigration Appeal decisions, as well as other AILA books. Other organizations with great publications are the Immigration Legal Resources Center (ILRC), Immigrant Defense Project (IDP), Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINC), and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG). These organizations offer free practice advisories on a range of subjects. The Immigration & Nationality Act and the Immigration Regulations CFR, 2019 Editions, are useful resources to learn the law.
Join your state, county, and local bar associations’ immigration law section listservs and acquaint yourself with other immigration law attorneys. Get to know local attorneys who practice the law you want to learn (invite them for coffee). You will need a community and network on which to rely. Surround yourself with experts to establish long-lasting personal and professional connections.
Learn the Key Players in the Field
You must learn the names and websites of the federal agencies with immigration responsibilities and how to contact them. Create a list of the key agencies and their contact information. Depending on your practice area, you will correspond with several government agencies and offices, like the National Visa Center, which handles all visa processing, or Enforcement and Removal Operations offices, for information on detained immigrants. All immigration attorneys will interact with USCIS. Therefore, familiarize yourself with the USCIS website to stay up to date on new edition forms and new policies surrounding specific petitions. You can subscribe to receive new releases and alerts from USCIS on their site.
Create Checklists and Questionnaires
Checklists and questionnaires will be the foundation of your operating systems and law firm efficiency. They will save you and your clients a lot of time, money, and stress.
As you learn the fundamentals, create checklists and questionnaires of requirements for each type of immigration application and petition you will handle. A thorough checklist includes: (1) the names of the forms needed; (2) the required application fees; and (3) the evidence the client needs to provide for you to prepare the application.
Design the checklist to ensure quality control: (1) all forms are the latest editions; (2) all signatures are in black ink; (3) all the pages of the forms are attached; and (4) a review of the correct mailing address for filing. Additionally, client questionnaires help organize and gather the information needed to complete the appropriate documents.
Build Client Rapport and Communication
Create letter or email templates to keep your clients informed on their cases. Working with the immigrant community naturally comes with a lot of questions and concerns. Be upfront with your clients and manage their expectations in light of the new immigration policies and trends. Client letter templates help build open and honest communication and establish rapport between you and your client. A letter template can: (1) explain the process of a specific type of immigration relief; (2) inform clients of potential notices they will or may receive from the government, like a Receipt Notice or a Request for Evidence; and (3) notify clients of expected processing times.
Get Familiar with Law Practice Management Software
Keep yourself and your firm organized. Keep track of the time invested in each case. There are several online case management tools that can assist a new immigration attorney in managing their case portfolio, like Clio, LawLogix, Practice Panther, or Docketwise. By tracking your time, you can assess how much work goes into specific cases, and if your operating systems are efficient. This allows you to improve your case and cost efficiency and work productivity.
Practice self-care to avoid burnout. You may experience heavy caseloads and long work hours. Representing immigrants in this ever-changing and complex field may take an emotional toll on you or trigger post-secondary trauma. Be intentional about creating a balanced self-care plan that addresses taking care of your mind, body, and spirit. Include activities throughout the workweek that keep you balanced and centered. Try meditation apps, like “Insight Timer,” which only takes 5–10 minutes and helps reduce stress and anxiety.
Narrow your focus to a specific type of immigration law. Immigration law includes business, family-based petitions, humanitarian relief, removal defense, and appellate practice. Each of these areas requires different rules of law, documentation, standards of evidence, and may require a different type of personality. Once you identify your passion within immigration law, stick with it. Learn it well and create a niche for yourself. By focusing on one particular area of immigration law and limiting your cases to that area, you can become an expert and build a strong foundation for your future success as an immigration lawyer.