By Victor Gotevbe, Publisher / Editor-in-Chief
Immigration Law is undoubtedly a very complex area of law. The laws and policies are continually changing. These changes are not peculiar to any country. The United States of America has seen several of these modifications incorporated in its Immigration system under this political dispensation. Keeping up with the changes requires skillfulness. Hence, Diplomatic Watch made arrangement to talk with a brilliant Maryland based Immigration Attorney, Kate Stenlake, who graciously shares her thoughts on some challenges faced by Immigration Attorneys amidst the complexities of the Immigration System, some strategies deployed in navigating the US immigration laws and regulations, and she talks about her background leading to how she ended up as an Attorney.
Kate’s practice is centered on Immigration and Domestic matters, representing clients in Immigration court in Maryland. She is a member of the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) and the American Immigration Lawyers Associate (AILA).
Please tell us about your journey into becoming an Immigration Attorney.
I graduated from college with a degree in Sociology and Psychology but was unclear in my actual career path. I had a feeling graduate school was in my future, but wasn’t sure in what form. I was applying for jobs left and right and finally ended up with a boring Administrative Assistant position at a law firm that did insurance reimbursement for hospitals (boring!). I was promoted to Reimbursement Analyst, and I hated it; I spent most of the day on hold with insurance companies. But, I still didn’t know what direction to go in. I was there for about a year and half, when one day we had a staff meeting and one of the Attorneys started talking about some research he was doing for an argument we could make against an Insurance company. I remember the rest of the staff’s eyes glazing over as he went on and on about how the contract said this, but we could argue this, and this would be the outcome, etc, etc, and I was in pure awe. It was like a scene from a movie where the light bulb all of a sudden goes off, or fireworks, or angels singing. I honestly wasn’t following what he was saying at all but it was the process his mind was going through that got me. How he had the law, the problem, and he was figuring out a way to make the pieces fit to solve the puzzle. I have always been a problem solver and loved to study, and I finally saw how I could put these skills to work. A couple of weeks later, I bought an LSAT Prep book and I was on my way. So that is how I got into the law. Next, I was in law school but still didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in. All I knew was that I wanted to help people. After my first year of law school, I signed up for an internship program to be paired with a law firm. Because I had studied Spanish in college, they ended up placing me at a first that does immigration law, and when I worked on my first asylum case, I was hooked and I have never looked back.
What motivated you to become a Solo Practitioner?
I worked at a small firm for my first few years out of Law School and it was a great way for me to learn and practice with a mentor and without the stresses of trying to find new clients or figure out how a trust account actually works. After a few years though, I had really mastered the basics and was coming into my own and wanted more autonomy. I had watched several of my colleagues in my cohort go out on their own and thrive, and they were frequently encouraging me to do the same. One day, I just knew it was time, so I went out for drinks with a colleague and asked, “how do I actually do this?” A couple of weeks later, I had registered my business name and purchased my online domain and before I knew it, The Law Office of Katherine Stenlake was born.
Can you describe what a typical workday and or typical work week looks like for Kate Stenlake Law firm?
There really is no typical workday or even work week in immigration law these days. Between government shutdowns, drastic policy changes, or global pandemics, immigration practitioners have to constantly adjust their practices to meet the demands of the day. The beauty of being a solo practitioner also means that as my personal life changes, I can also adjust my practice to meet my own needs. I recently had my first child, so I was able to adjust my work days/weeks to meet the demands of pregnancy and now having an infant at home. But, when things are operating normally, it is not uncommon for me to be in court in the morning a couple of days a week. Most of my hearings are in the Baltimore immigration court, which is walk able from my office, but I also travel across the State to various State family courts to do a special type of immigration/family law case (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status); so, sometimes this means getting up very early to drive an hour and a half for an morning hearing. I also typically have a couple of appointments in the office, whether they are new consults or with current clients to go over applications, affidavits, or to discuss the next steps in cases. In between court and appointments, I have to respond to client inquiries, which come in by phone, text, and email. I have two Assistants who help me a lot, but I have to keep up with them and assign them work or else they don’t know what to do. I review all the forms and letters they prepare before they get sent out. I do my best to make time every day for real “legal work,” such as drafting briefs, researching issues, reviewing case histories, developing case strategies, working on clients affidavits/testimony, prepping for hearings, but it is not uncommon for a day to get away from me with little of this type of work.
What services does your firm offer and why would anyone contact you for help given the fact that just as there are good lawyers in Maryland, there are also very bad lawyers who would go for the money even when a case lacks merit?
I focus primarily on family immigration, asylum cases, and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases. I pride myself in being honest with my clients, even brutally honest if necessary. I am not afraid to explain to someone during an initial consult the weaknesses I see in a case. I want my client to fully understand the risks as I see them, especially since I am dealing with immigrants who potentially have a lot to lose if the case goes badly. I often will tell someone to save their money and not hire me, even if there is potentially a case. One of my lines is “it would be in my best interest to take your money and work on this case, but I am telling you to walk away and keep your money.” I don’t like to lose, so I am not going to take a losing case just to get the money. I also have to sleep at night, and money is not worth destroying someone’s life. As Immigration Attorneys, we really can potentially hold people’s lives in their hands, and it is important to not lose sight of that when money is at stake.
Have there been lessons you have learned from mistakes and challenges in practice as an Immigration Attorney given the complex nature of American immigration laws and policies.
A true challenge is keeping up with all the policy changes. When you have a new case, there isn’t just one source to check to find out how to handle it. In immigration law, there is the Board of Immigration Appeals opinion, circuit opinions, Supreme Court law opinions, but also knowing what your individual trial judge’s stance. There are also federal laws, policy memos and AG opinions. Forms are updated and forms requirements change. Cases can be severely impacted if you miss a major or even minor change in policy, and that can impact the outcome of an entire case, so that is extremely challenging.
In view of the current immigration climate, what drives your passion to be your own boss?
With everything being so chaotic in Immigration Law, I am grateful that I have the ability to choose the types of cases I take and handle the cases the way that I see best.
Under the present administration, would you say it is an interesting time to practice immigration law following the seemingly regular review of immigration policies and more importantly the realities that some of your clients experience?
I think there is currently a common misconception that if you go into Immigration Law, you will be able to fight the policy changes head on, by, for example, liberating children from cages. Going into immigration law isn’t actually about guaranteeing a pathway to citizenship for all your clients or even preventing each deportation- it is about explaining to them the legal framework they are in, managing expectations, and giving them the opportunity to go through the process as humanely as possible. I see my role as making sure my client is as calm and prepared as possible for the day they are finally judged by our immigration system, so that we both know that they had the best chance possible and we can both be at peace with the outcome. It is harder these days to do my job because of how quickly the policies change. This unfortunately sometimes leads clients to believe I am not capable or outright lying to them which leads to distrust. Trust is key to a good Attorney-Client relationship, so this has been the hardest part of the current immigration climate.
Are you also looking at your law firm working independent of you in the near future?
No. I am very happy with how things are and I have a lot more growing to do before anything like that is possible. I would like to have a Law Clerk though!
What advice would you give to any person who intends to pursue a career in immigration law and may want to become a solo practitioner like you?
I highly recommend working closely with a mentor for as long as possible before venturing into solo practice. There are so many nuances to immigration law, in addition to the stresses of managing a practice, that it would be very easy to get in over your head. Even now, though I am a “solo,” I have many colleagues whom I check in with regularly to discuss case strategy, new case law, or how judges are interpreting new policies. If I didn’t have this support system, I would be completely lost.