Episode 5 – Charles Kuck: The Power of Serving in a National Association

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Charles H. Kuck

Charles H. Kuck

Managing Partner, Kuck Immigration Partners LLC

Charles Kuck started his career as an associate doing insurance defense. He did pro bono immigration work on the side to gain trial experience early in his career. He loved the immigration work and it gradually grew into his primary practice. After joining the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) he progressed through the ranks of the organization, ultimately serving as president. AILA also enabled him to accelerate his learning and build a strong network of experts, giving him the tools to grow a powerhouse firm.

Full Interview Transcript

Michael: My guest today is Charles Kuck, the managing partner of Kuck Immigration Partners LLC, located in Atlanta. I’m really excited because Charles is a leader not only in his firm but also in his field, having served as national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, president of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers, as well as testifying in Congress and teaching at Emory Law School. So I’m curious to hear how you achieved those things and also the impact they’ve had on his firm in practice. So thank you for joining me, Charles.

Charles: It’s great to be here with you, Michael. Thanks for inviting me.

Michael: Oh, you bet, you bet. So I think it would be kind of neat to just get an understanding. Can you just tell me a little bit about where your firm is today and then I’ll ask you some questions to kind of go back to how you got there?

Charles: Well, today, we are located in Atlanta, Georgia. We have 9 lawyers, and about 13 or 14 paralegals along with another 12 or so support staff. I think we have total of 33 or so people in our firm. We practice exclusively immigration laws. We don’t do anything else. But we do every part of immigration law. Immigration law itself is broken into various components. So we don’t just do business, we don’t just do family, we don’t just do deportation. We represent anybody who has an immigration need, because what I found is that when somebody comes to you, let’s say, they’re corporate employer, they want to bring Hans over from Germany, Hans may have a problem that me, if I didn’t practice deportation law, wouldn’t know about or how to fix to get him into the country. So for me, being able to delve into each of those areas is vitally important. So we do that as our firm.

Michael: And just where did you start? Like your first law firm position out of college, were you in immigration right from the beginning or was there an evolution that took place?

Charles: There’s definitely an evolution there. In fact, when I was in law school at Arizona State, back in the ’80s, immigration was the last thing. The year I started law school was the year President Reagan signed the amnesty, which was a real amnesty. It’s not what you hear about today but it was a real amnesty, pay $85 and get a green card. And so the idea was immigration was as a nothing area. It’s over, really. We solved the problem, it’s done. So I didn’t even take immigration law in law school.

After I started practicing, I went to a boutique practice firm. I did litigation with about 30 lawyers and I just loved it. I was doing a little bit of insurance defense, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And as I was waiting to pass the bar, so I graduated in May, waiting for the bar results in October, a friend of mine, that summer, came to me, he is a year ahead of me, he said, “You know, you want to go to court.” I said, “I can’t wait to go to court. I’m really excited to go to court. I really want to be in the battle and that’s what I loved about law school.” He said, “Well, there’s this really cool place called Immigration Court.” “Never heard of it.” “Yes, it’s kind of cool because there’s no rules of evidence and there’s no discovery, and you speak Spanish and they have a need of people to do pro bono asylum cases for all these Guatemalan farmers that are being chased out of the country from the wars that started in the ’80s down though.”

So I went to the firm. I went to the manager, “Hey, would you mind if I take a pro bono case?” Apparently, I don’t even have to be admitted to the bar yet and this other person would supervise me, and here’s the rule, and he said, “Great, go ahead and do it.” So, I took that case in September. Immigration back then was very, very fast. So before I even passed the bar, I had my first trial in Immigration Court. And I still remember this guy. He’s a little Guatemalan farmer, about five-foot nothing, education – the third grade or something like that. And he has talking about all the horrible things that the guerrillas have done to his families. To this day, I still remember the details. I won that case. It was like, “Yes!” Greatest lawyer in the world. I can win even before I’m a lawyer!!

Michael: Right, exactly.

Charles: And the outpouring of love, respect, adoration that comes from your client, when they feel like you saved their life, there’s nothing better in there. What is enough? So you know, that guy got ended up getting remarried in the States, the first family had been killed, and became a very, very successful businessman in Phoenix, just a great guy. And from that moment on, I always make sure that I had one immigration pro bono case.

For the next two years, as I’m working my slog through, a young associate in a firm and sitting in the library and writing memos and summarizing crappy depositions and doing basic stuff that really was not inspiring at all, I always clung to those immigration cases. And after about two years, I’ve done about seven of these pro bono asylum cases. I’d won them all. I thought, “This was just great.” And then people started referring me to their friend. The guys I won, they were referring me to friends. “This is a great immigration lawyer.” I’m not even an immigration lawyer. I know nothing about immigration.

So I ended up buying a book. I convinced my firm to buy a book on immigration. I taught myself immigration, and I joined the State Bar. I joined the American Immigration Lawyers Association. In about two years into my practice, I got a call from the biggest immigration law firm in the west. It happened to be located in Phoenix. They said, “Hey, how would you like to come here and practice immigration law full-time with me?” “That’d be awesome.” So I changed him. At the time, it was Bryan Cave. Everybody knows who Bryan Cave is, had the second biggest immigration practice in the United States, had three of the best immigration lawyers out there and Roxie Bacon and Angelo Paparelli, and Nancy Jo Merritt. And I literally learned, from the next couple of years, at their feet. It was just remarkable experience. And then I get headhunted out to Georgia. It was like, “Hey, would you like to move to Georgia, this big blue blood firm, 150 years old, needs immigration associates.” So I came here and I just immersed myself in immigration.

What I just found by doing all types of immigration, how much I really loved the challenge, loved putting the pieces together, but more importantly, how much I loved working with the people, because every day, that’s what I do. You don’t do immigration law without people. You could do toxic tort litigation, never talk to anybody. But all day long, I’m talking to people and I’m solving problems. I like to refer to it as every day, I go to work and I create America. I create America. And for me, it’s not only a consistent challenge, but it’s fun. And there is a never-ending assortment of crazy butt facts from people’s lives in immigration.

Charles: It’s a never ending assortment of trying to put the pieces together and make things work. So I fell into it.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, but it’s an interesting thing about sort of not trying to answer the question, but being open to possibilities. So you sort of followed one opportunity into another until it really grew into what you’re doing.

Charles: In many ways, it’s kind of like falling in love. You go in that first date, yeah, not so bad, you know. In 10 days in, you’re going, I’m going to go out and marry this girl. And that’s what immigration was like. It just sucked me in. It spoke to my soul, and I’m the grandson of immigrants. I saw what my grandparents went through as immigrants in the United States from Germany. I saw what my dad went through as a first generation. It just stumped me. And I fell absolutely in love with it. It changed my perspective. It changed my perspective on the world.

Michael: Yeah, I bet. So let’s see. Now you founded your firm how many years ago?

Charles: Well, this incarnation of the firm was in 2003. What happened is that so in ’89, I graduate; ’91, I go to Bryan Cave; ’93, I end up in a place called Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & something, I forget what it’s even called now, because they got bought by Bryan Cave a few years ago. So they’ve been merged with Bryan Cave. So I worked there for four years.

And then I never will forget this, because I was up for partnership, and that day, this is the late ’90s, there’s classes, right? These big firms have classes. And there’s eight of us up for partnership, and I walked into the dude that was doing the partnership stuff and I said, “I would like to be in equity, a low level equity partner, because I had a practice.” I had several hundred thousand dollars of business and nobody else in my class had their own business that they were doing. “So no, no, we make everybody non-equity partners. This is non-negotiable.” So they announced it in January, “Hey, the following people made non-equity partner.” I turned in my resignation in March. I said, “Thank you, I read the partnership agreement. Terrible place to be non-equity partner. I’m out of here.”

I started my own firm and I worked with a couple of partners for the next couple of years. And then in 2000, I got headhunted back in to another big firm, Littler Mendelson, which is great firm. A nation-wide firm, you know, the biggest labor employment firm. I saw that as an opportunity, because I think, who is the best person to work with us, the immigration lawyers, the lawyers of employment and labor lawyers. You deal with HR all the time. It just wasn’t a good fit for me, because I had learned to love being on my own so much. I’ve learned to be… and it’s way more fun being the king, than it is being the peasant, even if you’re a senior level partner. So three years later, I left, and we started what is today Kuck Immigration Partners. I’ve had some partners over the years that worked out, some that didn’t work out, and some ventures over the years that worked. I learned a lot of lessons over the year.

Today, we’re in such a great place. And I have such great young lawyers and young partners working for me, working with me that it’s made, really, just continues to invigorate my practice 26 years after I got out of law school.

Michael: Right. Yeah, that’s really interesting. And you know, having had that experience of having a book of business and feeling like that the value wasn’t properly understood by the people you worked for, how does that reflect your own thoughts about the environment you’ve created?

Charles: Well, I know, what not to do. That’s the big thing. When you go through that, you see how big firms treat certain practice areas. Immigration is kind of the redheaded stepsister in law, or it’s just filling out forms. You don’t feel I’m ready to go to jail for it, yeah, those are the forms, I’m filling it out. And so I know what not to do. I know what not to create, what environment not to have. So we have that nurturing, that environment that encourages entrepreneurship. One of the things I do with my young lawyers is right away, immediately after law school, they start with me, there is a bonus put in place for creating new business. I want them to understand where the money comes from. There isn’t a money tree in our basement that your salary comes from.

Michael: Right.

Charles: It comes from work and it comes from creating business. So I want you to have a book of business. I want you to the point where you’re not doing your only work is for me or for me. I want you to be able to give work out to other people, because that’s how you become a successful lawyer. That’s how you create a good income and a good base for your family to grow and thrive at. I’ve taken those lessons from the big firms. I love working at big firm, to a certain extent. What I didn’t love was the politics in the big firm. And the idea that is, really kind of in a lot of areas today, we’re all going to be successful, we’re going to treat everybody the same, you’re all going to get the same pay, you’re going to the same lock step, when you’re not the same. And to me, that rewards people that are lazy, and there are lots of lazy lawyers out there.

Michael: Yeah, what I found in our own environment was until we were able to track performance and reflect it back to people, that the environment was really political, because the only way to get ahead was to jockey for position. But when it was based on performance, that cleared up.

Charles: Absolutely. And so we work with our lawyers all the time. Not just once a year, we say, “Here is where you are this month, here’s where you are this quarter, and this is what I need you to do to get better. And let’s do a seminar. Let’s get you out there to talk to you. Here are some suggestions, I have, to grow your practice.” So even as young lawyer, even when you don’t know a lot, what a lot of big firms would say, “Oh, you know, that young lawyer, they don’t know enough to bill out to a client where we can effectively make money on them. Let’s just hide them in the basement. Have them summarize depositions.” You’re throwing away talent at that point.

Really, I think some of the best people in the country go to law school. So find that talent and nurture it and grow it, educate them, of course, and they can educate themselves in a lot of ways by doing work, but also help them understand that the business of law is actually business not law. Law is what we do, but we can’t eat law. You can’t eat law. You can only eat the money you make on the business you grow.

Michael: Yeah. Well, what about, okay so someone has got a book of business. Why do they want to stay at the firm as opposed to hang in their own shingle?

Charles: Well, because of the infrastructure that we create. So if you have a good book of business, and typically not only… if you’re the kind of lawyers that says, “I have my business, I’m going to do it. I don’t need anybody else,” you would never be in our firm. And we’ve had lawyers, over the last years, leave because of those, because, “Hey, I’ve got my own business. I can make just as much money on my own, and I can just sit and do the work all day long myself.”

We create, as a system, whereby that work is spread out, that work is given to, where it’s appropriate, lower-level people, paralegals that can get work done and make you much more effective, because nobody that I know wants… Well, I know people that would love to work 17, 18 hours a day. No rational person wants to work that much. So if you have a great 8 to 6 job, 9 to 6 job, 9 to 7 job, and you can go home and not lose sleep, that’s the benefit we give. We have the support staff, the technology, the overall aid to really grow your practice in any way you want to, that’s available to you. So for me, keeping young lawyers, training young lawyers is important because I ultimately hire partners. As I hire new lawyers, I say, “Look, I’m not hiring an associate. I’m hiring a partner. And I see in you that potential. Now, you have to live up to that potential over the next several years. But it’s up to you to make that determination. We will help you get there. If you decide that for yourself, the best thing in the world is just to work on your own, you’re ultimately not going to be happy, because we work in team environments.”

Michael: Do you encounter associates who are really effective attorneys, but they just have a discomfort over stepping into that sort of marketing role?

Charles: Oh, absolutely. We’ve have associates over the years who just didn’t want to understand the need to understand that. They’re say, “Look, I went to law school to be a lawyer. I didn’t go to law school to be a business person.” “Great, I’m sure there’s a lot of firms out there that would love to hire you. They’re just not me.” I want to hire entrepreneurs. I want to hire lawyers who will look for business, who are personable and outgoing. But I’m familiar with the old saying, “There is minders, grinders, and finders.” A lot of big firm, we got to all have all three. No, not necessarily. And it doesn’t have to be separate people. I found stuff out, and I can mind with the best of them, but you add that last component of finders on there, and that’s the gem stone. Those are the lawyers you’re looking for and there’s a lot of people out there that have those classifications and qualifications.

Michael: Well and especially, I would think, and you tell me, but it seems like yours is a practice where finding the business and handling it well are not really disconnected, because when you help an individual, they want to tell their friends or you help an employer.

Charles: Right, if you have a happy client, I would say that 80% of our growth each year comes from referrals from current clients. And we track this stuff. Every new client who comes in, we ask them where they heard about us, about 80% comes from current clients. And we do a lot of advertising, that ‘s what bring in the other 20%, but I also tell my people, a happy client will tell one person, an unhappy client will tell a dozen. So if you want to lose business quickly, give crappy service. Don’t respond to phone calls on time, don’t answer emails right away, and then you would develop a reputation and nobody will send you their business. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are as a lawyer. If you don’t communicate with people, and they don’t see you as their aid, their true advocate because you’re always there for them, they’ll pay you but they’re going to be that happy about.

Michael: Yes. Well, okay, so one of the things we’re talking about before this conversation was you mentioned an interest in identifying, for other immigration practices, some of the fundamentals that you’ve put in place that have enabled you to be successful. Maybe I didn’t state that…

Charles: Well, I mean, what we talk about, when I was president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, that’s not a one year thing, you kind of work your way up to it, so doing leadership for half a decade, six years, and you get to know lots of lawyers. At the time, I think, there was 14,000 immigration lawyers that are part of our association, and you see a lot of people that are wildly, crazy successful, but you see a large chunk of people who barely scrape by. And you wonder why, doing the same type of law, even within the same city many times, is one person is wildly successful, doing great, providing great service, and somebody barely scraping by?

And what ends up happening is that the person barely scraping by will take anything that comes in the door, whether they’re qualified to do it or not. They might end up doing a crappy job. I mean, you can get disbarred or building a crappy reputation, they might undercharge, so that everybody’s, “Well, what do you charge in great lawyer X for when crappy lawyer charges Y for that, I can just go to crappy lawyer and get it done, because who knows, it’s all the same easy form you have to fill out.”

So my idea was we have to lift all lawyers. I mean, if we’re all better business people, if we all understand that we’re in this, not only for the massive and wonderful service we can give, but to also sustain and grow our families and our communities, we can all be better by. A rising tide, I’m a big Reagan fan, rising tide lifts all the boats that are in there. So part of that is teaching people to be better lawyers. And we created professionalism system within AILA, part of a wonderful professionalism person to really guide us on these issues, but we still find, many times, the immigration lawyers don’t reach out to them. They don’t understand, “Okay, for me to grow my business, I’ve got to do XYZ,” because we just don’t teach that in law school. It’s one of the massive failings of law school. Besides not teaching you how to be a lawyer, it will teach you how to grow a business and make money being the lawyer.

So my idea was I want to make sure that everybody gets better at what we do, because it will make us all better people and all better lawyers and help in a much greater way all the communities you work for.

Michael: So what are some of the fundamentals of immigration practice? One thing I was curious about, I mean, maybe you can describe a typical matter that you might handle and just what that typically costs or something, just to get a sense of like… or what is somebody else doing wrong that doesn’t approach it that way?

Charles: That’s the first kind of question somebody who doesn’t practice immigration will ask.

Michael: Okay, forgive me.

Charles: So no, no, this is the perfect set up. It’s a perfect set up, because people think, when they think you do immigration law, see, the guy that just swam across the Rio Grande, he’s in your office tomorrow. That’s very, very small part of immigration law. It’s a big part for some people, but most of us, it’s a very small part of immigration law. Immigration law starts every day when somebody goes to work, they get a new job, they’re filling out an immigration firm, that I-9. That I-9 is, in my opinion, was the world’s most complicated one-page form. Today, it’s the world’s most complicated four-page form. It has massive pitfalls, many errors that can be made. Nobody fills them out right, and so we end up representing employers.

So let’s say on employer gets an audit letter from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, that says, “Hey, we got a tip that says you’re hiring people that don’t aren’t documented. Show us all your I-9s.” And that your client calls you, “I’ve only got three days to get this to ICE.” So we come in and we self-audit in three days. We look at all the I-9s. We talk to employees. The employer fixes, we represent them in the audit process. A case like that can go on for a couple of years. It costs, you know, easy into six-figure kind of number, easy. Most immigration lawyers, including myself, practice on a flat fee. So most of the work we do is flat fee. An ICE audit, typically, wouldn’t be a flat fee.

Unless let’s say, that same employer then says, “Hey, we want to hire Gunter from Germany who’s got this incredible degree in engineering and we need him to come in here and help us develop this idea that we have and he is the only guy that can do it.” Okay. So we got to get Gunter an H1B visa. So we represent the employer and the employee — immigration is fraught with ethical challenges, dual representations all over the place — to get him that H1B. And that might be a $3,000-case plus another couple $3,000 of filing fees for the employer. So those are the kind of things you see that have nothing to do with the guy who come across the Rio Grande.

Then of course, you have the people, everybody knows right now, we have this large influx of South and Central American women and children coming across the border. Why? Well, we’ve done a great job of deporting criminals to those countries. Those countries do a crappy job of managing the criminals, and then those criminals end up running the country. So, there is rape, there is murder, there is extortion. People say, “I’m going to the country that will protect me.” So they run up to Mexico, they climb on the train, they get up to the Rio Grande, they knock on walls, “I want asylum.” So those kind of asylum cases we do, but a lot of them, those people truly don’t have a lot of money. So in immigration, we end up doing a lot of pro bono work. In any given year, our firm may do a couple hundred pro bono cases. All that we do, great training ground for young lawyers, but also you’re providing a remarkably good service.

But then you realize that people that have been here, the average immigrant, if you just say, what is the average immigrant look like today, or let’s eliminate those that are here with paper. Let’s limit it to the undocumented. The average undocumented immigrant today has been here for a decade, closer to 15 years. They’ve got two, three or four kids that are U.S. citizens. They go to work every single day in a job they’ve had for a decade. They typically drive without a license. They live in fear every day. They pay their taxes anyway. They’re just living their lives. So that person comes in the door, “What can you do for me?” Many times, we can do nothing, because if we had laws to fix this, we wouldn’t have 11 million people who are undocumented. We have undocumented people because our laws are terrible. They don’t make sense for 21st century economy.

But let’s say that person, in Georgia, this happens all the time, he gets stopped for a DWH, maybe you’ve heard about that, driving while Hispanic. And so he gets stopped, because “Oh, your window are tinted, they’re too dark. Let me see your license.” “Oh, I don’t have a license.” “Well, I have to take you to the jail.” You’re at the jail. ICE, Immigration and Customs shows up, “Oh, you’re undocumented, let me put you in deportation proceedings.” That person in deportation proceedings has a defense to deportation based on the time he has lived in the United States and having kids. So we can get him a work permit. We can extend that case out. We can fight that case. Now, at the end of the day, there is only 5% of those cases can be granted, and you know, certain judges are harder than other judges, but we can help defend that person. That might be a $5000 or $6000-case.

Rarely do you see, unlike one… I have a good friend who does Qui Tam law, and he has two cases. And he spends $2,000 a year on two cases. I might have 2,000 cases a year that I spend two hours on each. That’s how immigration works. So the immigration practice, I have friends that only do business case. I have one friend that only does one type of visa, all he does, and that’s his practice. He has got a good little practice from that.

But a practice like mine, we do the entire gamut of immigration law. Because from my perspective, when an individual comes to you, a company comes to you, they might bring in Gunther and Gunther, they may have a criminal conviction aboard. That’s going to be a problem. Well, because I do all the areas of immigration law, I identify that, recognize it and know how to fix it immediately, if it’s even fixable, before we spend $6000 or $8000 trying to bring Gunther, I can tell the employer, “Hey, it’s going to cost you extra, because here is what’s going on go on,” or I can say, “Gunther is never coming America, don’t worry about it. Find somebody else.”

So we practice, within our firm, every area of immigration law. From business to family, the person that wants to bring her fiancé in, the person that wants to get their spouse a green card, a person who wants to bring their brother or parents into the country, to deportation work and all kinds of asylum and refugee processing. So we do the entire gamut, because to me, that’s what the service law is. That’s where we can touch the most people.

Michael: Yeah, that makes sense. So well, okay, 5% of those cases are successful, that means the other 95% aren’t in those scenarios.

Charles: Limited scenarios, right.

Michael: Yeah, so what’s it like for a new associates and how do you help them kind of see that process of dealing with those kinds of numbers?

Charles: I got to say, I’m a big believer in going to the deep end of the pool and pushing the kid in. As long as you’re by their side and swimming with them, there’s nothing wrong with pushing them in. Now of course, we made sure they got some training. The American Immigration Lawyers Association provides an amazing amount of training and CLE available, but you really only get to know something truly within your soul when you do it. So you can read all the books, you can go to all the CLEs you want, but until you jump into that pool, you’re never really going to know how to swim.

So we sit by their side, we second-chair their trials. We make sure, we make sure they watch as a second-chair on our trials before we do that, and we make sure they have the ideas of how the process works. And as they come to me and say, “Here is my strategy for the trial.” I say, “Great. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?” “Oh, I want to get a bomb for somebody.” “Well, here’s how you might want to do that and explain to me how you’re going to make that happen in that case.” So we make sure, we articulate, we have meetings once a week just for our lawyers, and we get together at lunch, we strategize on the cases that are on top of their minds that are coming up, and we help them understand and get the experience first internally, and then when they go into that courtroom setting, so they know how to react. It doesn’t mean, they’re perfect. It doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. But what it does mean is they’re doing it with their safety vest on, with their life vest on, and they’re learning how to do it effectively.

Michael: Yeah, so I was just even thinking about it from the standpoint of their emotional experience, just kind of seeing so many of those things not work out.

Charles: Well, you know, do they get offended? I mean, they get troubled, “Oh, my gosh. Miguel got deported, he’s going to die.” Yeah, they might. And I’m not saying you have to develop a callousness, but in many ways, it’s like being a nurse or a doctor. Everybody is going to die eventually. And if you decide to practice it in an area like palliative care, you get used to seeing people die. Nobody wants to lose a case. I heard this one lawyer say, “I’ve never lost the case,” then you’ve never taken a hard case. You’ve never taken a pro bono case on some Guatemalan refugee that’s fleeing, that doesn’t really qualify for asylum. I can say the same thing. I only take easy cases, so I never lose a case.

So you help them understand. “Look, you might not win this case. But if you don’t win the case, it’s not really something you did, the law sucks. Your client did a terrible job on his testimony. There’s no evidence for what he says. He doesn’t come across as credible. You can’t make facts. You can just use the facts you have and present them in a way that’s best suited to the law. Sometimes even the law, you can’t do anything.”

Perfect example, somebody came to me recently, and they were sent by someone who refers me lots of work and a good friend, another lawyer, and that lawyer called me today and said, “Why can’t you help Paolo?” “So let me explain,” which I explain to him, “Paolo, I explained to Paolo why we couldn’t help him. Why he doesn’t qualify for anything.” But then I walked this other lawyer, who had no experience in immigration law, doesn’t know immigration law from a hole in the wall, I said, “Here’s why,” and I went through. She goes, “That sucks.” Yeah the law sucks. And there is a reason it sucks. It sucks because Congress hasn’t changed it in 25 years. And we live in a 20th century law and a 21st century society and economy. But until Congress fixes it, Paolo is going to have to just live in the shadows and we won’t be able to help Paolo, and that’s just what it is.

So part of it is just help people understand. And most lawyers that want to do immigration law, they’d taken a class in law school or they go to a lot of CLEs—they understand that there isn’t always a solution. It’s the same guy that you know, the same kind of personal attitude, want to practice criminal defense, well, you’ll probably lose at least half the time. This means your client is going to lose you. And do some of your innocent clients come to jail? Probably. Is it something you did? No, I mean, the law and the facts just worked against you. It just happens sometimes. So just like anything else in life, you don’t get used to losing, but you put in the perspective of where you’ve lost.

Michael: Well, okay, so I also was curious about… I did want to maybe ask you how you got involved in the various associations, testifying in Congress, I mean yeah, just kind of tell me how that all started?

Charles: Well, I mean, with AILA, AILA is a bottom-up organization. It’s an organization not run by an elite, at least in my opinion. Some people would dispute that. But to me, if you say, “I want to get involved in the most important association of my practice area for immigration lawyers,” that will be AILA. That means you join your local chapter. You join the national association. You go to your local chapter meeting, you run for a local office. So when I was Phoenix as a third year lawyer, I became a secretary of the Arizona Chapter of AILA. And two years later, I moved to Georgia and I ran for treasurer right after I got here. And so I became a treasurer of the association. And each year, I moved up, and four years later, I am the president of the chapter, I’m the chapter chair. So now, I’m on the national board, chapter chairs are on the board. So you go to the board meetings. You go to see AILA meetings, you get to know people.

And that’s the beauty. One of the great things about AILA, about immigration lawyers is it’s not a contest. Because of your love of your subject matter and who you’re helping, you don’t want anybody to fail. If fact, you get upset when you see bad lawyering because it impacts you and how you see those people failing, people you believe you could have helped. So you get to know who are the old timers, people in the area, the people that have experience. You go to lunch with them. You take them to dinner at these conferences and you get involved, you volunteer for panels.

So I early on, when I first joined AILA, I volunteered to write regulations that were being implemented because of the Immigration Act of 1990. So I got wholly involved in writing regs. I wrote articles for conferences. I went places to learn how to speak and volunteer to speak at conferences. And so I just became more known, and then I decided after I finish my term as chapter chair that I want to be on the board of AILA. So we have an elected board, so I ran for one of the board positions. And I didn’t get it. I lost. Okay. I ran the next year and then I got it. Now I serve in the board for two three-year terms. And I said, you know, I like to be on the executive. I think I can make a difference as an AILA president. So then I put my hat in the ring to run for secretary, which at the time, it was the lowest level of the executive, and I lost, also lost the election to a very dear friend of mine, a woman that I think is probably the best immigration lawyer in America. And I didn’t feel bad about losing. And so the next year, I ran again and I won, because we ran against me, then I worked my way up to president.

But for me, it was an enlightening experience, because first of all, by the time, I was president, I was spending 1000 to 1500 hours a year just on that, just on that. And I’m still running and growing a practice on the side, almost, when you’re AILA president. And I learned the importance of making sure you are using technology to your advantage, of making sure you had excellent people behind you, because I never could have done that without amazing partners, associates and staff. It was impossible.

Michael: Yeah, I mean, that’s just kind of what I was thinking about as you were describing that trajectory is like, okay, imagine someone who is listening to this and they maybe have a five-attorney firm and they know that you get involved in their local sort of analogous chapter, but who’s got the time for that. So was that the experience that you were having in just feeling like it was worth it, I’m going to do this or did you somehow have a circumstance that made that easier?

Charles: Well, I’m very lucky. I have married very young. I married at 22, I have an amazing wife. We have four great kids, and my youngest child is now 22. And I’m only 53. So I did all this while being the baseball coach, while being around the house, trying to get home before it got dark many nights in the summertime to look after the kids. But I had a very supportive spouse while going through this. If you’re single, it’s easy, right. If you’re a single, who cares about your home life? Just go and get this done. But if you have a family, you have to balance this out. And I was very fortunate. I was able to balance it out, but I effectively used technology to make things easy.

Even the ’90s, I had my laptop at home that was hooked up to the 2400-baud modem that was [modem sounds] sending my emails to my laptop at the house, while I put the kids to bed. So I get the email traffic taken care of that day. Early on in my career, I made a commitment to do a couple of things and it’s one of our policies in the firm today is every phone call gets returned the day it comes in, period, end of story. As long as it’s coming before 5:00, it gets returned that day. Every email that comes in before 4:00 gets answered that day. Even if it’s to say, “I can’t answer you in detail, I’ll get you tomorrow,” it gets responded to. And that way, you’re giving the service the client needs, but you also prioritizing those things that are important in your life.

So the question just becomes is how do you see it as important in your life. Would I have the firm I have today if I hadn’t been gone through the AILA leadership process? Probably not, probably not. Might have it been bigger? Maybe, but probably not. Because I gained a perspective, not only on the practice of law, but on the area I practice in and how human our interaction is. And that made it all very real to me.

Michael: And the other thing too is you have a network of experts that you can reach out to, to help you move cases forward.

Charles: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s what so great about being involved with an association like that, because immigration itself is a national law. It’s not just a Georgia law. So my clients are all over the country. I don’t just have clients in Georgia. I might have a need to have somebody present on the interview in LA. I pick up the phone and I say, “Hey Bernie, I need your help in LA. You got anybody you can spare next Tuesday?” BAM, that person’s at the interview. Same thing happens: he’ll call me. At the interview yesterday, we sent somebody over to the interview, or I need someone local. I need a conviction picked up at the local jail, local courthouse in Charlotte. I call somebody in Charlotte and say, “Hey, can you get this picked up?” “Sure, no problem.”

And then I have a topic that comes in that’s like my gosh, I’ve never seen this topic before but I know Kathleen would know the answer to this question. You email Kathleen, “Do you have 10 minutes for me, I need to pass something by you.” People do the same thing to me all day long. That doesn’t happen unless you put yourself forward into these associations. And you know I have friends who joined the Rotary Club or the Lions Club and that’s all great, but those guys at the Lions Club, they might or might not send you business, but they’re certainly not going to help you answer a question in your field.

So having your network, people in your field that you can bounce ideas off of that you can go into practice with is fantastic. Which is why I became part of and not only the president of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers, which is there’s just 20 of us in the U.S. and 30 of us around the world, outside the country, that meet a couple of times a year to talk about business management issues, practice management issues, topics of interest within our field to each make us better lawyers. And that idea being, “Do you think you can run the ship all by yourself? You’re insane. You can’t.”

And so having that support, even if it’s moral support or the idea of kind of a continuing practice management education, they hadn’t thought of that before, they don’t want to do that. For example, in one of our meetings, and people were talking about the things they do, how do we get employees to take vacations, big topic right now. So I came with the idea coming out of meeting, I’ll tell you what, I’m actually going to pay my employees, I’m going to refund them 20% of the cost of their vacation. They go on vacation, they say, “Here is what I spent on my vacation,” I will write them a check for 20% of that.

Michael: Great. So as opposed to people taking days off to just kind of deal with administrative things in their life and not really getting recharged and rejuvenated.

Charles: Right, I want you to go away for a week or two weeks. Now, I want all your stuff taken care of while you’re gone, but I want to incentivize you to take your vacation. One of the biggest problem with everybody, lawyers, is we don’t take enough vacation. There’s always an emergency. There’s always somebody getting arrested. There’s always somebody going to jail, always somebody who needs to come to the country tomorrow, always somebody stuck at the airport. But the reality is you can’t practice 24/7, 365. You’ve got to take a break.

And that’s one of the reasons of being in this associations is they all have CLEs, all go to cool places. You get a lot of flak with AILA. Why is AILA going to the Bahamas or why is AILA in Costa Rica in a conference, it’s so expensive. You know, some people need vacations. And to tie that in with the CLE is a great idea. It’s a great recharging, plus you renew those friendships that make your practice much more rewarding and allow you to see your practice through the eyes of other people.

Michael: Right. Yeah, because you can kid yourself about some shortcoming, but when you’re there talking to someone else, it becomes apparent.

Charles: Particularly in these ABIL meetings that I now go to mostly, as I talked about a lot, this happened in my office,” and you’re sitting there, silently going, “Okay, it happened to me too,” and he or she is talking about how they dealt with it, they go, “Wow, I clearly dealt with it wrong when I dealt with it. I’m going go back and fix that.” So every time, I go to these, I always bring back a nugget or two nuggets or three golden nuggets of information that made the whole weekend, the whole four days, absolutely worth the trip, because it changes the perspective. And if you’re relying on your own way of doing things and I’m going to read the newest book from the newest self-help guru, nothing replaces that interaction one on one with other people.

Michael: Yeah. Can you think of an example of another insight that you had in that context, like what’s something that you came back and modified after having a session?

Charles: Well, one thing we did, for example, was after a session, I had an equity partner and we had a young woman coming up that we wanted to make a partner and she had two peers at the same level when we were going to go, you know, are we going to have a non- equity partnership. And so I went to this meeting right before we were making this decision, and what was interesting about it is I was able to bounce this off people, this idea, that had just gone through it. And I was able to pick their ideas.

“Okay, if you’re going to do non- equity, here is what works, here is what’s worked for us.” I’m thinking, “I never thought about that.” Okay, so we can take that non-equity and say, “You’re not going to give us any money to join, to become a partner, so here’s how we’re going to work your compensation going forward,” and it was a brilliant way that I’d never would have thought of doing it in this context. Taking part of the equity partner’s equity, setting it aside for non- equity partners, but having them qualify for that, not being automatic, and then making sure that if they did qualify, there was actually money there. And that whole idea came out of one of these meetings.

I can tell you, there is dozens of ideas like that have come out over the last 15 years, just from coming to these meetings. I think, it’s one of the things that managing partners and that lawyers that run firms don’t do enough of. The bar makes us do CLE, but they only offer one practice management session. If you’re a managing partner, you want to be a managing partner, you want to run your own practice, you should be mandatorily made to go through financial training, HR training, just interaction with people, how to talk to people, how to motivate people kind of training, because that’s the way you’re going to be successful in your practice. I have colleagues that I know that churn staff faster than they can hire them. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. They just literally, you talk to them a year later, they is a whole new set of staff.

So most of my staff, I’ve had them here for 18, 17, 15 years, because we treat them, well, we make sure, we treat them well, and we give them opportunities. We have another idea that we use that I came up with that’s really bouncing it off colleagues, when you’re with me for five years, I’m going to give you an extra week of vacation, on top of whatever vacation you have, and that vacation, I’m going to pay for it. I’m going to pay for your vacation in the U.S. Ten years, I will send you anywhere in the world you want to go with your spouse, I’ll pay for it. We’re paying for that. Fifteen years, we will pay your mortgage for six months. People get motivated by different kinds of stuff. Maybe that motivates some people, maybe it doesn’t motivate other people. But it’s enabled us to have a level of competency among our staff that makes it easy to trust them and makes it easy to allow us to say, “Yes, we can do your work, client, because we’ve got this amazing staff person that’s been with me for 18 years and you can trust her with your life.”

Michael: Have you, as the firm has grown, seen needs evolve such that people who were really fundamental and valuable early on maybe don’t continue to have the skills that are needed in today’s present environment?

Charles: Absolutely. There are people that are stuck in the ’90s or the 2000s, that when you bring in, “Hey, here is our new system that will assist you,” “I can’t run that system.” “Well, then you’re not going to be able to work here, because this is our new system. This is what we’re going to do.” And you might know who that person is, so you don’t just dump it on them like a Gatorade pail of ice water. “Here’s what we’re thinking about,” involve them in the process. Get them to gain ownership and then that transition becomes easy. But yeah, every now and then, there is that person that just won’t follow the rules, just “You’re wrong and I’m right,” and that’s just the way it is. And those people are toxic and should be gone.

There is a great book out there called “Hire Slow, Fire Fast.” And it means you should try to not keep…and I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve kept toxic people around, because I hate firing people. I hate getting rid of people. I’m a softy. But that’s why I hired an office manager, now I don’t have to do that stuff. She can do this stuff for me. But even then, it’s hard to say, “Oh this person’s been with me for 10 years, and she was great early on. But we’ve become more of a team and we’re not getting the value and the salary’s going up,” and so yeah, at a certain point, you got to say, “It’s hurtful, it’s hard, but I’m sorry, we’re going to move on, and here’s your check, have a nice day.”

Michael: I’ve always felt there is a place for loyalty, and yet sometimes, there is a conflict between that value and the needs of the business. And I’ve struggled with that over the years, but I had an insight and I’m curious what your thoughts are on this is basically, the real loyalty should be to the collective rather than to a particular individual.

Charles: You sound like you’re the Borg.

Michael: Yeah, well, but look, we’re all just trying to steer the ship through the choppy waters of the marketplace where success is not guaranteed.

Charles: My perception is this loyalty is a two-way street. So part of me being loyal to you, you being loyal to me is that you’re making the efforts to stay on top of where we are as a firm. So you can be loyal, “I think Chuck is the greatest guy. He’s amazing. I love working here, but I’m not going to read any stuff that comes out this month or this year. I’m not going to continue,” because immigration, for example, changes every stinking day. There is something that goes on. Yesterday, they decided that if you’re a dual citizen of Syria and Iraq or Iran, and you’re from the European Union, you can’t come on a visa waiver anymore. Oh, my God, now, we got to go through all our systems and see who’s a dual citizen and alert them to that.

Well, if my person says, “I’m not going to leave that stuff. You’ll just tell me what’s important.” At that point, you’re not being loyal to the firm. You’re not being loyal to the group, and you’re making my job harder, you’re making your colleague’s job harder whose doing it. So part of that loyalty is absolutely a two-way street. It’s staying on top of things. It’s being your best every day. It’s not just expecting the best from your boss.

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s what I meant by the “to the collective,” but yeah, it’s definitely the same.

Charles: Once again, I’m thinking the Borg collective comes right to mind. As a Star Trek guy, I’m thinking…

Michael: “You will assimilate.”

Charles: Yeah, you will. We will assimilate you. We just…

Michael: Well, let’s see. Is there anything that I maybe didn’t ask you about specifically but that you would like to highlight in this theme of improving your practice through just being on top of your game?

Charles: Well, it’s much more than that too. I mean, there is a lot of stuff that’s changing every day. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on. I think that staying on top of trends and reading business books, I mean, if you’re managing a law firm, if you’re running a law firm, or want to run a law firm, you got to know how to run a law firm. There is some good materials up. The ABAs got great stuff. That ABA’s Law Practice Management section is unparalleled in helping understand how to run a business. So getting that best advice is absolutely important. So keeping on top of that, my suggestion is if you’re not an ABA member, I’m not a huge fan of the ABA, but I’m only a member of the Law Practice Management section, because that’s the only one that’s really relevant to my life. AILA is separate and apart from the ABA, and I don’t have to worry about it, that part of it. So understanding what’s going on, understanding trends.

And the next is really our understanding where technology is going. I’ll give you a great example. Three or four years ago, we were having massive server problems. The building we were in had a power failure. We lost a server. $10,000 later, we’re trying to recover stuff, and somebody said, “You should go to the cloud.” Three or four years ago, I checked it, cloud wasn’t a good place. It wasn’t where it is today. And then six months ago, we go, “Now, it’s time for the cloud.” And do I regret not going sooner? No, because I let somebody else work out that bug, but I knew it existed. I said, “I’m top of it and I knew, we went to move us,” And it’s been, in many ways, liberating for our staff, for our attorneys who can now pick up their iPad, push a button, and they’re sitting at their desk. And everything is accessed to everything. And I know I’m not worried about the power going out, because I don’t have any servers in my office. And yet we’re protected with a security features that I couldn’t afford if I was doing it on my own. So keeping on top of technology is vitally important.

And at the same time, keeping that human touch of your employees, doing those little things, every month, we have a staff, all employee lunch. And because we are immigration law, we do ethnic lunches. Every month, we find one of our clients that might have a restaurant site, “Would you cater Lebanese food? Would you cater Caribbean food?” And we bring in cool stuff. We have a good meeting and we let the staff talk, “What are your issues? What do you see going on? What are you having problems with? What do you have questions about? And what are your complaints about?” And I want people not to be shy and my staff is not shy. They will say, “Chuck, the way you do this is stupid.” I’ll go, “You’re right, that is a stupid idea. But I’m not going to change it.” Or if I might say, “Great idea, I’m going to change that going forward.”

One of the big complaints in my practice is I have the world’s worst handwriting, flat out, world’s worst handwriting. And so I’ll get better at it. Why don’t you take notes in writing, well, and type it, well, I have the world’s greatest typist. See, if I’m good at it, but when you’re sitting and talking to somebody, you don’t want them typing when you’re talking. So that’s one of the things we’re working on. But being responsive to staff will make your firm run much better.

Michael: Yeah, well, that makes sense. Well, thank you so much. I really, really enjoyed the conversation and…

Charles: It’s a pleasure. It’s been great speaking with you.

Key Links

Show Notes

  • How Charles got his start in immigration law [2:28]
  • Leaving a big firm to start his own when he felt their non-equity partnership agreement didn’t recognize the value of his contribution [8:04]
  • ”It’s way more fun being the king than it is being the peasant.” [9:22]
  • Taking the lessons of being frustrated by the large firm and using them to guide his own approach to leadership [9:55]
  • Why an attorney with a book of business wants to stay at the firm rather than go out on their own [13:08]
  • The value of hiring lawyers who have an entrepreneurial mindset [14:47]
  • The key elements immigration attorneys need to know to be successful [17:00]
  • What does a “typical” immigration practice look like? [18:28]
  • The process and the benefits of becoming active in national associations [30:15]
  • Finding a way to make sure employees take vacations [38:10]
  • The power of peer networking [39:30]
  • Loyalty is a two-way street [45:17]