An Immigration Lawyer and a Software Engineer Walk into a Bar

May 10, 2019

The title sounds like the beginning of a mediocre joke an old-timey lawyer might tell at a firm happy hour. But in fact, this is basically what happened for the first time ever yesterday in Washington DC. And it wasn’t just any bar. It was the bar - the immigration bar, otherwise known as the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

Yesterday, on May 9, 2019, AILA held its first-ever Immigration Technology Summit. Born out of a 2016 report on the future of immigration law practice, this would be the first time that AILA, a national association of more than 15,000 immigration attorneys, was actually stepping into, and taking the lead on, the increasingly important conversation of automation in the immigration space. And I was lucky enough to be invited.

But on the five hour bus ride down from New York City the day before the summit, I couldn’t help but wonder, what exactly was going to happen? Was it going to be a mere day-long panel on the “current state” of immigration tech? Would there be talk of innovation? Would it be inspiring? Was there going to be enough coffee to fuel ground-breaking discussion?

For starters, there was definitely enough coffee.

But more importantly, the summit ended up being so much more than what I expected. At the end of it, as people were packing up their things and saying their goodbyes (or, more often, “see you in Orlando!”), you could tell that something big had taken place. No deals were made. No tech breakthroughs were unveiled. But the collective conversation ended in a place that felt something like, “the practice of immigration law will never be the same.”

Here’s what I mean.

We Kicked Things Off With Artificial Intelligence.

I was actually impressed that the very first panel of the day dealt with one of the most cutting-edge applications of technology in the legal space - artificial intelligence (AI). We dove right into defining AI and explaining the vast opportunities it presents for the legal industry.

We covered a few major points. First, the term AI has actually been around since 1956 - so while its use has skyrocketed in the recent past, the very basic premise that computers can process logic and, to some degree, think, isn’t particularly new. Also, we learned that at its core, AI is reliant upon lots and lots of data, the ability to capture that data in one place, and the ability to create rules around it.

 

Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law and Cornell Tech, took us through a parable of the history of maps to bring the point home. It went something like this: centuries ago, before maps were commonplace, most people didn’t really leave where they were from. That’s because traveling was dangerous - there weren’t really any roads and it was hard to find your way back, so the risk of getting lost and not returning was too high.

Eventually, however, as people started to explore more, those people would chart their adventures, compile their renderings, and create what we now know as maps. Still, there was incomplete information - Ed showed us an image of an old map depicting California as an island a fraction of its actual size. That “map” was drawn this way because the cartographers who explored the land and rendered their version of it simply got it wrong.

Fast forward to 2019. We now have Waze, a mobile app that not only provides a digital map of the entire world, it also shows real-time traffic patterns, time-to-destination and more. Traveling with Waze is way easier and therefore much more accessible, and that’s because our travel decisions - literally where to turn right or left, how far to go, etc. - are now based on a rich set of correct data about our world.

The practice of law, Ed said, including immigration law, operates much the same way. Even the most experienced lawyers typically only see a specific type of case a few hundred times during their career, but they make legal decisions and recommendations based on this relatively small sample set. But what if we could capture all instances of a certain type of case, store that data in one place, and then extract learnings and patterns from that much larger set? We would likely make more informed decisions.

This was the crux of the first presentation. The idea that immigration case law, or any other practice for that matter, is really just a set of data points, and that if all that data can be collected, connected, analyzed and then used by lawyers, we could make more informed decisions and therefore provide the best possible legal service.

Ed showed us a few ways AI is already being used today by his company Fastcase, and Greg Siskind, founding partner of Siskind Susser, presented a handful of AI tools his firm has built as well. Overall, this discussion was mostly theoretical, but it set the tone for the day - it instilled an idea of what’s theoretically possible, and challenged us to think more critically about how we can bring that theory to practice.

So What’s Happening in Immigration Tech Today?

I wanted to dig into that first presentation to really emphasize how perfectly I think the day started. The first-ever immigration tech summit kicked off with a deep discussion about AI, which signaled to me that this wasn’t just some immigration networking event or boring panel. This was real thought leadership.

With that, we moved on to the second panel of the day: immigration case management platforms. This might not sound particularly sexy, but with the context of AI and the broader conversation of all the possibilities technology brings with it, hearing from Tracker, LawLogix, INSZoom and PrimaFacie was actually pretty damn exciting.

I wrote down a LOT during this session, so I’ll spare all the details (or maybe I’ll expand on them in a later article). But I managed to pull out three key takeaways that I believe are indicative of where immigration tech actually is today:

  • End users, not law firms, are dictating what’s being built. Immigration case management tech companies’ clients are mostly law firms. Yet increasingly, according to the panelists, those law firms’ clients, whether corporate and individual, are now dictating what features are being built. For example, Jennifer Harris, VP of Technology at LawLogix, said that they’re stepping up their client-facing portal experience to ensure their corporate clients have the best case-tracking experience possible. Similarly, Umesh Vaidyamath, CEO of INSZoom, mentioned that petitioners are asking law firms for more beneficiary information and better reporting, so INSZoom is putting more efforts toward that area.

  • Modern UI is more important than ever. Not only are end users dictating what’s being built, they’ve also developed a taste for good looking tech. With sleek banking apps and other consumer apps like Uber and Airbnb setting high user experience standards, clients come to expect beautiful interfaces and modern design in everything they use. Julie Pearl, co-founder and CEO of Tracker, noted that increasingly, clients are asking for mobile solutions, easy document uploading and design-forward reporting. James Betzold, CEO of PrimaFacie, talked extensively about the success he’s had with chatbots as well as integration with other best-in-class service providers like Salesforce, Google Docs and more.

  • Immigration tech is going increasingly global. Almost all the panelists agreed that moving forward, immigration tech companies that are currently focused on inbound US immigration will have to expand globally to stay competitive. Just like the largest immigration law firms have expanded to provide outbound visa services, tech solutions must follow suit. What country do most of them have their eye on? Our neighbor to the north, Canada.

Reflecting on the above, and in light of the earlier AI discussion, I realized two important, yet somewhat paradoxical things about immigration tech. First, immigration is incredibly complex, and merely automating immigration forms, compliance workflows or case status tracking is already a huge efficiency gain. Second, it’s actually really hard to even keep up with every client’s needs, which makes it very difficult to truly innovate.

In other words, where is immigration tech today? Constantly catching up with the status quo.

Online Legal Service… Do You Mean Startups?

Which brings me to the last panel I’m going to discuss in this article - what AILA called online legal services. To me, however, this was simply “immigration tech startups.”

The panelists for this discussion were Javad Jhazaeli, founder of roadtostatus.com, James Pittman, founder of Borderwise and Docketwise and Bahar Ansari, founder of 2nd.Law and case.one. If you visit any of their sites, you’ll notice something very different vs. the case management sites. These sites actually provide a tool to start some kind of immigration intake process, or a full-on visa application, right online. It’s not for law firms, but rather for the beneficiaries themselves.

So yes, these are indeed online legal services. But in 2019, I feel comfortable calling them “startups.” Here’s why - built by immigration lawyers, these startups are using the internet, and technology as we know it, to fundamentally change how immigration law is practiced. Instead of enabling a law firm with tech, these startups are flipping the entire service model on its head by providing tech solution to beneficiaries directly and then having a lawyer track and review, or in some cases just review, the full application at the end for completeness.

A lot of this discussion was centered around the fact that these startups are not looking to eradicate lawyers altogether. Much like the AI discussion at the beginning of the summit, the question was never, “how do we use tech to get immigration lawyers out of the picture?” Instead, the question was always, “how do we use tech to enable lawyers to spend the most time doing substantive legal work and the least time (or ideally no time at all) on clerical, administrative tasks?”

And this notion really struck a chord with me, because this is exactly why I left the practice of law - to automate the LCA process with LaborLess. As an immigration lawyer practicing in a high-volume H-1B environment, I was spending way too much time on coordinating LCA postings, tracking dates, creating public access files, etc. I realized that every other lawyer and in-house immigration specialist dealing with LCAs had the same pain points, so I decided to build a solution to solve this specific, yet prevalent, problem.

 

Ultimately, this is where I think immigration tech is going. Immigration case management is never going to go away, and neither are law firms who need sophisticated tools to digitize their operations. But there’s a huge opportunity to leverage technology in a way that provides access to legal solutions to millions of people, or thousands of small companies, with immigration questions that can be solved through online legal services… ahem, startups.

So How Does The Joke End?

I really only formed my opinion of this inaugural tech summit after the event wrapped up. During the day there were times when tensions ran high, when there was confusion around the validity of some of the tech solutions that were presented. There was some genuine learning that went on.

But it all came together when AILA opened up the floor to everyone at the very end. What were our thoughts and observations from the day? Did we come up with any new ideas? Did we gain some new insights? What did we see for the future? Microphones went around the room in excitement as attendees and panelists alike shared their enthusiasm for what’s coming next. The questions weren’t answered concretely - indeed, it’ll take some time to process everything - but instead were answered in broad, colorful strokes: we’re all excited for the future of immigration practice, and we saw the perfect synergy between immigration law and technology unravel in front of our eyes at AILA.

So, an immigration lawyer and a software engineer walk into a bar. They’re old friends, so they get a round of beers. The lawyer starts complaining about his job (don’t we all at some point?), particularly about how late the hours are. The engineer asks what the lawyer’s actually doing in the office until 10PM every day. The lawyer says, “ahh stupid stuff” in an effort to deflect the question and not get into it. But the software engineer loves solving problems, and insists on more detail. They end up staying at the bar until it closes, feverishly creating the next immigration app idea over a few rounds of drinks and two orders of french fries.

There’s no funny punchline here. But this story actually plays out all the time, and is how some of the greatest companies are born.

So let’s keep bringing immigration lawyers and software engineers together, and pushing the bounds of what immigration tech can do.