AILA members are sharing their first person accounts of life and work at the moment – if you’re an AILA member, please email your 400-800 word submission to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. Thank you for all you do!
What does it mean to manage an immigration law firm in the era of COVID 19? I’m learning each day.
On March 19, 2020, Governor Newsom issued California’s “Safer at Home” order. In an instant, my practice was turned upside down. The text of the order was totally unclear about the status of law firms as essential businesses, and I had no idea whether I was allowed to go into my office again. A million thoughts shot through my head. “How will I get my mail?” “Can I go to court?” “Oh, crap! I have a U visa certification expiring next week and the file is in the office!” That last thought made up my mind – I had to go into the office the next day and at least get that file.
As the weeks have unfolded, I’ve tried to figure out some of these questions, mostly by trial and error. I ordered an office-grade wireless printer and wireless scanner for my home (my flatbed, one-page-at-a-time HP scanner wasn’t going to cut it). The scanner arrived in time for me to scan that U visa package and get it out to USCIS before the certification expired. That was a good call.
I put a USPS forwarding order on my office address to my home address. Within 24 hours, another attorney mentioned that USCIS won’t forward green cards and work permits, and I freaked out, and cancelled the forwarding order. I still got mail at home for a couple of weeks. Mail forwarding order: error.
Questions about the permissibility of attending court hearings turned out to be moot. The non-detained immigration court hearings were all cancelled, as were the USCIS interviews. The state courts went to a reduced schedule, resulting in the postponement of all of my Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and post-conviction hearings. I already had consent to appear telephonically in my one detained case.
My staff moved pretty seamlessly into mostly-remote work (we eventually determined we could each go to the office once per week to check mail, swap out files, etc.). We moved our every-other-week staff meetings to Zoom. I bought a Zoom membership in the first week at home, which turned out to be a REALLY good decision.
Managing my court cases has been a mixed bag. I’ve had no trouble prepping my clients via telephone and Zoom for testimony. But I’ve been beyond frustrated with the court cancellations. I was scheduled to have 5 merits hearings in the month of May. By the time EOIR announced that hearings were cancelled through May 15th, I’d already submitted substantial filings in three of those cases. Today, we submitted a 1000+ page filing for a cancellation of removal case, but of course, it is entirely possible we’ll hear that hearing is cancelled as well.
Keeping my firm afloat financially has been the nightmare that one would have expected. Revenue is down, though I am immensely grateful to have had enough in savings to keep my staff on without any pay cuts to date. By now, most of you reading this will have seen that I am the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Bank of America alleging mismanagement of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and so it will not surprise you to know that I am not counting on any PPP funds to keep my firm going. Being part of that litigation is important to try to protect the integrity of future PPP loan processing, but it will not keep the lights on (so to speak), and I am recalculating daily how much my firm needs to bring in to stay in business during these strange days. Like most of you, I keep asking – when will this end? In California, there has been no concrete date for scaling back our stay-at-home order, and judging by the medical experts updating their various predictions, that’s not looking to end anytime soon.
While many of these daily management issues were probably predictable at the outset of the stay-at-home order, what was not obvious (at least not to me) was the question of succession planning. So, like many others, my husband and I realized that we needed to draft wills, and think about provisions for our family. In our case, our two-year-old daughter needs to be cared for in the event that we both should die during this pandemic. But, that was just the personal side. On the business side, who would assume responsibility for my cases if I were to die? What financial arrangements would need to be made for that person? How would I determine what assets in my firm should go to my family, and which should remain in the business to ensure that its obligations are resolved appropriately? These are important questions at all times, but this crisis has forced me to confront them head on.
What have I learned in the last 30-odd days? I’ve learned that as prepared as I thought I was for business emergencies, there are still contingencies that I did not think to address. Before this crisis is over, I will have a much better succession plan in place. I will also be re-calculating my office’s financial savings needs, in the hopes that any future economic calamity will be a little less stressful. In the meantime, I wish each of my fellow attorneys the best of luck as they, too, grapple with these strange times.