Top Lawyers: Tahmina Watson of Watson Immigration Law On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law
An Interview With Chere Estrin
Dedication to the practice of law: Being a lawyer is about being dedicated to the practice of law. Whether you work at Big Law or your own solo firm, your hours are likely long and tiring. While many might think about the financial rewards, I suggest thinking about the impact of your work as your goal. Financial success will follow.
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 Tahmina Watson. Tahmina is the founder of Watson Immigration Law. She is a Business Insider listed top US immigration attorney as well as a Women of Influence honoree by the Puget Sound Business Journal. She is also the author of two books, Legal Heroes in the Trump Era and The Startup Visa, columnist for Above the Law and contributor to Entrepreneur Magazine. She’s the host of the popular podcast Tahmina Talks Immigration, launching her second one The Startup Visa Podcast. Cofounder of Airport Lawyers, founder of the Washington Immigrant Defense Network, WIDEN, Chair of the Response Committee for the Washington Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Tahmina regularly appears in the media as a commentator. She’s been quoted, published, and featured in various media including Forbes, Bloomberg, Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, CNN, and NPR.
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”?
I always wanted to be an attorney. I was born and raised in London, England, where my father was also a lawyer. I remember going to court with him, walking around the beautiful grounds of Middle and Inner Temple, and just being in awe of the important work that appeared to be going on behind the walls. I also wanted one of those wigs and gowns that barristers (trial attorneys) wore in court. While the path was not simple, I eventually did become a barrister and practiced law in London, U.K. for about two years. It was during this time that I met my husband and moved to the United States, where I had to requalify to practice law. I am licensed to practice in both New York and Washington.
I was initially resistant to going into immigration law as I had a limited view of its scope, thinking it was only about asylum law. While I was interested in humanitarian laws, I didn’t want it to be the only thing I did. However, the universe had other plans for me. Immigration law allows me to work on human rights issues as well as with people from every walk of life and every profession. I am inspired every day by my clients’ stories and moved by their amazing ideas. They are people who want simply to be able to come to the U.S. to fulfill their American dreams. I have the privilege of helping them realize those dreams. After 16 years, I can’t imagine a more satisfying course of practice.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My firm specializes in business immigration law, with a focus on supporting startups, entrepreneurs, investors, employee transfers, and business expansions to the U.S. This involves helping clients with strategic guidance on best visa options, with short- and long-term goals. I file temporary employment-based visas such as H-1B, L-1, O-1, E-2s, and others. I also help clients file green card applications in all categories. Our clients come from all backgrounds, countries, and all industries. We love to see our clients grow from startup to being acquired or going IPO! We believe our clients’ successes are our success.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?
The journey to becoming an outstanding lawyer, to create a brand, make a name for yourself requires continuous and sustained hard work and dedication. The top three-character traits for me were the following:
1. Patience: You need patience to stay the course to becoming a lawyer, especially when you see your friends, fresh out of undergrad, starting jobs with enviable salaries. I think at that point it helps to set a goal for yourself, to envision yourself as the lawyer you hope one day to become — capable, competent, and ready to make an impact in the world. It’s important to continue studying at law school, studying for the bar exams, gaining work experience, and setting up your practice, whether with a firm or on your own, none of which are easy or quick.
2. Dedication to the practice of law: Learning the craft of lawyering is crucial. The skills you acquire in one area of law can be used in another. Early on in my practice, I dedicated an incredible amount of time to pro bono work. Taking on cases for free allowed me to learn how to apply the law to facts and vice versa; how to interact effectively with clients and how to hold myself as a pillar of strength to people in sensitive situations. While in London, on my path to becoming a barrister, I wrote briefs and memos for parents who needed extra educational assistance for their children. I felt the anxiety and determination of parents who were fighting for the best education for their children. As a seasoned attorney, I still today empathize in that way with my clients, to feel their anxiety, their fear, their concerns and use those as motivation to do the best job for them that I can.
3. Consistent hard work: There’s no substitute to working hard and there’s no instant claim to fame. You have to treat every case as if it is your final examination and you must zealously represent your client throughout the process. The practice of law is not a 9–5 job, and you have to adjust your mindset to that lifestyle.
One of the reasons I connect so well with my startup clients is that I run a business, too. Understanding the dynamics of operating a business helps me relate more directly to them. It also helps me to better and more simply explain what evidence I need to represent their case to the Department of Homeland Security.
What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Some of the qualities that make me stand out are compassion, creativity, consistency, persistence, and determination. I’ve maintained a blog since 2008. That’s thirteen years! I’ve not counted the years until now. But that kind of consistency takes effort and time and is noticeable.
Examples of my compassion include the non-profit organization I helped create in 2018 so that non-immigration lawyers can receive immigration training. At the time, it was to help parents and children separated at the U.S. Southern border. Now we are helping at-risk Afghan nationals. I also co-founded the project, Airport Lawyer, so lawyers could assist passengers who were detained at airports around the country during the 2017 travel bans. Additionally, I have helped create novel legal clinics to ensure vulnerable people can seek pro bono legal advice.
When it comes to my clients, I honestly care deeply about each one, often going the extra mile to ensure they receive the best representation I can give them. Many of our clients will never know how much sleep we lose over their cases when a new issue pops up that could bring an end to their dreams. We research the issues, find an answer and then tell the clients about the problem along with the solution.
Examples of my creativity and persistence include starting and maintaining a podcast for over six years and launching a second podcast in 2022. I’ve authored two books and published them as audiobooks as well, doing the narration myself. Last year alone, I published about thirty articles in various publications.
Finally, determination. For me personally, that means taking an idea to the finish line, overcoming whatever obstacles arise. When it comes to my clients, it means lawyering until there are no stones left unturned. Sometimes, the client doesn’t understand the problem; other times, the presentation of the case needs very strategic approaches. An example includes one of my early citizenship cases in which the client had spent too much time outside the country. As a green card holder, spending more than fifty percent of the year outside of the country can make you ineligible for citizenship. We studied the law, created charts and diagrams to prove the client met the requirements that allowed them to eventually acquire U.S. citizenship.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I think sometimes clients bring their own luck to a case. As an immigration lawyer, I do the best I can with every single case I take on, but how the government will handle it is well out of my control. I once filed almost identical marriage-based green card applications for two different sets of clients, who, incidentally, were from the same country. We did pretty much the same thing in both cases. However, one couple received their green card a full year ahead of the other. There was no logical reason to explain why, and I concluded it must have been that couple’s good luck.
When it comes to my own luck, I’m not sure I’m a believer. I subscribe to that old adage of preparation meeting opportunity. I’ve worked hard over the last 16 years to build a practice that is well respected and that I am proud of. At the same time, I’ve written several books and created solutions to serve immigrants in need. Was some of the success I’ve had based on pure luck, happenstance? Maybe. But given the seriousness of the cases I handle, I’m certainly not going to depend simply on luck. Keep working hard at what you want, and someday you will appear to be lucky!
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?
Ultimately, your hard work and skills will set you apart, regardless of where you obtained an education. Sure, a top-tier school can open doors and help you establish and broaden networks. But unless you put in the work, unless you’re willing to work the long hours and keep your skills sharp, that alone won’t guarantee you success as a practicing lawyer. Attending a top-tier school might be evidence of academic intelligence, but not always emotional intelligence. Being able to connect and communicate with people is an essential part of this job. Your ability to understand the needs of your client, recognize their goals, and properly apply the law to their case, will, at the end of the day, determine your success.
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?
To my younger self, I would say stop comparing yourself to others; instead, keep your mind sharp, focus on what’s important, and blaze your own trail. When you start believing in yourself, you exude confidence and the world will start to believe in you, too. Of course, that is so much easier said than done.
As a young woman, I harbored self-doubt; I wanted to be liked by everyone. You go to law school with a notion of what you want to practice only to find that the practice of that particular area of law is not quite what you envisioned. So, understanding your own passion is important rather than chasing the areas of law that might sound prestigious or trendy. All areas of the law are important. Live the values you believe in, and success will follow.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
Recently, my mother shared with me that I used to play lawyer-client with her as a child. I was the lawyer; she was the client. She told me that I really wanted to help people as a lawyer. As an adult, that innate desire to help people has only grown stronger. And I have found an area of law that I am good at and where I can make a difference in people’s lives. I’m driven by the fact that my work can help individuals, families, and businesses in a meaningful and profound way. And I believe the ripple effect of this work can help make the world a better place.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have three exciting projects! I recently finished writing the second edition of my book, The Startup Visa. It advocates for a new visa category for international entrepreneurs. Our current U.S. immigration system is simply inadequate in addressing the need for such visas. This book has inspired me to launch my second podcast, The Startup Visa Podcast, which will help emerging and mature businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs navigating the complexities of U.S. immigration law. I love that my book has created a spin-off podcast!
The second project involves working closely with the Washington chapter of the Council on American and Islamic Relations (CAIRWA), as it works to get a novel legal clinic off the ground. The model is inspired by the non-profit (WIDEN), which I founded in 2018. The legal clinic will help at-risk Afghan nationals with U.S. immigration applications. In collaboration with CAIRWA, I have helped train over 1,000 lawyers from around the country. The project will need continued help and I feel privileged to be part of such an impactful effort.
And lastly, I have become an avid bird and nature photographer. This has also led to becoming a bird sketch artist too! I had no idea I had such hidden talent! I hope to continue this new passion and bring joy to people.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
The expertise I have gained as a lawyer, generally and an immigration lawyer more specifically, combined with the passion I have for taking action make me well suited to be part of the change I think we need in this country. I want to continue reaching out to and collaborating with the Biden administration as well as U.S. lawmakers to bring reform and policy changes to the broken immigration systems so that we can better serve individuals, businesses, or the economy.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
One of my most rewarding cases to date is one that involved a client who was alleged to have falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen. That is the worst ‘crime’ a person can commit under U.S. immigration laws. He was facing deportation and ultimately physical separation from his U.S. citizen wife and his two adorable daughters. It was a complex case that lasted over several years, full of twists and turns. In the end, I was able to successfully prove that he had not made the claim, but it took a lot of legal research, sleepless nights, and drafting briefs. I learned a lot about American history, including the difference between an American citizen and an American national. The words of a colleague from that time still echo in my ears: “fight to the end to ensure your client’s family remains together.” So much about what we do in immigration law is to ensure that families stay together. Now, as the mother of two girls myself, I feel privileged to have kept that family together in the U.S. I am grateful to be able to say that they lived ‘happily ever after’- at least from an immigration perspective!
Immigration law does not necessarily lend itself to humor. But there are often moments of humorous relief. As part of the process for marriage-based green card cases, a couple must prove to an immigration officer, at a formal interview, that their relationship is real. Think about the movies “Green Card” or “The Proposal.” In one such case, my clients almost broke out in a squabble in front of the officer. The husband could not remember the date he met his wife; that, as you might imagine, did not make the wife happy. Seeing their ‘fight,’ the officer laughed and approved the case. He later told us: “my wife would have strangled me too!”
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?
COVID-19 compelled our team to transition to hybrid work. It was hard to make the shift to remote work, but I do not think we will ever go back to being at the office full-time. Hybrid works well for us. There are challenges because U.S. immigration applications require mostly paper filings, so we do need to be at the office to copy and scan documents, and physically ship them via FedEx. That said, working remotely has allowed me to accomplish far more tasks each day than I could if I were regularly in the office. With the prolific use of teleconferencing now at a global scale, I’ve met with clients from all over the world, via Zoom. I have presented at national and international events without leaving my desk. And I have met people from all backgrounds and interests whom I wouldn’t have been able to meet before. While I do miss seeing people in person, I feel like I’ve been able to maximize my productivity and effectiveness this way.
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?
From a U.S. immigration law perspective, things have become significantly more complicated and delayed. Embassies around the world closed and as a result the backlog of immigration cases is practically impenetrable. Cases are taking three to four times longer than they normally would. So, procedurally, everything is challenging.
Substantively, the pandemic further exposed how broken the immigration laws and systems are. For example, the labor shortage America faces at the moment could be answered in part by making changes to immigration laws. Though Congress is discussing some immigration provisions as part of the reconciliation package, it’s hard to know whether that will survive. Immigration reform is a necessity at this point, and I hope we can see some changes in 2022.
Additionally, COVID-19 created unprecedented legal challenges to immigration, requiring extra research, creativity, extra communication with clients and a lot of advocacy. We saw legal challenges for people who couldn’t come back to or leave the U.S., each scenario causing nuanced legal and unseen challenges. These are ongoing. I would love to update you on these challenges in a year’s time!
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?
It is very much true and just as important today. The best way of building a book of business is to be trusted by your peers and community. For example, I work with a lot of startups where the international founders need work visas in the U.S. More often than not, I have to work closely with a corporate lawyer regarding the structure of the entity which will have an impact on the visa application. The relationship with the corporate lawyer often goes both ways — they ask me to help with their clients and vice versa. It is quite fun solving complex problems together! Immigration law intersects with family law, criminal law, tax law and so much more. Networking with experts in these fields is good for you and your clients.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
There’s so much that can be done on social media to expand your network and contacts and build your brand. I see many lawyers share their success stories online, which only serves to further extend their credibility. I personally share information about what’s happening on the ground through my biweekly column in Above the Law, or my articles in Entrepreneur magazine, or on my blog. All these items get reshared or retweeted. It is important to be consistent in your efforts.
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. Dedication to the practice of law: Being a lawyer is about being dedicated to the practice of law. Whether you work at Big Law or your own solo firm, your hours are likely long and tiring. While many might think about the financial rewards, I suggest thinking about the impact of your work as your goal. Financial success will follow.
2. Knowing your craft: You must know your area of law well. Your expertise will be evident when you can solve an unexpected legal problem in a seemingly simple case. As is true with all areas of law, policies that affect immigration cases are constantly changing. And if you do not keep pace with the changing landscape, you cannot be an effective lawyer in this area.
3. Passion for the law and clients: The long and stressful hours of work can only be sustained if you are passionate about the law and what it does for your clients. In the field of immigration law, most lawyers are passionate because we see the direct impact on our clients. Without that kind of gratification in our work, our work life would be less fulfilling.
4. Empathy for people in general: In order to connect with the people who seek our help, to comprehend the angst or fear or despair they are facing, we must be able to empathize with them. In immigration law, whether a person is facing violation of their human rights, or they are genius startup founders, they need to feel that we understand and care about them, their problems, and their goals.
5. Leadership in business, law, and community: Lawyers are seen as leaders because of the education and position we hold in society. It is important for us to uphold those values. In the last few years particularly, we saw lawyers stand up to uphold the rule of law, show up at airports around the country during the travel bans, donate thousands of hours in pro bono work when parents and children were separated, and so much more. You can read more about such lawyers in my book, Legal Heroes in the Trump Era.
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. :-)
It is so hard to name just one person! I will name two, just in case they read this!
I would be honored and thrilled to have a private breakfast or lunch with Hillary Clinton. She is the ultimate lawyer-mother who has charted an unprecedented path. I am inspired by her legal background, her public interest legal work, her leadership in the world, and her work in trying to make better laws and policies.
I would also love to do the same with Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsico! Several years ago, just as my babies were entering the world and my law firm was getting busier, I watched an interview where she shared some insights into how she juggled work and family. I was so inspired by her sharing her juggling act and have been a fan ever since.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!