An interview with Bernie Wolfsdorf: Corporate Immigration Award Winner 2011
Bernard Wolfsdorf is the winner of the corporate immigration lawyer of the year award for the second year running. The Santa Monica-based lawyer is the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a recognised name in this field. He has over 30 years’ experience representing clients and shares his views of the American immigration system and how legal practice has changed.
Your personal story is an interesting and dramatic one. Could you give the readers some background into how you found yourself practising immigration law?
In the early 1980s I was hired by a top law firm in Los Angeles as a corporate and securities lawyer. The firm hired five Stanford graduates and me. After a few months of doing research in the library, a senior partner asked for immigration assistance with his famous movie star client. Since I had worked on my own case and helped a few friends prepare asylum cases on a pro bono basis, I volunteered. Suddenly, I was directly handling celebrity immigration cases for the firm’s entertainment department that represented a major studio.
You had worked as an associate at two other law firms before starting you own, Wolfsdorf Immigration Law Group. Being an immigrant yourself and being able to empathise with the immigrant perspective did your experience inform your decision to start an immigration law practice group?
There is no doubt going through the immigration process framed my outlook as an immigration attorney. I will always remember the experience of my green card interview and the anxiety at the thought that I could be sent back home. However, my decision to start my own firm was an accident. The second, large law firm I worked for was breaking up; therefore my going solo was accidental. I am proud of the fact that the immigration partners who helped groom me are still two of my closest friends and colleagues.
How did you go about setting up your own practice? What was the most difficult aspect of it?
In the mid-80s I worked for a large law firm Memel, Jacobs, Pierno, Gersh & Ellsworth that split up. Although I enjoyed working in a large firm environment, I decided it was time to "hang my shingle". It was not very hard to do so since I already had a large client base. The toughest part was moving from 12 hours days to 14 hour days.
Having worked in both a large multi-state firm, and a boutique, in your experience which makes for a better legal model?
I have learned so much from working in large firms and from working in boutiques. I have enjoyed both and I have seen excellence in both. Working in a large firm requires understanding the dynamic of teamwork, whereas boutiques often permit more individualism. I have been able to grow by drawing on both experiences. Based on the fickle nature of immigration practice, I do often wonder how immigration specialists can survive in the large firm environment.
What was your first significant immigration case and what did you take away from it that stayed with you throughout your career?
My first immigration case was my own. I did have expert assistance from Professor Deborah Anker who assisted me pro bono. She is now a professor at Harvard law school and has graciously credited me with most of the work on my case. I was granted political asylum based on my well-founded fear of persecution in regard to my antiapartheid activities – I consider this a badge of honour. I will always remember what it was like to be an immigration client and I always imagine myself in my client’s position. I know the anxiety and fear many clients endure.
What do you find most fulfilling about working in this area?
Every day we have victories that provide joy, happiness and reward. Helping people achieve their dreams of starting a new life is particularly fulfilling. It is ironic that as the world economy becomes flatter, many countries have established new barriers making it more difficult for people to escape repression and follow their dreams. Great nations like the US, which were built off the sweat of immigrants, now struggle to remember the huge contribution hardworking immigrants have made. As a nation of immigrants it appears many have forgotten what their parents and grandparents contributed.
How would you summarise an immigration lawyer’s role?
Immigration lawyers help people navigate what is often a technical, arbitrary and discretionary process. As the US Ninth Circuit has noted, immigration law is very complex. In Castro-O'Ryan v INS, 847 F.2d 1307, 1312 (9th Cir. 1988) the court stated, "With only a small degree of hyperbole, the immigration laws have been termed 'second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity.' E Hull, Without Justice For All 107 (1985). A lawyer is often the only person who could thread the labyrinth." A good immigration attorney can make this complex and often difficult process easier.
Your practice covers all elements of immigration, nationality and refugees law, among others. How has the immigration landscape changed since you began practicing nearly 30 years ago, and how does your law firm meet these changes?
When I started practicing US immigration law almost 30 years ago, the "culture of no" was in existence but the government often gave applicants the benefit of the doubt. Now, the attitude is how can we reject you; how can we find a reason to deny you and send you home? We now caution clients to be ever so compliant to make sure there is no basis to “be caught” doing something wrong. Strict compliance in an era where there is little compassion or grounds for forgiveness. Ironically, we now have also broadened the scope of our services. I am also a member of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers (ABIL.com). ABIL Global has become critical to my practice, as we have had to broaden the scope of our immigration practice to provide worldwide immigration services. The demand for US outbound and worldwide transfers has grown exponential, especially to BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and ironically, my place of birth South Africa). I know that everything that goes up must come down, but even in immigration law, it seems to have turned almost 360 degrees. My wife is an immigrant from China and most of her US doctorate friends have returned home.
The global financial crisis and terrorism concerns have made US immigration policy more insular, stricter and enforcement more aggressive. What kind of impact has that had on your practice?
We have had to change our entire focus. While US immigration has always been tough, the seemingly insatiable focus on detention, deportation and denials has created a hostile environment towards immigrants, just at the time when we need the innovation and investment that immigrants bring. Ironically, America is now driving away the very innovators it needs most to turn the economy around. The top graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) all believe they have more opportunity at home and this “reverse brain-drain” will only hasten the development and advancement of BRICS’ and other developing nations to the loss of the US, whose broken immigration system doesn’t help anyone.
Do you expect to see a relaxation of the rules once the economy improves?
In the 30 years that I have practiced in the US I have only seen it get worse. Politicians seem to relish who can beat up immigrants the most. President Obama’s Secretary for Homeland Security has bragged about how many people this Administration has deported – as if deporting over 400,000 people and breaking up families and leaving US citizen spouses and children to fend for themselves without a bread winner, or rely on welfare when they were doing jobs Americans don’t want, is something good. Critical industries like agriculture will be decimated by the government’s enhanced enforcement of laws such as E-verify, an employment verification that is increasingly becoming mandatory in certain states, and which the US congress may adopt even without reforming the antiquated immigration system. The quotas have not been changed in over 20 years, providing little opportunity for the “best and brightest” and no avenue for the less skilled workers, which are so critical to America’s recovery. Ironically, the people who look after the young and the eldest Americans are being driven out because so many Americans cannot or will not care for their elderly and their children. In addition to rigorous enforcement of deportation laws and an ever-increasing restrictive attitude in adjudications, it appears that the state and federal authorities’ desire to beating up on immigrants merely increases.
In May 2011, President Obama called for a comprehensive reform of the immigration system in the US during his “the US border is secure” speech. Can you see a centralised, comprehensive Immigration Act ever being passed in Congress during his Administration? Or was the rejection of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) a signal that Congress is not yet ready to develop this area on a federal scale?
If congress cannot find the compassion and common sense to provide a path to legalisation for children who grew up here and are often top students who know no other home, and which the US military strongly supports, it is hard to see Congress taking the bold steps necessary to reform our immigration laws. Congress has repeatedly rejected the DREAM Act, which would give US high school graduates and persons serving in the military a path to legalisation. The US is now turning away top graduates and scientists, and of course this will result in declining opportunities for all, creating a downward spiral that appears to be encouraging even more restrictionist thinking. Many in America think there is a worldwide recession and have no idea that Asia and parts of South America are booming. Sadly the worse it gets, the more politicians blame the very people who can turn this around and few in Congress have been bold enough to do the "right thing" for this great country. President Obama has said the right thing but his actions in trying to appease those who call for more deportations and detentions has created horrific statistics that are tearing apart families with US citizen spouses and children. I am hopeful that after the next presidential election we may see some level of rationality enter the debate.
Increasingly, multi-jurisdictional disputes and legal developments require civil lawyers to have a deeper and broader working knowledge of international regulations and laws. How have client expectations of lawyers’ abilities and expertise changed over the years?
As more information becomes available the quest for factually correct answers and knowledge that can be relied upon has become increasingly valuable. Attorneys have to be sub-specialists and are expected to be knowledgeable in an array of areas. As a result, attorneys are creating more extensive international alliances and law firms are again becoming larger and larger. The solo fractioned, like the corner grocer, may soon find it impossible to survive.
Since you began practising how have attitudes changed towards marketing in law firms? Is there a more discernible business side to law practice?
Marketing has always been critical but the old adage, "look after your clients and your business will grow" now appears only half true. Attorneys need to be even more focused on marketing and client development than ever. The electronic age has changed everything. Scholarly articles and depth appear to have less credence and blogging and random opinion have become more consequential. While an attorney's reputation is still critical, it appears form may be overtaking substance in some arenas.
What qualities in a client make for the most productive relationships?
As an attorney who routinely works 15-hour days, six days a week, it’s great to have clients who appreciate your work. We are very fortunate to have many such clients. We regularly receive flowers and gifts from appreciative clients and it really lifts us as we battle with a broken immigration system. Communication is becoming increasingly more convenient, yet the electronic age is unfortunately forcing many professionals to have even less personal contact. Telephone and in-person contact are being replaced by electronic communication, which creates impersonal relationships in the professional services world.
What are the biggest challenges facing the immigration community in the future in the next five years?
Immigrants are inevitably A-type personalities, the bold ones who are prepared to step out and reach new horizons. Hopefully political leaders will also understand that the international exchange of goods and services is critical to a vibrant world economic framework in which all can prosper. Some nations understand that admitting hard working immigrates is good for all – China, which is booming, has a vibrant and open-minded immigration policy and is experiencing exponential growth, whereas the US is trying to close every door it can, and our unemployment problems linger while our economy stagnates.
As a former AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association) president and vice-president, and an active educator what advice would you give to young lawyers looking to enter immigration practice?
The area continues to provide opportunity for passionate lawyers who want to help both individuals and companies. The level of human contact and the sense of satisfaction in helping people are remarkably rewarding and fulfilling. In my earlier years I practiced in numerous different areas with large law firms and nothing has been as rewarding as practicing immigration and nationality law.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
Serving as the president of the 11,000-attorney American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and helping to promote its mission of seeking to promote justice, advocating for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, and advancing the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice. On a personal level I must also confess that it has been fun meeting and representing several very famous academy Award winning movie stars, which is part of practicing immigration law in Los Angeles and New York City.
If you could be granted one wish to make your job easier, what would it be?
Shortening my workday by half so I could be a better husband to my devoted wife and a better father to my four children.
If you were not an immigration lawyer, what would you be?
I have fallen so far down the beaten path of being an immigration workaholic that the only other thing I can think of would be to be a full-time surfer – a passion I have had since youth but simply don't have enough time to pursue.