Law Firms That Automate Make More Money. Why Haven’t Immigration Lawyers Caught up?

April 30, 2019

I was recently at an immigration law conference in Chicago. The conference was hosted by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, AILA for short and more commonly known as the “immigration bar.” It’s essentially an organization of nearly every immigration lawyer and professor in the US among other immigration professionals, with specialties ranging from family and business visas to refugee and litigation matters. That’s more than 15,000 people.

This particular conference was AILA’s Midwest Regional conference, so while not all 15,000 members were there, the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in downtown Chicago was buzzing with hundreds of immigration lawyers, mingling with each other, greeting old colleagues and picking at the breakfast buffet before the long day of CLEs was to begin.

This was actually my first AILA event in many years, so I didn’t know too many people. The last time I had gone to an AILA event was when I was still practicing immigration law back in 2015. So I had the benefit of being a relative newbie at this conference. Over and over again I was able to introduce myself, and LaborLess, the immigration tech startup I founded that automates LCA compliance for H-1B employers and attorneys. This might sound like a nightmare to many, but to me it was a new opportunity to gather as many first impressions as possible, both of me as well as my startup.

Most of the attorneys I met who told me they handled H-1B visas admitted that they handled LCA compliance manually. But when I told them about LaborLess, and explained that it’s not only possible to automate LCA compliance, that they can do it really easily with software like mine, almost every time they looked at me like I had three heads. This happened over and over again.

And it drove me crazy.

Fine - the legal profession isn’t known to be the most tech-savvy, I’ll be the first one to admit it. But legaltech is a growing field and law firms are constantly exploring new options, even investing in legaltech in some instances. So why, at a time when immigration tech is booming, are so many immigration law firms still behind?

Law schools are just starting to prepare students to be more tech-savvy

I asked this very question during a conversation I had the other day with Shiv CS, the CEO and Founder of Immilytics, an immigration-focused consultancy that audits employer and law firm immigration processes and offers various business intelligence and data-driven solutions. Throughout his career, Shiv has seen the inner-workings of scores of immigration practices, both in-house and at large law firms, so when I told him about all the attorneys at this AILA conference, particularly the millennial and Gen Z attorneys, telling me I was crazy for suggesting automation, he assured me it was nothing new.

Young attorneys enter law firm environments and, being the type-A personalities they are, gun for the top. How do they do this? By emulating what those who are already at the top are doing. In other words, law firms whose partners or senior attorneys aren’t leveraging or even discussing technology perpetuate an environment that ignores technology altogether.

Luckily, law schools are noticing this and finally starting to take proactive steps to equip their students with the mindset and knowledge required to understand technology and articulate its benefits.

As an example, Albany Law School recently announced the launch of their Innovation Intensive Clinic, a collaboration with SUNY Polytechnic Institute that will team up law students with business and engineering students to bring more university technology solutions to market. Through this experience, law students will “extend their knowledge of the tech field through working with engineers.” Young lawyers need to be able to “speak” tech in order to know what solutions are out there and pitch them to their leadership. And as Albany Law’s president and dean Alicia Ouellette put it, this program will enable students to be “immersed in what is a different culture, just like a language immersion program” and become “fluent in tech.”

My own Alma Mater, Brooklyn Law School, has been immersing law students in tech for the past six years by hosting an annual legal startup pitch competition. This year’s competition, which took place on April 11th, 2019, allowed law students from various NYC law schools to pitch their legal tech startup ideas to a panel of distinguished judges, with $10K up for grabs. And then there’s Cornell Tech’s LLM program, which offers a class called Startup Studio that, much like Albany Law’s new clinic, teams up law students with engineering and business students to work on tech solutions.

I'm beyond excited about all these law school initiatives, but while we wait for tech-savvy law students to graduate, start working at firms, and eventually become decision-makers to enact change, we need current law firm leadership to push for technology more than ever.

And here’s why.

Firms that adopt tech are more profitable

According to a new study by Wolters Kluwer, law firms and legal departments that have been leveraging technology are better prepared to keep up with changes in the legal sector than those that are just starting to adopt tech or don’t adopt it at all. According to the study, law firms that were considered to be “technology leaders,” defined as organizations already using and optimizing technology and continuing  to invest in new tech, were actually more profitable.

Stacey Caywood, CEO of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory, stated in the article that “there’s no question that the global future of law is rapidly underway, and that technology is a key force for change.”

Of course this isn’t a surprise. No organization can grow without adopting the latest technology, and the legal industry is no exception. Indeed, not only are law firms adopting cutting edge tech themselves, they’re actively building and investing in the future of tech by setting up investment funds and even developing legal tech startup incubators.

On top of it all, legaltech is only getting started, receiving over $1B of funding in 2018 and on track to do more this year and beyond. Law firms who invest in legaltech startups are not only going to have access to the latest innovations, they can also use these investments as a revenue stream for their law firm, much like VCs do.

So with all this great news in the backdrop, you can imagine how frustrated I was at that immigration conference. I was listening to attorneys talk about how their firms are struggling to grow, but when I told them about my startup or asked them generally about their internal processes, invariably they said they handle H-1B compliance manually and are happy with that.

And it’s not the fact that I got turned down that upset me - sales is a grind and I didn’t expect to get any clients from this conference. But I was at least expecting to engage in conversation about immigration tech, about how it’s needed, and the value in innovation within the immigration space. When I got the opposite reaction, it was perplexing.

I thought about it on my way home from Chicago and for days following the conference. I wanted to understand why the immigration bar was so behind on tech and what can be done about that. So I went on LinkedIn and reached out to the incoming AILA president, asking her what the organization is doing, if anything, about immigration tech. I told her about my experience talking to lawyers at the conference, especially young lawyers, about immigration tech, and explained how they were not only unaware of the various tech solutions already available, they weren’t even interested in discussing the topic. I expressed my frustration and suggested that something needs to change.

At first I got no reply.

Then, a few weeks later, I got an email from AILA.

The immigration bar is slowly, but finally, catching up

The email I received was an invite to AILA’s first-ever, invite-only tech summit in Washington DC.

Now I didn’t include that last part to brag (OK, maybe a little) - instead, I included it to showcase the fact that the immigration bar is taking steps, albeit baby steps, to address the gap that exists between immigration lawyers and immigration tech.

And it couldn’t be more timely. With the new Wolters Kluwer study finally showing the material benefits of adopting tech, not just for efficiency’s sake but for organizational bottom line, immigration attorneys and professionals need to embrace technology by learning about it, getting comfortable with it, and trying it out.

David Berry, a founding partner of immigration law firm giant Berry, Appleman & Leiden, told Mercury News that, “every good law firm in the United States, as well as any good business, would automate as many processes as they could” - this came after their recent announcement to start integrating more artificial intelligence-based process automation to create more efficiency and cut down on repetitive tasks.

This is exactly what I’ve been pitching companies and law firms with my own startup, LaborLess. Cutting down on repetitive tasks associated with H-1B compliance helps drive efficiency, lower cost, and decreases human error.

Ultimately, I have a good feeling about immigration tech. Slowly but surely more and more immigration law practitioners will become open to tech and take their organizations to the next level.

And when it happens, I won’t be that crazy guy talking about technology at immigration conferences anymore.