One of the perks of working in an area of the law (asylum) that interests law students and young lawyers is that I periodically get to meet people seeking advice about starting a practice or finding a job doing asylum cases. It’s never easy to advise people about their careers, but there are a few pieces of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years that I try to pass on. So for what it’s worth, here are some thoughts for up-and-coming immigration lawyers:
- You can do it. This one sounds trite, so I probably should not have put it first, but I think it is the most important piece of advice I can give. It may seem difficult (or impossible) to get started in the field of asylum law, but people who persist almost always succeed. In my case, I could not find the job I wanted, so I worked at another job for a few years, put most of my income towards paying off my student loans, and then opened my own practice. I kept expecting it to fail, but so far–eight years later–I’m still here. And once you get your first job in the field, it is easier to move around. I’ve seen many friends move between public interests jobs, private firms, and academia. In other words, once you’re in, you’re in.
- Experience in the field prior to and during law school is more important than grades, law school rankings or law journal. If you are thinking of a career in asylum law, try to gain as much experience as possible while in law school. There are many opportunities to volunteer, including at the Immigration Court or DHS, for non-profit organizations, and even for private attorneys. Also, publishing in law school journals or other journals (or writing a blog!) is a good way to get some experience and attention.
- Try to get a clerkship. A clerkship or an internship with a court is a great way to learn how judges decide cases. And if you know what judges want, it will help you throughout your career. I clerked for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia (greatest city on Earth) and for the Immigration Court in Arlington, Virginia. Both jobs taught me a lot and made me a better lawyer.
- Volunteer. One way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer with an organization that represents asylum seekers. There are many, and they are often in need of free labor. Volunteering for one of these organizations will allow you to meet people in the field, learn about paying job opportunities, and learn the skills needed to effectively represent people in court and at the asylum office. I know several people whose volunteer positions led to full time employment. I would suggest that you think strategically about where you volunteer–some organizations are better than others for purposes of networking, learning the ropes, and getting hired.
- Keep salary expectations realistic. Your clients are refugees for Pete’s sake.
- Consider opening your own practice. However, I would encourage you not to do this anywhere near Washington, DC. If I am giving you free advice, the least you can do is not compete with me. Starting a practice of your own may seem daunting, but it really is do-able. In fact, most private immigration attorneys are solo or work for small firms. There is a lot of support available from bar associations, organizations (like AILA), and other attorneys. In fact, many bar associations have a person dedicated to helping lawyers start law firms. Call your bar association and ask about the resources they can offer you.
If you are thinking about a career in immigration law and asylum, I hope you will be encouraged to give it a go. It’s a rewarding area of the law where you will have an opportunity to make a real difference in your clients’ lives.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Jason Dzubow's practice focuses on immigration law, asylum, and appellate litigation. Mr. Dzubow is admitted to practice law in the federal and state courts of Washington, DC and Maryland, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits, all Immigration Courts in the United States, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition. In June 2009, CAIR Coalition honored Mr. Dzubow for his Outstanding Commitment to Defending the Rights and Dignity of Detained Immigrants.