Are you eager to find a legal career that gives you the chance to make a meaningful difference every day? You may want to consider immigration law. This critical field supports those who cross borders in pursuit of a better life, whether to chase their professional dreams, reunite with family, or escape conflict and persecution.
With their vast knowledge, immigration lawyers help clients navigate a highly complex immigration system—from obtaining work visas and study permits to making refugee and asylum claims. If your interest is piqued, read on as we explain how to become an immigration lawyer.
What is an immigration lawyer
An immigration lawyer helps clients understand the rules and regulations governing who can enter a country—and how long they can stay. From individual refugees and families to large corporations, they provide legal advice and support in obtaining visas, permits, citizenship, and more.
Why do people become immigration lawyers?
Aspiring lawyers are attracted to the field immigration law for plenty of reasons. Many are driven by the prospect of making a real difference in someone’s life by helping them escape violence or reunite with family members. Some are also inspired to become an immigration lawyer as a result of their own personal experience in immigrating to a new country.
Others are drawn to the diversity inherent in the field. This highly rewarding career allows them to use a broad range of skill sets, find work across many settings, and support people from around the world.
What does an immigration lawyer do?
Immigration lawyers guide clients on all legal issues related to immigration. Among their daily responsibilities, they advise on immigration laws and regulations, represent clients in court proceedings, research statutes and cases, prepare applications and fight appeals, and draft motions and other legal paperwork.
Steps to become an immigration lawyer
Here’s a brief look at the path you can expect to embark on after high school to become an immigration lawyer.
1. Get your bachelors’ degree
Like all legal fields, the first step in your legal education journey is to obtain your bachelor’s degree. While there aren’t any specific degree requirements, it’s a good rule of thumb to focus on areas that relate to law.
With that in mind, popular majors include:
- Political science
- Social sciences
- International relations.
Coursework in these areas equip students with knowledge and skills that are important to have as future immigration lawyers, including research and writing, critical thinking, and problem solving.
It’s also worth thinking about studying another language, as immigration lawyers often work with clients from other countries.
As you reach the end of your degree and determine that law school is right for you, you’ll need to take and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This standardized test measures your reading comprehension, reasoning, and writing through two components: multiple choice questions and a written essay.
2. Earn your law degree and pass the bar
Now that you’ve completed your undergraduate degree, your next step is to enter a three-year Juris Doctor (JD) degree at one of the nearly 200 ABA-accredited law schools. If they are offered, it’s wise to take courses that cover immigration law and policy, such as:
- International human rights
- Refugee law
- Employment law
In order to practice law, you must be admitted to the bar and pass the two-day bar examination. The format varies from state to state, and is designed to test a range of legal knowledge and skills.
Bar exams tend to be comprehensive, difficult, and a test of endurance, so it’s a good idea to study hard and take a bar preparation course.
3. Gain hands-on experience in the field
One benefit to being an immigration lawyer is that you have your choice of a wide array of settings to work in. If you’re not sure where to start, a great way to understand the field is to gain hands-on experience. Internships, clinics, and volunteer and pro bono work can all provide a peek into the inner workings of immigration law. Not only can this help determine the best fit for you, it also sets you apart in the eyes of employers.
If you’re interested in a government agency, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are both worth exploring. Or, you may opt to volunteer with a non-profit that offers immigration law services. Many also choose to gain experience in a law firm that specializes in immigration.
4. Strengthen your knowledge
If you’ve determined that immigration law is the career for you, you may want to continue your educational journey. Several universities across the country offer certificates in immigration law—including UC Davis School of Law and Cornell Law School. Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law also offers a Master of Laws (LLM) in immigration and naturalization law.
Beyond this, ongoing professional development is also key for immigration lawyers. There is no shortage of certifications and Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses to help you keep track of the latest changes in the legal industry. Many state bar associations also require that lawyers complete CLE hours to maintain their license to practice law. Clio offers a host of thought-provoking CLE-webinars and events, as does the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
5. Connect with potential clients
After obtaining your law degree and passing the bar, you’ve reached the final step in launching your career. Whether you’ve decided to be a solo practitioner or join a firm or government agency, you’ll need to find clients. Professional organizations, like AILA, can be valuable, especially as they host conferences and events that bring together lawyers and potential clients.
As your hard work pays off and you take on more cases, you’ll quickly find that technologies can make your life significantly easier. Clio Grow, for example, helps immigration lawyers simplify the intake process through customized forms and the ability to easily onboard clients from anywhere.
Interested in learning more about how to become a lawyer in a specialized area? Be sure to read our hub for more resources.
Skills to become an immigration lawyer
There are several core skills that are required to be an immigration lawyer. These include:
- Communication. Immigration lawyers are required to articulate complex laws to clients of diverse backgrounds, make persuasive arguments in courtrooms, and write clearly and effectively when drafting legal paperwork.
- Research. The immigration landscape is constantly evolving. Immigration lawyers must have strong research skills and be aware of the latest developments in laws and policies.
- Problem solving. Immigration lawyers need to be able to uncover creative solutions to their clients’ complex immigration challenges.
- Empathy. Many immigration lawyers work with clients who have been through stressful and traumatic experiences, such as being separated from their children or escaping violence. The ability to communicate with compassion and practice empathy is vital.
- Technology. Modern law offices harness innovative legal technologies to work smarter. Prospective lawyers should come to roles with technological experience, both to be prepared and to stand apart from competition. Solutions, like Clio, help immigration lawyers schedule automated client communications, easily share immigration documents, and stay on track of deadlines. Check out our post on How Lawyers Use Technology to learn more about the most common ways attorneys use legal software to serve their clients and make the most informed business decisions for their firms.
How much does an immigration lawyer make?
According to PayScale, the average base salary for an immigration attorney is $72,097. Of course, this fluctuates based on where you work and how much experience you have. The employment of all lawyers is expected to grow 10 per cent between 2021 and 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For example, roles in non-profit organizations and government agencies may pay less than those at large law firms or multinational corporations.
Final notes on becoming an immigration lawyer
Although it takes years to become an immigration lawyer, it’s a highly fulfilling career. By helping navigate a complex immigration system, immigration lawyers can have a transformative impact on their clients’ lives.
Whether helping clients through visa applications or fighting deportations, immigration lawyers need to ensure they have the right documents, forms, and details—and that everything is accurate. An immigration law case management software helps keep track of all the details so they can focus on counseling clients through the complex immigration journeys.
Looking to set yourself up for success in your academic pursuits (and future career)? This program helps participants get hands-on experience in different areas of case management—and offers law and paralegal students, instructors, and legal clinics free access to Clio’s industry-leading legal practice management and client intake software. Be sure to check out our CAAP for more information.