Now that the coronavirus has forced most immigration law firms to figure out how to “work from home” (WFH), it’s more important than ever to do it the right way – to ensure that clients continue to be served, casework goes on and business disruption is minimized. Now more than ever it’s becoming clear that remote work capabilities are technology capabilities.
But of course, no immigration law firm is the same, and there’s a big distinction between business firms – those that handle work visas, employment-based green cards, investment visas, and other similar matters, and those that handle family, asylum, deportation defense and other non-business immigration cases.
So, in this article, we’ll break down a few key differences between these two types of firms within the context of coronavirus changes, discuss some of their unique demands and offer a few suggestions as far as how to adapt to a fully remote workforce.
Business immigration firms
We’ll start off with business immigration firms. This category is quite broad, but generally, these are immigration firms whose clients include for-profit and nonprofit organizations, sole proprietors, investors, and high-net-worth individuals. In many instances, correspondence and information transfer with these clients tends to be digital – law firms use robust immigration case management platforms that enable these sophisticated clients to log into their own portals, fill in some if not all their own information, upload important documentation, etc.
There’s email exchange, video conferencing, virtual document review and usually little, if any, human contact. Indeed, immigration law firms and their corporate clients are often located in different states, sometimes even on different coasts. The point is that these business relationships have been virtual for some time already.
So, with the current coronavirus pandemic forcing both law firms and businesses around the country to start working remotely, client correspondence with corporate clients actually hasn’t changed much. But that doesn’t mean that work can now go on as usual – from court filings to the proper use of technology, here are a few things that business immigration firms should be thinking about now as they transition over to a fully remote business.
- Create shifts for printing and shipping applications. While the US isn’t in total lockdown – at least not yet – only those employees who absolutely can’t do their work remotely, including healthcare providers who work with patients, sanitation workers, police officers, and others, should be leaving their homes for work. In the business immigration context, while much of the work can be done remotely, many visa applications still need to be printed and shipped out by mail. The H-1B for example, cannot be e-filed, which means once all the documents are drafted and gathered, the full petition must be printed and mailed to the USCIS for adjudication. If you are in this situation and you must designate someone from your firm to print and ship applications, try to create shifts so that only one or two people are in the office at any given time printing, preparing and shipping out these applications. If you can print it at home, you can also schedule a FedEx pickup to make it easy and minimize time outside.
- Digitize paper-based compliance processes. Some processes are traditionally paper-based and must be done in order to stay compliant. Staying with the H-1B visa, the one that comes to mind is the labor condition application (LCA) process, whereby employers must post an LCA notice at worksites where their H-1B worker will be working for a minimum of ten days, and then create a public inspection file called a public access file (PAF) to keep on-site as well. This is a traditionally paper-based process that must be completed, and companies that have traditionally relied on hanging hard-copy posting notices that their employees can see will no longer be able to do that since they won’t be in the office to hang these notices and the rest of the company won’t be there to see them. Luckily, at least in this instance, the US Department of Labor allows for compliance digitally, which means that companies can consider electronic LCA compliance, which can be done remotely.
- Use immigration case management solutions more effectively. Even though business immigration firms already tend to be heavy immigration case management software users, they don’t always use every feature and function, meaning a lot of the process is still left to back-and-forth email, phone calls, etc. And while phone and email are also remote, they can be much less effective. As law firms transition to being fully remote, replacing email with, say, a client portal will allow HR staff members or, to continue with our example, H-1B candidates, to securely upload documents and information, which will lead to less time spent on back-and-forth emails, less information and files getting lost in the digital shuffle and less headache during an already hectic period of transition. INSZoom has multiple features that can help law firms leverage the platform to more easily transition to a fully remote team – from the client portal mentioned above to our Zoomee virtual assistant that can take on administration work while your human staff work on more important and pressing matters.
Family, asylum and other non-business immigration firms
Non-business immigration law firms use case management tools to manage their documents and case docket too, but their client relationships tend to be different. Whether it’s asylum seekers who feel more comfortable sharing their case history in person or a family trying to get a set of green cards, these client relationships are often more personal and, because of that, in-person. Therefore, this presents its own set of challenges.
So, in addition to some of the suggestions noted above, here are a few more considerations for firms transitioning to a fully remote staff to keep their business running as smoothly as possible.
- Fully virtual client meetings or very limited staff. First, try to make all your client meetings virtual – whether through services like Zoom, Bluejeans or Google Hangouts, or even just through a Whatsapp or Facebook video call – to keep the face-to-face interaction while taking human exposure into account. In more sensitive cases, clients may prefer to see your face when talking to you, so keeping as much of the “humanness” of an in-person meeting as possible is a great way to keep meetings effective. If it’s absolutely impossible to make the meeting virtual, and if it’s imperative to have the meeting now because of, say, a looming deadline, consider asking just one or two staff members to come into the office – the lawyer or staff member to speak to the client and maybe one administrative staff member to help with other tasks. And during the client meeting, make it clear that you won’t be shaking their hand, that you may sit on the other side of a long table, etc., as a safety precaution and not out of disrespect.
- On-demand virtual translation services. If you do manage to get your clients to meet over the phone or virtually, and if you would normally have an in-person translator handy, you can either conference that person in to translate or use a translation service not unlike what’s used in courtrooms or hospitals. Whether you dial them in or have them join your meeting, you can continue working with your clients who may not be English speakers without the traditional office setting.
Stay flexible and see what works – we’re all in this together
Coronavirus has turned the immigration industry on its head. From travel restrictions and USCIS office closures to suggested, or in some cases mandated, work-from-home quarantines, immigration lawyers, employers, and individual applicants are all trying to figure out what’s happening at the same time.
As we navigate these changes together, it’s important to keep an open mind and to stay flexible in terms of work capabilities. If an employee or even a client suggests something new to keep the firm’s business going, give it a try. If you have to, buy your employees’ laptops or tablets to help them get set up at home. Give them some time to get used to working from home, and be understanding of frustrations that may come up, likely from all sides.
As for INSZoom, we’re making day-to-day changes as well – you can read about it here. And we’re working with our clients to deliver the best possible service now that it’s more important than perhaps ever before. So if there’s anything we can do to help you, or if you have any questions as to how INSZoom can support your law firm or team, please reach out to us today.