America is a country built on immigration. From the first European settlers who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 to the undocumented South American migrants who make the treacherous journey to reach American soil. Immigration has been a central part of the fabric of America.
Today immigration and immigration reform are still hot button topics in the U.S.
People from around the world still look to America as a source of refuge. But indeed, anti-immigration rhetoric has been on the rise, and many immigrants find themselves in vulnerable positions or at risk, especially when it comes to navigating the often confusing legal system.
One daughter of immigrants decided to do something about that by starting her own immigration law firm. Jeanelle Fernandes is a graduate of Florida International University, where she graduated with a Doctor of Law J.D. in 2016.
Born in sunny South Florida to Jamaican and Trinidadian parents, Jeanelle grew up with a unique appreciation for the struggle many immigrants face on a daily basis. Indeed it’s not easy to leave behind an entire life, a home, family, and friends to start a new life in a foreign country.
Immigrants are a unique demographic of people who have an entire established existence in another country, but who then become one of the most vulnerable populations once they arrive in the United States.
But while most career lawyers are comfortable with the perks and benefits of working at an established immigration law firm, Jeanelle decided to take a completely different path.
In 2019 she left the comfort and stability of her job to start her own immigration law firm and she hasn’t looked back since.
Her practice focuses on helping immigrants who need help completing their visa or green card application process through an employment offer, their own business, or a family sponsor. As well as preparing cases to answering requests from immigration agencies, Jeanelle also handles submitting the cases and representing clients at the USCIS interview.
Immigrants can get taken advantage of by so many people, including significant others, employers, criminals, and even those posing as lawyers. It’s important that they have someone they can trust to go to for help. They are my inspiration.
How to start an immigration law firm
Starting an immigration law firm is by no means an easy task. As someone trained as a lawyer, you become well versed in the law and the justice system. You know how to research, present cases, and represent clients who need legal representation, but law school doesn’t necessarily train you on how to run a business.
Being a lawyer and going to law school doesn’t prepare you to be a business person, it prepares you to do law. Owning a business and being entrepreneurial is something you have to learn from the ground up, and there are ethical rules that surround the business of a law firm that you must make sure to follow as well.
When just starting a law firm, you are required to wear multiple hats, that of business owner and, of course, lawyer. You have to not only represent clients, but you have to find clients to represent.
The dual challenge can make it tough when just starting out, but it’s important to strike a balance and prioritize how you spend your time.
In most cases, it’s a good idea to delegate a few of the more manual and repetitive tasks to a virtual assistant or online marketing coordinator. This frees up your time to focus on the more important tasks that require your specialized skills.
Services like Fiverr provide an easy and convenient way to source virtual assistants, social media coordinators, graphic designers, as well as almost any online task you can think of. The rates are usually competitive, and you can actually see reviews and work samples before hiring.
How to market a law firm
In the case of most businesses, marketing and promoting your business are critical to its success. But marketing and promoting a law firm, especially an immigration law firm, has its share of unique challenges.
Advertising and promoting yourself to your target demographic is a huge focus, especially with immigrants, because they don’t know who they can trust. Immigration is fueled by word of mouth recommendations.
Along with creating a large network through community involvement and networking, Jeanelle has utilized more traditional marketing methods such as social media, creating FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to connect with her audience. She also tested Facebook and Instagram advertising.
But one thing that’s essential for professional service businesses like a law firm is maintaining a strong presence on the web through a well-designed website. For a law firm, a website is usually one of the first places customers go to learn more about the business. So making sure it is easy to navigate and well designed helps to build client trust and confidence.
In the past, creating a website meant potentially spending thousands of dollars on a professional web designer. These days with a little extra effort and research, it’s fairly simple to create a website for your law firm.
Website builders like Wix have pre-built templates and feature drag and drop modules to get your website up and running easily.
Jeanelle utilizes a WordPress website, which involves a learning curve but is still a great option, especially if you want to have more control over your website. It’s free to use WordPress.org, but you do need to purchase a domain name and pay for hosting.
Blogging is another way Jeanelle promotes her business. It gives her an opportunity to showcase her thought leadership in her area of expertise — immigration law — while providing much-needed information and advice to the immigrant community.
Avvo.com is an online marketplace for legal services, that provides lawyer referrals and access to a database of legal information consisting primarily of previously answered questions. Lawyer profiles may include client reviews, disciplinary actions, peer endorsements, and lawyer-submitted legal guides.
Only attorneys can have an AVVO profile. So anyone considering hiring someone who claims they’re an attorney, but doesn’t have an AVVO, it might be a red flag. AVVO ratings come from former clients and colleagues and are very difficult to have removed, so they’re generally a great resource when looking for a lawyer in any area of practice.
I have used personal marketing as well as online marketing methods. Facebook advertising, Google ads, advertising with churches in the area, Yelp ads, and AVVO ads for marketing.
How to get your first client
Many business owners struggle with getting clients, but the first one is usually the hardest. The process of getting clients involves a lot of hard work, but most of all, persistence.
In a specialized field like immigration law, it is important to network and to be a walking billboard for your business. Don’t hesitate to tell people about what you are doing and find opportunities to showcase your value and your skills.
When Jeanelle just started, it was tough for her to get clients.
I felt pretty defeated before getting my first client because I’m usually very productive and went from a firm where I always had something to do each day for 30 plus clients to not having one client or work to do for a client.
But what kept her going was the support from her friends and family who believed in her mission to uplift others through her skills as a lawyer. They provided encouragement to keep going.
“Everyone I spoke to kept telling me to hang in there and that it would pick up eventually, so I ignored my feelings of defeat and depression and kept advertising and speaking to people.”
Even if you don’t have friends or family to look to for encouragement, it’s important to make sure you truly believe in your mission and purpose. Keep the passion alive and keep promoting your business. Eventually, someone will see your value.
As Jeanelle shares, she “had a lot of consultations but hadn’t had a signed retainer agreement, and it made me question myself, but when I got my first client, the feeling was of relief washing over me. I felt like ‘ok, I can do this, and I didn’t start this firm for nothing.’ I was so happy to be focusing on the lawyer side again and not just the business side. But, mostly, I was happy that someone believed in my work.”
For other lawyers looking to make the entrepreneurial leap, it’s important to plan ahead, define your value proposition, or your why and to keep promoting your business. Jeanelle has learnt a lot along the way after successfully starting an immigration law firm. She has this advice for anyone looking to start an immigration law firm:
Plan ahead. Save for startup costs, have your website made, save salary for at least six months, and then make the jump.
Network. Do a lot of networking and tell everyone you meet about what you do. It’s a big transition from being an employee to being an owner, so always try to keep your self-employed brain on.
There are a lot of resources out there. Do your research before you make the jump, and it will help you quell your fears.
As Jeanelle continues her brave mission of uplifting and helping the immigrant community, she sees her company continuing to grow.
I would love to grow my firm to the point that allows me to be financially secure while helping as many immigrants as I possibly can. I envision myself being a sort of go-to immigration lawyer for the Caribbean population as my roots are Caribbean. However, I have also enjoyed working with people from many other countries and cultures.
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