The 2019 AILA Annual Conference, which took place in Orlando, Florida this year, was a whirlwind of all things immigration. From informative panels on immigration law and policy to dozens of technology vendors focused on case management, compliance and analytics, there was something new and interesting around every corner.
And while the legal sessions were truly for everyone, I noticed that most of the practice management sessions were somewhat geared toward immigration attorneys at law firms.
I didn’t question this at first. That is, until I went to one session that took me completely by surprise.
It was an intimate roundtable discussion tucked away in a small conference room. But instead of law firm attorneys, this session was mostly in-house immigration attorneys, many of whom sat within their companies’ HR and Legal departments.
We were a fairly small group, with in-house attorneys from tech companies, healthcare networks, financial service providers and universities. There was one law firm attorney who said she wanted to transition in-house, and was there to learn more about it and network. And then there was me - one of the few immigration tech startups geared toward helping in-house immigration professionals automate their processes.
And after going around the rectangular conference room table and introducing ourselves, the conversations turned into a discussion about what everyone wanted to get out of this meeting, and the AILA conference in general. This was the part that surprised me.
What in-house immigration departments desperately need
I realized that there was one fundamental problem a lot of these in-house attorneys were having: there aren’t any industry-wide resources or best practices for upstart in-house immigration departments.
Some of the attendees had recently started in-house while others had been there for years, but many of them explained that when they first started, they were hired to create an immigration department. In other words, they were the only people in the company focused on immigration. They had left law firms where they had support staff, set budgets and established guidelines based around the immigration process, and came into organizations that needed immigration help but no infrastructure for it.
So here were the top three takeaways I noted that in-house immigration attorneys need:
- a set of template documents including immigration law FAQs, email and memo templates, timeline policies, and other sample internal documentation,
- guidance on internal processes, including how to set internal counsel fees vs. external counsel fees, how to properly establish communication channels with outside counsel and how to properly educate affected employees and upper management on these policies, and
- guidance on what technology can be used in-house to avoid inefficient and manual work.
My recommendation to HR and immigration associations
Here's my recommendation to all the HR, immigration and other organizations or societies that provide support and value to in-house immigration teams: an out-of-the-box immigration department toolkit. Policy and other in-house documents would be provided as templates, to be tailored to each individual company’s internal policies, put on internal letterhead, etc. Guidance on internal policies could come in the firm of suggested fee structures best practices on internal communications, etc. And as far as technology, a list of useful apps to help automate everything from case management to scheduling meetings, sorting through emails and so on. Basically, the administrative work that in-house immigration professionals shouldn't have to spend their time on.
For example, I left my career as an immigration attorney to build a technology solution that automates LCA posting and PAF management. I realized that this important compliance process that's part-and-parcel of every H-1B, H-1B1 and E-3 visa can be incredibly confusing and time-consuming, especially for companies that hire a large number of foreign nationals but their immigration team relatively small.
After a lengthy roundtable discussion, we organically broke out into smaller groups. People approached one another to offer potential insight, ask a follow-up question, or simply commiserate. It was an incredibly friendly environment, and showed the true camaraderie between AILA members new and old.
But the message was clear. Yes we were all in Orlando to get the latest on immigration law, catch up with old colleagues and network with new ones. But we were also there to share our experiences with one another, get advice from the collective body of immigration experts, and propose ways to make the practice better and more efficient.
This engaging session was a great first step. Now let’s see who takes the next one.