A Tech Perspective on the 2019 AILA Annual Conference

July 2, 2019

Each year, for just a few days, one lucky city becomes the largest gathering of immigration lawyers in the world. This year, that city was Orlando, Florida, and the gathering - the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) annual conference.

The AILA conference took place at the Gaylord Palms - a beautiful resort and convention center with great restaurants, impressive amenities, and a massive glass dome right in its center. Walking through this enclosed atrium reminded me of The Truman Show - it was a temperature-controlled “outdoor” space with coy ponds, vegetation, rock formations doubling as passageways and more. A welcomed feat of air-conditioned engineering in an otherwise hot and humid city.

I arrived on Tuesday, June 18th, the evening before the AILA conference was set to begin. I checked into my budget resort a mile away from the Gaylord, took stock of the sessions I was planning to attend, and laid out some to-do items to catch up on between sessions and during down-time. I even managed to sneak in an hour of poolside lounging to relax after the flight. Looking back on it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

 

Not only did “down-time” never become a reality, I barely had any coffee, let alone much food, for the next four days, running almost exclusively on thrill and adrenaline. From insightful panel discussions and meeting dozens of colleagues in person for the first time, to sitting in on government panels and learning about new technologies, the AILA conference was, to borrow a common Floridian word, a hurricane (a good one, though) of excitement.

Ultimately, I took over 18 pages of notes from every session and meeting I attended. But my biggest point of interest was all the technology that would be unveiled, demo’d and discussed at the conference. Everything from immigration case management and law firm expert systems to broader practice management apps and government tech.

So while I ultimately plan to cover the conference from several viewpoints, this article will be the most important one - a look at the AILA annual conference from a tech perspective. Here’s what I’m going to cover:

  1. Case management software,

  2. Other immigration tech solutions, and

  3. Government-related tech.

As a side note, I wasn’t able to review every single technology solution at the conference, but I did get to see most of them. Partly because I was short on time, but also because a few of the other vendors didn’t engage with me, even when I came up to them and looked around, so I didn’t push it.

With that said, I hope you find this useful or at least interesting.

Immigration case management

Case management is, in my view, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “immigration technology.” And for that reason, that’s where I’ll start. Indeed, case management companies had the biggest presence at the AILA conference, and a handful of them were even the event’s biggest corporate sponsors.

Some were at the conference to unveil exciting new features and functionalities. Others were there to simply grow their brand. A few were actually newcomers, tabling for the first time ever.

At the end of the day, I got much more info from some of the case management companies than others for a variety of reasons, so as an FYI, the amount of information listed below doesn’t reflect any bias toward any one company vs. another.

If anything, my only bias is toward LaborLess, my own immigration tech startup… but I wasn’t a vendor, nor do I provide case management, so I won’t even discuss my company in my own article. Now that’s journalistic integrity!

Just kidding :) Let’s jump in.

 

INSZoom. One of the long-standing immigration tech incumbents, INSZoom was both a main sponsor at the AILA conference and had an impressive booth near the entrance of the vendor area. They had the usual pens, water bottles and other conference swag, but also a sort of graffiti wall, allowing clients new and old to share a few words about their experience with INSZoom. 

 

But the Zoom team was also unveiling something quite interesting: an AI-powered bot that uses optical character recognition (OCR) technology to read scanned notices, transcribe the text from those notices into the correct beneficiary’s file, and effectively take over at least one simple data entry function. The cool part was, I saw it with my own eyes. I had the opportunity to sit down with INSZoom CEO Umesh Vaidyamath, as well as one of their product engineers, to see it in action - once a scanned copy came in, the bot actually logged into an INSZoom account, pulled up the appropriate client file, populated relevant fields with the text it read off the scanned document, and effectively did the work of a human being. It was super cool.

Ultimately, the team told me, as the bot reads and understands more documents, it will get smarter (hence the AI part) and will be able to take on more work. Imagine putting off the most mundane administrative tasks onto an error-proof robot, freeing up the actual human beings in the office to deal with more complex matters and spend more time with actual clients? That’s what process automation is all about, and it was exciting to see INSZoom pushing in that direction.

 

LawLogix. Another long-standing case management provider, LawLogix also unveiled something really exciting at the AILA conference - a completely redesigned foreign national interface which can be used by practitioners to gather required information and documents, and communicate important case-related information.

I had the opportunity to chat with John Fay, president of LawLogix, about this rollout. “This is the first of many new enhancements which are designed with our ‘clients’ clients’ in mind” John explained. “Over the past several months, we collaborated with a diverse group of law firms and non-profits to learn more about some of the technology challenges they were facing, and out of these conversations, we learned that the foreign national ‘experience’ is a vital component in preparing a successful application. It’s not just about gathering information efficiently – it’s about providing assurances and peace of mind during a potentially stressful process.”

I couldn’t agree more. At the AILA tech summit earlier this year, end user experience was a hot topic. I even ended up writing an entire article about the importance of end user experience, so hearing this was music to my ears.

How did LawLogix accomplish this? “We utilized a mobile-first design methodology that’s friendly with phones and tablets,” John told me. And this made perfect sense - we’re all used to the seamless experience we have with Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, Seamless and other apps we use on a day-to-day basis, and we’ve come to expect the same experience with our legal software, especially on our mobile phones and tablets. Ultimately, LawLogix’s emphasis on the end user experience shows that software providers do Listen to user feedback and update their software accordingly. 

 

Cerenade. Another long-time incumbent, Cerenade, was not just the largest sponsor of the event, but also had multiple tables across the conference. As one of the most widely used and comprehensive platforms in the immigration tech space, providing both case management and practice management tools to their clients, I wasn’t surprised that every time I walked up to their main booth, it was buzzing with action. Indeed, the team was always busy showing Cerenade’s modules to new or prospective clients, and while I didn’t get a full demo, the team was super nice to me anyway, which I appreciated. Vendors can tell when you’re not interested in what they’re selling or when it isn’t relevant to you, so the fact that they were still kind enough to answer a few simple questions, and even offered me some swag, said a lot.

I also liked that they had tables in two areas. Mostly, I appreciated the fact that Cerenade’s founder, Phillip Yadidian, was sitting at a small table upstairs, away from all the vendors, and chatting with passersby, giving out information about the company. I stopped to speak with him for a few minutes and introduce myself in person. It was a great experience overall.

 

Tracker Corp. Yet another incumbent, Tracker spun off from one of San Francisco’s most prominent immigration law firms, Pearl Law Group. Today, they’re one of the major case management players and another one of the conference’s major sponsors.

And while I didn’t get a chance to demo Tracker’s product, I’ve always liked, at least in theory, the fact that the company originated from a law firm. Every case management provider can hire immigration attorneys and get expertise that way. But to come from an immigration law firm provides a different point of view on immigration practice. That said, since I didn’t have a chance to speak to anyone from the team, learn about whether or not they were working on any new features, or even play with the product, I don’t have much to say about Tracker.

 

Docketwise. Docketwise is a relative newcomer, though they’ve been around for a few years now. Less of a full-service comprehensive case management platform and more of a case preparation platform, Docketwise provides a sleek, easy-to-use interface for immigration lawyers to quickly create and work through various cases. There’s a powerful integration with Clio and Practice Panther practice management software solutions and a Zapier integration, allowing users to connect with a number of other apps.

So while Docketwise doesn’t provide all the bells and whistles itself, it’s built to integrate with other specialized software solutions that do provide all the bells and whistles. And what bells and whistles might we be talking about? A few examples are email integration with Gmail, marketing campaigns through MailChimp, Salesforce CRM and more. 

 

Prima Facie. Another fairly new forms management provider, Prima Facie similarly has integrations with Clio and Practice Panther to provide a full-service case management solution. Also, like Docketwise, Prima Facie touts its Zapier integration, allowing users to easily conner with everything from calendar apps to Facebook for business and everything in between.

I didn’t get a demo of Prima Facie, but seeing both this solution as well as Docketwise made me start thinking about the future of immigration tech. Overall it’s a big enough market for various forms of competition - indeed competition is a good thing as it drives service providers to constantly innovate. But it also made me consider the merit of API integration with third-party solutions vs. all-in-one immigration case management tools.

 

Infotems. This case management provider went through a recent facelift. Not too long ago, at least to my knowledge, the Infotems website looked more like Windows 95 than modern legal software. Also, to my knowledge, Infotems wasn’t cloud-based until just recently, and required a local server to host the software.

And while I didn’t get to dig into the product much with the representative who was there, I did get to see a few screenshots, and visited their redesigned website. It looks much more modern now, seems to be cloud-based, and has the type of interface and reporting functions that make it truly competitive with others in the space.

 

BlueDot. A smaller player in the immigration case management space, but one that’s been around for over a decade, BlueDot provides both a cloud-based and local server-based solution. The company’s big upgrade recently was a huge back-end modernization, something that isn’t often appreciated by users who tend to interact only with the front-end (think screens, buttons, reports, etc) and take the back-end (the code that’s written, platform it’s built on etc.) for granted.

 

CampLegal. Finally, a newcomer. I had a great chat with the two founders of CampLegal. While I don’t have their entire story memorized, they’re two successful technologists who built and sold a finance-related tech startup in the past, realized that the immigration tech space had room for improvement, and started working on what eventually became CampLegal.

And while I didn’t get a chance to really demo the product, I do know a few things. First, it’s a modern technology, built entirely on the cloud and therefore scalable as the company grows and as clients’ needs grow. Second, I learned that while the company only currently integrates with LawPay, a legal expense management provider, they are working on other integrations to make CampLegal likely as nimble as the likes of Prima Facie and Docketwise in terms of connecting to other software solutions. Lastly, I learned that this was the team’s first time at the AILA conference - they were both eager, extremely nice and very patient with prospective clients who came up with a ton of questions (often based on frustrations with their current case management providers). I definitely wish them luck on the immigration tech startup journey!

 

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MIMS. And finally, the newcomer that’s also ironically part of one of the oldest technology companies in the world - Microsoft. MIMS, which is short for Microsoft Immigration Management System, is a spinoff of what Microsoft built internally to handle their tens of thousands of foreign national employees and dependents.

The MIMS team came without much swag or fancy screens showing the app’s different features. Instead, they had a laptop and simply showed a live demo of the product to those who asked. I was lucky enough to get a nearly 20-minute walkthrough of many of the system’s features. Ultimately, they didn’t need to be at the AILA conference - instead, they were simply testing the waters, at least as far as I understood, to see if there’s appetite for their home-grown immigration tech solution.

Frankly, among all the immigration tech I experienced during the AILA conference, this one probably blew my mind the most. Not because their system has some kind of impressive features - it doesn’t, at least not yet - but because the system is built on the company’s proprietary Microsoft Dynamics software, and is FREE with a subscription to Dynamics itself. For me this is brilliant for two reasons: (1) Microsoft has the money and resources to build out a more sophisticated tool, let’s face it, than any of its competitors… it’s just a matter of whether the company wants to allocate the necessary resources to do so, but (2) if it does, and if they offer MIMS for free with a Dynamics subscription, Microsoft can then cross-sell or up-sell other solutions on the Dynamics platform and thereby capture a law firm market that it currently doesn’t own.

And while the institutional knowledge of many of the immigration platforms I mentioned above go a long way in terms of truly providing a great law firm, petitioner and beneficiary experience, I wouldn’t dismiss MIMS as a mere speculative project. At least not just yet.

Whew.

Other immigration tech solutions

With immigration case management out of the way, there are a few other immigration tech companies at the AILA conference who I’d like to discuss. They differ in terms of the type of services they provide, but they all fall under the tech solutions umbrella.

LawPilot. Interestingly, this newcomer is a spin-off of an established immigration law firm, Chavez & Valko. Much like how Pearl Law Group built Tracker, Chaves & Valko built their own in-house case management platform and decided to commercialize it. When I went to talk to Martin Valko, managing partner at the firm, he was specifically showing a demo of one of their niche products, LawPilot Guardian. This product is the reason I decided to put LawPilot under “other” rather than traditional case management.

The Guardian product is an end-client smart phone app that can be used by a client that’s being detained by ICE or in any other emergency situation. The law firm buys it from LawPilot, and then sells it to their client for just a few dollars a month. In the event of a detainment, LawPilot Guardian enables the client to press a large red button that sends an emergency text to that client’s lawyer, allows the lawyer to locate the client via GPS, provides the client with a set of pre-recorded English responses they can play to the detaining officer, and more. Particularly important in today’s environment of heightened enforcement both near the US southern border and elsewhere around the country, this is a unique and timely tool that I was impressed by.

On top of the Guardian product, LawPilot also provides a case management solution, though I didn’t get to dig into that much. But it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the market for an alternative.

Immilytics. A totally different immigration software solution from everything else I saw at the conference, Immilytics provides strategy and gap analyses for law firms and immigration departments, an analytical deep-dive into that data, and then proposed solutions that can be either bespoke or off-the-shelf as a way to help create process efficiency.

Immilytics has also built a few proprietary software solutions, including a standalone PERM product that can plug into case management systems, dashboards and other reporting functions that can layer on top of existing case management or other immigration systems, and business models aimed at helping law firms actually grow their business.

LaborLess. Ok, I lied - I’m going to plug my own startup. And no, I wasn’t a vendor at the AILA conference. But this is also my article, so cut me a little slack!

Seriously though, I mention LaborLess because I think there should be more emphasis on automating something other than case management in the immigration space. LaborLess provides Labor Condition Application (LCA) compliance automation, allowing users to easily create electronic LCA postings and Public Access Files (PAFs), manage those LCAs and PAFs in one central dashboard, and truly streamline the LCA compliance process, saving a ton of time and paper, and enhancing compliance with DOL regulations. 

We’re growing too, and we’ve got exciting updates coming down the pike. That’s all I’ll say about it!

Well, that’s all for commercial technology. We’re almost done, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more immigration tech solution - one that the government is rolling out. Don’t worry though, there’s only one major system I’ll be covering, and not in extreme depth - I might save that for another article.

DOL’s FLAG system

I first found out about DOL’s new FLAG system only a month ago. I was in complete shock that I hadn’t heard about it before, and when I started to ask around, I realized many others hadn’t heard about it either. I ended up writing an article about it, partly to educate my fellow immigration professionals who may not have realized iCERT is slowly being replaced by this new FLAG system, and partly to call out the DOL on its sub-par communication on the subject.

And to DOL’s credit, at least during the AILA annual conference, they went to great lengths to provide as much information about FLAG as possible. First and foremost, they held an entire session that walked attendees through the new system’s current and proposed features and timeline, and even went through a full demo for all to see.

 

I’ll get into the details more in a later article, but for now, here’s a quick recap of FLAG’s release timeline:

  • CW1 applications went live on April 4th.
  • Prevailing wage determination feature was released on June 10th.
  • H-2B applications were partially released - they could already be prepared but not submitted - but FLAG will be accepting H-2B applications requesting an October 1, 2019, start date of work over a 3-calendar day period starting Wednesday, July 3 through Friday, July 5!
  • The H-2A program will be released later in the year, once the new H-2A forms are approved by the Office of Management and Budget.
  • The LCA program will also be released later this year, and the DOL didn’t provide any further clarification on this.

The FLAG session was packed, by the way. It was organized last minute, and didn’t provide any CLE credits, but every seat was taken, lawyers were standing wherever they could, and some even poured out into the hallway outside the small conference room to try and catch some of the presentation

Some of the most crucial information came out during the Q&A at the end. Specifically, attendees expressed concern about iCERT crashing, as it did earlier this year - DOL explained that FLAG will stagger visa submissions and queue them up, ensuring that the system will never be overloaded to the point of collapse. DOL also explained that information will carry from one form or application to another, so double- or triple-entry will be a thing of the past. This was met with full-blown applause, which was both funny but also telling in terms of the deep-seated frustration immigration attorneys have with government systems, and the relief of having those systems be finally overhauled.

Most importantly, DOL strongly encouraged everyone to go onto the FLAG website, register, play around with it, and let them know if there are any bugs. They explained that FLAG’s tech support form goes to a team of real people who read the support tickets, analyze and prioritize accordingly, and provide quick responses. They also log each issue, so that if the same issue appears multiple times, it gets bumped up on the priority list in terms of system modifications.

In all, this was a great session. Tensions were high half the time, while the other half was roaring laughter and applause. Overall, the session showed DOL’s progress and their willingness to work with and listen to their users (the immigration attorneys in the room and around the country).

Parting thoughts

At the end of this 4-day AILA marathon (figuratively speaking, and not to be confused with an inaugural 5K that really did take place during the conference), I was completely exhausted. I slept much of the flight home.

And if you think all the conversations and demos centered around immigration tech was a lot, I haven't even scratched the surface. There were also panels about LCA compliance, law firm automation and other practice management best practices that I’ll discuss in other, hopefully shorter, posts.

But this was the most important content by far, at least in my opinion. With AILA’s tech summit in DC earlier this year, and the vast number of tech vendors and tech-related panels during this year’s annual conference, the immigration bar is really stepping up in terms of connecting its tens of thousands of members to the most cutting-edge technology out there.

Ultimately I’m bullish on immigration tech. Otherwise I wouldn’t have left my career as an immigration lawyer to pursue building an immigration tech startup.

But it’s not just on me, or on the tech providers I mentioned above. It’s also on the thousands of immigration attorneys and in-house immigration professionals who need to learn about and then embrace new technology.

So please share this article with your fellow immigration professionals, and let’s all move the practice forward, together!