A very select group of lawyers should consider applying for certification as a specialist in the field of immigration law. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview on how one should go about becoming an immigration lawyer, and what benefits can be achieved.
Choose Your Law Field
First, let us look at why there are specialties for lawyers in the first place. A specialty is recognized by bar associations or other professional organizations. Sometimes it's required by the state where you want to practice because your specialization will be entitled to designations such as "Certified Specialist", "Specialist Attorney", etc., which means that you have demonstrated specific knowledge and skills relevant to your area of expertise, so clients who hire you know they're dealing with someone competent. That's important because unlike physicians and other professionals, lawyers have no licensing board to which you can complain if your lawyer is doing a shitty job.
So how do you get recognized as a specialist in a field? First of all, it's best not to try to establish a new specialty for yourself or devise one on your own. There may exist two or more bar associations in the state where you want to practice, each having its own requirements for awarding special designations. If there are conflicting requirements between them, then they'll probably just reject your application. It's best to investigate what specialties already exist, and how the requirements for obtaining them are established. In many cases you will find that those requirements were set by a committee of lawyers who represent those specialties, so it wouldn't make sense to apply as a specialist in another specialty that has nothing to do with your law practice.
Once you've identified an existing specialty and done enough research on it to demonstrate that you're qualified for it, then the next step is getting the bar associations or other authorities to recognize you as a specialist. That can be done by following their application requirements – forms and fees – and submitting all of the documentation they ask for demonstrating your qualifications. If any of those standards seems too difficult for you to meet, then you probably want to choose another specialty.
What about the "Certified Specialist" designation? Is that just a fancy meaningless title, or is it recognized by courts and other authorities? Sometimes it's difficult to tell. For example, California Lawyer Magazine has an annual survey of Certified Specialists in California, but it only lists the area of specialty and the State Bar number of each one. The official site doesn't mention any requirements at all for obtaining this designation. We can see from other attorneys' websites that some lawyers claim this distinction without having fulfilled too many specific requirements, while others have actually done what they needed to do in order to get it.
So when should someone apply for recognition as a specialist in immigration law? Well, for each state there's a different answer to that question. If you're not living in California, then you should research this point yourself, because requirements vary from place to place when looking at being an immigration lawyer.
That said, here are some general tips suitable for most situations:
- Your practice must mostly focus on immigration law. If you feel like you don't have enough clients yet to justify an application for specialization, then it may be worth waiting until your annual income reaches the minimum amount required by the bar authorities.
- You must already have enough knowledge of immigration law before applying. Some people take many years to build up their expertise or reputation as lawyers, while others become recognized quickly because they've already been highly successful in another field (e.g., tech industry, law enforcement, etc.). You must demonstrate that you have already acquired a deep level of knowledge about immigration matters before you can apply for the recognition.
- You must be able to prove that your clients appreciate your expertise. For example, do they frequently mention it to others? Have they posted reviews on Google or Yelp? Do they regularly refer family members and friends to you? If so, then get copies of those testimonials and include them with your application package.
- You should probably get an attorney-client contract signed by each client specifically designating you as their "immigration specialist." That way there's no confusion about what relationship exists between you the client vs. any other lawyers in your firm. It's a key distinction for an immigration lawyer.
- Once you've built up enough of a reputation to be recognized, then it's worth applying for the legal specialist designation even if the State or District doesn't have specific requirements in place yet. That gives them notice about who you are and what kinds of qualifications you possess. And once they recognize that, it will probably become easier for you to meet whatever new standards may emerge later on.
- Specialties are open to both attorney-members and non-attorney members alike! So if there's no specialty that covers immigration law in your state bar association just yet, then consider looking into joining an organization like NALP (Nonprofit Association for Non-Lawyers) which has specialties for non-attorneys as well as attorneys.
- You must meet whatever standards for certification or specialty recognition that the State Bar has set out according to their own rules and guidelines. Usually, those standards are based on a combination of things such as (i) specific years of experience; (ii) minimum hours spent in CLE courses; (iii) passing an exam created by, or sponsored by, the bar itself; and/or (iv) completing a program designed specifically to test knowledge about immigration law.
- The designation may be good only within the state where you obtained it! That's right - some states don't recognize other states' specializations at all... so ask ahead of time before you spend a lot of time and money jumping through hoops.
- There's no reason you can't seek immigration law certifications from more than one bar association, even if they're in the same state! For example, California and Nevada both have organizations that certify legal specialists in immigration law, so it makes sense for a Californian to pursue certification with both of them (although Nevada requires about 25% less experience).
- Some attorneys specialize in asylum/refugee law; others focus on employment-related matters, yet others emphasize removal defense as their primary area of expertise. Check out our blog for more information about different types of immigration lawyers.
- You should never attempt to use your certification as an "insurance policy" against having your license to practice law suspended or revoked! Certifications are not something that you can be penalized for losing - they're just an indication of what kinds of cases you want to handle... so keep practicing in all areas of law.
With this information on the key considerations for some to choose the specialty of becoming an immigration lawyer, you are equipped now to make the best decisions on how you proceed forward.