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Top Lawyers: J.J. Despain of Wilner & O’Reilly On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law

An Interview With Chere Estrin

Optimism — It’s important to be optimistic as an immigration lawyer. Otherwise, you will burn out or give up far too early. A good attorney should always prepare for the worst. But a good attorney should still hope for the best. Too many immigration lawyers only remember to “prepare for the worst,” and they never learn the “hope for the best” part.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing J.J. Despain.

J.J. Despain is one of the managing attorneys for Wilner & O’Reilly, one of the largest firms in the U.S. that specializes in immigration. He runs the firm’s office in Boise, and has made Wilner & O’Reilly (or “W&O’”) synonymous with “immigration law” in the state of Idaho. J.J.’s mission is to make immigration more accessible and to reach the happy endings his clients hope for and deserve.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

My pathway to being an immigration lawyer began at age 19, when I served as a missionary in Argentina. I learned Spanish and fell in love with the culture. When my two years of missionary service ended, I wanted to keep serving the Latino people, but in a different capacity.

I also love to write, and I rose through the ranks of the Brigham Young University student newspaper and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. Journalism combined my writing ability with an ongoing discovery of how the world really works. This naturally led to an interest in law school, where I could not only see how the world works but possibly have some small influence in how the world works. The opportunities at the University of Iowa opened my eyes to various areas of the law, but it was immigration law that combined my connection to Spanish and Latino culture with my other passions and talents.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

I do anything and everything to do with immigration law. Immigration cases generally fall into one of three categories: family-based, employment-based, and removal defense. A family-based case is the most common, when a family member who is a U.S. citizen or a U.S. permanent resident petitions another family member to join him or her in this country. Employment-based cases bring immigrants to the United States to join the workforce or invest in the economy. Removal defense takes place in immigration court, and gives an immigrant who faces deportation the best possible chance of avoiding that deportation and remaining here with his or her family. Overall, my goal is to help individuals gain safety and stability with their families in the United States.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I credit any success I have to optimism, confidence, and scholarship. Immigration is always an uphill battle, but many clients and even lawyers equate that to being a losing battle as well. I’d rather not live in that gloom and doom. I give my clients hope and assurance that they can reach their goals, with me as their advocate. Or, in an especially tough case where achieving those goals may not be legally possible, I can at least get my clients closer than anyone else can.

In one case, a happily married couple came to me after the wife’s application for permanent residency was denied. Their denial was tied to her husband’s incarceration, and the year of their marriage spent living apart while he served his jail time. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) determined that, because of the year-long gap in their relationship history documentation, they did not adequately prove they were in a genuine marriage. Other attorneys would have heard the words “denial” or “incarceration” during the consultation, and without any optimism would have declared there was no more options. But I told this couple that DHS’s decision was not the end, and they did not have to accept it. With some persuasive arguments from me, I could help them try again, and show DHS that their marriage was bona fide, and that the husband’s past mistakes did not have to prevent them from being together. We submitted a thorough application, and that preparation paid off. By the time they reached their interview with another DHS officer based on this new application, the approval was a foregone conclusion. The wife is now a permanent resident and hopes to become a U.S. citizen soon.

In another case, another married couple finally reached an interview with DHS, only to receive yet another request for evidence. This time, a DHS officer inexplicably stated that the immigrant wife’s required medical exam was incomplete. The officer’s request suggested that the immigrant merely apply for a waiver of the medical exam requirement, which would require another form, another mountain of documentary evidence, and another filing fee. Another attorney would likely go along with that suggestion, and advise his or her client it’s better to comply with the government’s wishes, as unfair as they might be. But I knew this waiver was completely unnecessary. The wife had clearly completed her medical exam, and there was no reason to concede otherwise. Instead of applying for the waiver, I responded to DHS’s request by challenging the very notion of the request. The boldness and confidence were effective, and the wife was granted a green card without the needless (and expensive) waiver process.

Immigration law is overly complicated, and even years later I am still learning new points of the law and new options for my clients. That scholarship means I can see something that even another experienced immigration lawyer can miss. For example, there was a law enacted in 1994, the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act, that was last extended in 2001. Yet, this 20-year-old law still can be a huge benefit for clients who have no other path to permanent residency. This law even seems too good to be true, to the point that some attorneys dismiss it as a viable tool. But this law is the ticket to permanent residency for many of my clients. In the case of one client, she was no longer married to a man who was petitioned by his employer in 2001, and the petition itself was not even approved. Yet, she is now a permanent resident. It seems as if by magic, but more accurately, it was by knowing the law and knowing the law could work for her.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

Luck favors the prepared. I cannot claim that I am the only one responsible for my success, but I also cannot say that I gained any success by waiting for others to hand it to me.

I had a client who no longer lives in Idaho, but still trusted me to handle her case, and even paid the extra expenses for me to be with her at a DHS interview more than halfway across the country. This was case was potentially tricky, because it involved matters of marriage and divorce and sexual orientation that, while intensely personal, were also somewhat relevant to the case. An interview with a DHS officer for this case could be fraught with prejudice or invasion of privacy, and the interview also carried the added pressure of traveling all this way to represent her, and making sure she got her money’s worth. The interview, however, was smooth and drama-free. I could credit this to luck, but I know better. With the help of my staff, we put the work in at the beginning stages, with the initial application. The preparation is what paved the way for an interview that could not have gone any better.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

Going to a top-tier school may be important for certain firms, certain cities, or certain areas of the law. But in my view, a lawyer can build an impressive reputation and career even with a degree from an unknown law school. In my job interview with W&O’, I was not asked any questions about the ranking of my school, or my GPA, or my position on the Law Review. W&O’ only cared whether I was willing to work hard and to continue learning and improving.

I now give the advice to up-and-coming lawyers to find a law school that is connected to the community where they want to be, even if that school is not a top-ranked school. A school that is not in the top 100 may still have the advantage in networking, even if that advantage is only geographical. A law school whose fame does not reach beyond its own city can still make inroads into the legal community in a way that a more prestigious school cannot.

Along those same lines, I also encourage cost-effectiveness when choosing a law school. A less expensive school can be just as beneficial to starting a career as a more expensive school can — and without the burdensome debt that seemingly will never disappear.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

My twenty-year-old self would be surprised to find out I became an attorney! But he would be happy to see that I’m speaking Spanish every day, and making a name for myself while filling an important need that others cannot do for themselves. I would probably give the advice to my twenty-year-old self to focus on skills and experiences gained in school, rather than the grades or the résumé items. And I would tell him to learn how to network! Networking was a skill I didn’t even start to develop until law school. In my time studying journalism, I didn’t know how to turn my daydreams into an actual job or internship at a high-profile newspaper. But in law school, I was able to essentially talk myself into a summer internship with Catholic Charities of Central Texas, where I had my first real contact with immigration law. I wonder what would have happened if I had a head start with networking.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

My motivation has always been that, as an immigration attorney, I get to work with real people and real families. I can look back on many cases and identify the distinct influence I had, where I was the difference between an approval and a denial. Those cases are worth the stress and delays and disappointment that also come with this job.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Lately, I have been busy with the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, and how those are restricting but also creating new immigration opportunities. Many Afghan Americans are calling me to ask how I can help them bring their extended families here, away from the Taliban and other threats that await them. This is work we have only recently begun, so I don’t have much progress to report. But it is very gratifying to provide even a little hope to this population, and to show my Afghan clients they have someone on their side who is figuring this out for them.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

I want to be a bigger part of the growth of W&O’. Even though we already have a well-established reputation in Idaho, I would love to expand and add offices in other cities. In general, I want to find more opportunities to leave the office, and represent W&O’ and immigration law in community events and endeavors where I can provide immigration help to more people who need it. These events are hard to put on during a pandemic, but I hope we can return to them someday because they are a way to educate and associate with others who either need my help or know someone who does.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

One of my favorite success stories was for a young family from Peru. The wife was a U.S. citizen who petitioned her husband. Instead of an interview with a DHS officer in the United States, he was required to attend an interview at the U.S. embassy in Lima. We fully expected him to pass with flying colors and return to his family in a matter of days. However, he was unexpectedly denied. The officer brought up unfounded concerns of fraud, and in that intimidating environment, the husband admitted to the fraud, which resulted in the need for a waiver. Waivers like this commonly take up to a year to process. The unanticipated year-long separation from her husband was too much for his wife to bear — and in fact, the anxiety and depression were major contributions to a miscarriage she suffered soon after the denial. Under these circumstances, I prepared the waiver application but submitted it in an unusual way (directly to a DHS field office instead of a national processing center) and asked that it be expedited. This request was granted, and a waiver that would normally take a year to approve was approved in just two days. The husband was able to quickly return to the U.S. as a permanent resident and reunite with his wife and growing family.

I’m not sure if this is a funny story, but it may be funny relative to my other stories. I represented one woman whose eligibility for permanent residency hinged on her recollection of her entry into the United States in 1992. With facts that were almost 30 years old and without much supporting evidence, a DHS officer is likely to hunt for and exploit any possible weaknesses in her story. That was certainly true for this case. This client was called in for two interviews, which is unusual. Her account was picked apart, and the interviewing officer claimed her multiple statements were plainly inconsistent. I disagreed, and knew I could make a reasonable argument that the statements did not conflict at all. In order to make that argument, in my written brief submitted after the interviews, I literally cited an online dictionary and an online Spanish-English dictionary, to say that the words in her statements did not have conflicting definitions. I wondered if this strategy would backfire, and if citing the dictionary would come across as insulting. But the gamble was worth the effort, and this woman is now a permanent resident.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I work in an office, from 9 to 5 and for five days a week. Even though I work in an office, almost all my interaction with a client is by phone or email. In fact, thanks to this pandemic, I often don’t meet a client until the day of their hearing or interview, and the client may not even know what I look like until that moment when their case is almost complete.

Most of immigration work can be done on a computer anywhere. Because of the lessons we learned over the past year, W&O’ offers work-from-home to almost any employee who wants to take that offer. I imagine this will only become more available in the future, and the transition between office and home only more seamless.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

Almost all my work can be done on paper or online, which was true even before the pandemic. It used to be the W&O’ philosophy that starting a case and gaining a client was reliant on a face-to-face connection and a handshake. We used to charge extra for consultations over the phone that couldn’t be done in person. Now, we know that the convenience and safety of a phone call or Zoom call are valued more. Our policy is reversed, where we now discourage in-person appointments if possible. The added convenience and safety, coupled with the confidence and optimism I mentioned earlier, will win over potential clients even over long distances.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

The best way to get more cases is to do an excellent job with the case you have now. When I connect with a client and help him or her reach a happy ending, that client then recommends me to all their friends and family. Before long, I become the go-to source for the local Nicaraguan population or Afghan population or Congolese population. These groups based on similar nationalities or ethnicities are tight-knit, and if I make a good impression on one member, then before long I have another source of future work.

Similarly, W&O’ relies heavily on online reviews, especially Google. Think about it: if you needed to look for an immigration lawyer, and did not already know somebody, Google is the first place you would turn to, isn’t it? You’re not alone. Fortunately, because of the good reviews from our clients, for anyone who Googles “immigration lawyer Boise” or “immigration lawyer Idaho,” we are far-and-away the top result, both in quantity and quality. That only compounds as time goes on.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

The nature of my practice means working with people who might not be familiar with information or technology that we regularly see in an office, like spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations. But, everyone is familiar with social media. In fact, we often meet with clients who claim they don’t even have an email address, yet they do use WhatsApp or Facebook.

Having a presence on social media can help potential clients see me and W&O’ not as a faceless firm, but as a team who does good work and cares about them. I post videos where I discuss the latest in immigration news, or photos of me next to a client at her U.S. citizenship ceremony, or even photos of office activities like our annual Christmas party. This shows we are regular people, but we also work hard and work well.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Optimism — It’s important to be optimistic as an immigration lawyer. Otherwise, you will burn out or give up far too early. A good attorney should always prepare for the worst. But a good attorney should still hope for the best. Too many immigration lawyers only remember to “prepare for the worst,” and they never learn the “hope for the best” part.

I remember a rule change in February 2020 that was bemoaned by most immigration attorneys I know. They repeated the common refrain that the whole system is against us and always will be. While I understand that sentiment, I don’t like to dwell on it. For one, I don’t want my complaints to be noticed by my clients. How would a client feel knowing his own attorney doesn’t have faith in his or her case? I would rather a client feel assured that, no matter what comes down from the powers that be, I won’t give up and can still get his or her case to a favorable decision. In terms of this rule change, I explained to clients, “This rule means we will have to add a lot more evidence to your case and we will have to work harder than we thought. But that doesn’t mean you won’t win your case, and we will make this as easy for you as we can.” And that is what we did. We were getting approvals just as often as before, and I didn’t let the system become an obstacle or an excuse.

2. Confidence — I have been in many situations when I am unfamiliar with what is going on, but I learn as I go. A good attorney will not shy away but will thrive when thrown into the deep end (as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the client). This doesn’t mean going it alone, or ignoring the advice or input from others. But it does mean making things happen instead of waiting for someone else to make them happen.

The first time I ever appeared in immigration court, I did not know it was going to happen until the night before, and I had about 18 hours to prepare. Another attorney had a scheduling conflict and needed me to fill in for him. I paid attention as this attorney brought me up to speed. And I did not let on to the client or the judge that it was my first time in court. It was a routine hearing, and all I needed to accomplish was to get another hearing scheduled on the calendar. But I was poised, in telling the judge what we wanted and in teaching the client what the hearing meant for his case.

3. Scholarship — Immigration law has largely been the same for decades, yet it is anything but stagnant. Rule changes or policy changes are announced every week, and it is important for an immigration lawyer to translate those rules or policies into their clients’ real-life situations. Even miniscule rule updates can affect a case, and an attorney who gets out ahead of them, and doesn’t fall behind, can really stand out among other immigration lawyers.

To me, scholarship does not only mean understanding the law, but also interpreting it and explaining it to a client. It takes practice to find the right balance of what a client needs or doesn’t need to know, and I don’t want to drown my clients in sections of the Code of Federal Regulations or decisions by the Board of Immigration Appeals. But an attorney who can also be a teacher, and explain to his or her client what is happening with a case, why it is happening, and why it is a benefit, adds huge value.

Whenever I have a client who comes to me after being disappointed with a previous attorney, the number one complaint I hear is “the other attorney never told me what was going on.” An attorney can’t just tell a client that everything is fine with his or her case and hang up the phone. We must show that we know what we’re doing. We must be able to explain where we’ve come and what we expect to happen next. Otherwise, the client is just guessing, and even worse, thinks we are only just guessing too.

4. Empathy — Immigration is a high priority and a sensitive subject. It may not always be a matter of life and death, but it may be the next most important thing, if it determines whether a family gets to stay together or not. (And in the case of some asylum or refugee cases, it very well could be a matter of life and death.) It can be a lot of pressure on an attorney. It’s important to not internalize these cases or take them personally. But it’s more important to not be too desensitized, and to remember that these are real human beings who we get to help.

I remember a case early in my career for a client whose father suddenly died in Mexico. Usually, with the type of case she had, she would jeopardize her case if she were to leave the United States. But I helped her expedite a travel permit. I sent her a message the day after the permit was approved, to confirm that she picked up her permit without any trouble. She responded by saying she had, and that she was now at the airport waiting for her flight to Mexico. She was grateful that, even though this was an incredibly sad time for her and her family, I took one thing off her mind, and made her immigration case one less thing to worry about.

5. Say “yes” (even if you’re not sure why) — My work has taken me to a lot of places I didn’t expect to go. If I decline opportunities and let them go elsewhere, I miss out on learning new aspects of immigration law or on meeting new kinds of people. And that just sounds boring to me.

I was at an event where I met a man who was very interested in what I do, but said he didn’t have a case. I didn’t think I would hear from him again. But he kept my business card, and he followed up with me after that event, and asked to meet with me in my office. I said “yes,” not sure what the meeting would produce. But preparing for that meeting was when I learned this man is a staff sergeant in the Idaho Army National Guard. He invited me to join him and other members of the IANG in recruitment presentations throughout Idaho. A recruiter would give all the points of why joining the National Guard was a good idea, and I would spend a few minutes on the available immigration benefits to recruits and their families. This arrangement was mutually beneficial, because I could emphasize a selling point for the National Guard, and also spread the word about a little-known immigration benefit for military families in communities beyond Boise. It was also a way to pay tribute to veterans and military members I respect, and W&O’ is very involved with veterans’ charities. This amazing opportunity was not something I was actively seeking, but it came because of being in the right place, at the right time, and making the most of it.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I would jump at the chance to discuss immigration with an international athlete or a team or league of international athletes. I have been able to help a few talented athletes to turn their skills and careers into visas, and later green cards, and later citizenship. But I would love to represent more athletes and become more involved with sports through my practice. W&O’ has a storied history with many athletes (especially from the world of mixed martial arts). I would love to make my own stamp in another sport or two.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the interviewer: Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a top national and international staffing organization and MediSums, medical records summarizing. She is the Co-Founding Member and Vice-President of the Organization Legal Professionals providing online legal technology training. Chere has written 10 books on legal careers, hundreds of articles and has been written up in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, Entrepreneur, Above the Law and others. Chere is a recipient of the Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Award, a finalist for the Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year award and a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient She is a former administrator at an AmLaw 100 firm and Sr. Vice President in a $5 billion company. Reach out at: chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.

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