When family law and immigration law intersect: 5 tips for managing international clients.

By Anne E. Kennedy, Immigration and Family Lawyer

International family law clientsThe world is, increasingly, a global community. The United States, in particular, is culturally diverse. We have proudly claimed to be the greatest international “melting pot” for decades. Our diversity is integral to our cultural identity, and it has been growing exponentially. 

As a result, issues of immigration law are impacting other areas of law now more than ever. In 2010, for example, the United States Supreme Court reversed 25 years of legal precedent and placed an affirmative duty upon a criminal lawyer to advise clients that are not citizens of the United States of the immigration consequences of entering into a criminal plea of guilty. See Padilla v Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010).

Similarly, with travel and technology making global migration easier, issues of immigration law have been appearing in family law cases with more frequency. Not only is there a growing need for family law practitioners to have a working knowledge of immigration law, but “becoming fluent” in the two disciplines can be an extremely important tool in growing and maintaining a successful law practice. 

As a practitioner of both family law and immigration law for more than 10 years in Houston, Texas, I have been able to build a client base from a broader spectrum of society. I have developed a unique legal practice and set myself apart in a competitive market as I am able to view client concerns from two different, but often equally important, perspectives. 

Whether a family practitioner actively seeking to cultivate a more diverse clientele, or a family practitioner encountering the realities of a more cosmopolitan American society, below are five tips helpful in managing international clients:

1. Know Your Clients

This point is true of any legal practice, but it is especially true of one involving international clients. The needs and concerns of the multinational corporate executive on a temporary assignment in the United States may be very different from the undocumented alien that has lived in the United States for years. Knowing the main legal questions of your primary international client base will serve you very well. 

2. Phone a Friend

Develop a network with an experienced immigration attorney. Often, attorneys are reticent to reach out to another attorney, but immigration is a very specialized area of the law. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) can help locate an immigration attorney nearby. Immigration attorneys frequently do not like to practice family law, so this can provide you with both a strong ally in tackling issues of immigration law as well as a great source for cross-referrals!

3. Take a Course

As legal practitioners, we are all required to take CLE classes. Many state and federal bar associations offer live or web-based “Fundamentals of Immigration Law” courses that give a good, basic overview of immigration law. Typically, immigration is divided into “family-based” immigration, meaning those who seek to immigrate to the United States through family members and “business” immigration, meaning those who wish to immigrate through commercial enterprises. It is worth investing a few hours in a CLE course to get an overview of issues that may be of particular concern to your clients. You will learn the terminology, and you may also make a few contacts in immigration law. Do not be afraid to reach out to CLE presenters. They are often very happy to provide guidance. 

4. Invest in Translation Assistance

Good support staff can make or break a law office. This is a universal tenet of law office management. However, if looking to build a practice with international clients, it is imperative to have a good link to translation in the native language of your primary demographic. Often, this can be achieved by hiring an assistant. A qualified assistant that is able to bring the comfort of a native fluency of language, the understanding of culture, and the performance of essential legal support staff tasks is invaluable. If a bilingual assistant is not an option, however, then it is important to have a good relation with a translation service. 

5. Don’t Forget About International Law

Invariably, child custody disputes can present very serious legal issues when managing a family case involving citizens of different nationalities. Whether the parties are amicable or bitterly waging a full-scale custody battle, it is useful to realize that international law may also be relevant. While immigration law refers to an alien’s right to live or work in the United States, international law refers to laws between countries that govern disputes of parties of different nations. 

The most significant treaty is the Hague Convention, concerning the international abdication of children. The United States Department of State maintains an Office of Children’s Issues. The phone number is 1-888-407-4747. Country-specific officers are available at the State Department to help Monday through Friday in situations where international travel can present problems. This can be an invaluable resource for the family practitioner as well as an international client. 

Anne E. Kennedy is the sole proprietor of a full service law firm specializing in family and immigration law. Anne is known for her aggressive representation and ability to think outside the box. Anne is a certified mediator , a member of the Better Business Bureau,  and the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association. www.aek-law.com.

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