By Tatum Wheeler • April 26, 2019•Ms. JD, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination, Women and Law in the Media
I am pleased to introduce Ms. Genie Doi, founder and attorney-in-chief of immigrate.la and of counsel to ESG Law. Genie worked at top immigration firms in the Los Angeles Area after graduating from Loyola Law School with a concentration in Immigrant Advocacy in 2014. Prior to starting immigrate.la to handle immigration services for the Silicon Beach community in 2017, Genie served as General Counsel and Vice President of Operations for a mobile app development company. Genie became of counsel to ESG Law in 2018, joining Ms. Krista Hiner in the first US law firm devoted to esports.
Thank you so much for your time today! Let’s jump in. When you entered law school, did you know you wanted to do immigrant advocacy work? What was the process of receiving the Immigrant Advocacy Concentration like, and what pros and cons were associated with choosing a concentration?
Ms. Doi: I had no intention of going to law school at all. My dad asked me to consider going to law school. This was around 2009 during the economic downturn, and so the advice I received at the time was to get as much as work experience as possible. Drawing from that advice, instead of going to law school full-time, I decided to go part-time. I didn’t want to end up with lots of debt and no job. By going to law school part-time, I was hoping to take on internships and law clerk opportunities nearby, trying one new thing every semester. Coincidentally, the first firm that responded to me was an immigration practice. Once I started doing immigration work, I fell in love with it. In immigration, you’re able to learn people’s backstories and cultures. I also enjoyed the aspect of interacting directly with clients.
Concentrations were relatively new to Loyola when I chose to add it to my degree—I was part of the inaugural class. I decided to complete the concentration because it provided priority enrollment to immigration courses, required externship hours in an immigration practice, and added a diploma notation. It also provided me exposure to professors who are leaders in the field and who I still keep in touch with today. There were no downsides to the concentration as Loyola allowed us to choose whether or not to include the concentration on our transcripts—or even get one copy of our transcript with the notation, and one copy without it.
You’ve had experience in many different practice settings, from working for a small firm, to working in-house, to now managing your own firm and serving as of counsel to ESG Law. What were the biggest hurdles to changing practice settings?
Ms. Doi: Being completely honest, based on my age and my professional experience, it looks like I jumped around in my legal career quite a bit. I used to think of that as detrimental, as it might show potential employers that I can’t stick around. But I now see it as beneficial as I’ve had the opportunity to try things out and have come to understand in a short amount of time (rather than decades) what the right fit is for me—which is running my own firm.
I started practicing in a small firm, where I got a wide range of immigration experience and was involved in all aspects of practice management, including billing and marketing. I eventually went to a big immigration firm which totally changed my day-to-day experience. In the big firm setting, I felt like a cog in a machine. I focused on a single type of immigration work, as opposed to taking on different types of cases like I had in the small firm. Although this allowed me to deep dive into specific topics and get valuable training, I didn’t like the inefficiency of the billable hours requirement. As a millennial, billable hours felt so counterproductive. I would spend 2 hours driving to and from work in traffic and spend another 10 hours at my desk, but could only bill 8 hours. That kind of lifestyle was not sustainable for me.
Many of the start-up clients I was working with at the time were truly at the forefront of business and technology and I wanted to be the same way. I sought out an innovative, more fast-paced environment. Going in-house afforded me the opportunity to do so, as well as provided me valuable insight into how my clients operate. I now understand how quickly I need to respond to my clients and the kind of business-oriented solutions they need, which are often not old-school legal memoranda which present non-answers.
What advice would you give to those thinking about starting their own firms? What aspects of owning your own practice do you most enjoy, and how do you maintain self-care?
Ms. Doi: Starting your own firm is scary. It is absolutely terrifying. No matter how good of an attorney you are, being a businessperson is not something lawyers are typically trained or equipped for. For example, starting your own firm requires you to market yourself, hire people, and manage a payroll, which lawyers aren’t usually taught to do. As a solo practitioner, you often learn by making mistakes. The downside of this is that when you’re working alone, you can be really hard on yourself for making those mistakes.
It’s important to find other solo practitioners that can be your support system. Online communities, bar associations, and mentors are all ways to find community in the practice of law. I’ll often run my ideas and get advice from my support team. You’d think in solo practice that everyone is competing against each other, but really, we’re all in this together. People readily share advice and resources, because they know how important it is to pay it forward.
One of the aspects of owning my own practice that I most enjoy is the freedom. I have a two-year old, so having that flexibility is important to me. Kids are unpredictable, and being a solo practitioner allows me to have the availability and presence that I want to give to my child. I can drive to my son’s day care and take him to the doctor at a moment’s notice if needed. If my refrigerator breaks down and I need a plumber, I can clear my schedule to do so. I don’t have to answer to a higher power on how to manage my own time and schedule. That being said, being a responsive attorney is still challenging, since I’m often glued to my phone and answering calls and emails most days and nights.
I’ll be honest in saying that I’m currently not doing the best job at self-care; with the recent upheavals in immigration law, I’ve been taking on more pro bono work that can sometimes become all consuming. However, I believe that self-care is a product of discipline and I’ve been doing my best to build it into my schedule. For example, I will schedule one weekday a month where I refuse calls and meetings and instead go to yoga, have lunch with a friend, read, or binge watch Netflix. When you don’t take care of yourself, you’re actually doing a disservice to your clients. Overextending yourself by working 7 days a week or responding to emails all night long will cause you to burn out, which often means that you won’t be able to unleash the most creative aspects of yourself.
I recently read that visas for esports athletes are on the rise. What immigration issues do you think are unique to sports?
Ms. Doi: There is more crossover between esports and traditional sports than people realize. Esports players receive an athlete visa. Athlete visas don’t define which specific sports qualify, but instead focus on overarching qualities that sports have, such as leagues, formal rules, and international competitions. Up until three months ago, it wasn’t that difficult to make an argument that esports also qualify. But beginning this January, the application process has become much more difficult, with the agency challenging and denying even strong cases. I thought this was unique to esports until I went to a conference where I learned that even Olympic swimmers, track athletes, and others are all being scrutinized more heavily in immigration proceedings.
While there’s been no regulatory change, President Trump issued Executive Order 13788 (“Buy American, Hire American”), which includes the following language:
“In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests, it shall be the policy of the executive branch to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad, including section 212(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(5)).”
The manuals used by officers have now been updated with a reference to this provision. With this in mind, immigration officers are now tasked with sniffing out potential fraud in every case. This means that although immigration officers are required to apply the “preponderance of the evidence” (more than 50% likely) evidentiary standard, they are in effect applying a much higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” (99% true) standard. This is contrary to the law and outside the executive branch’s constitutionally granted powers.
Have you noticed any differences in how female and male immigration applicants are evaluated?
Ms. Doi: I always prepare my clients before a visa interview, and I’ve noticed that I feel compelled to give some of my female clients “additional” advice. For instance, when prepping clients who are engineers, executives or managers, I know the officer will second-guess a female applicant’s qualifications if she doesn’t “look” the part. Interviews of this type typically run 1-3 minutes so it is crucial that applicants make a good immediate impression. With that in mind, I often advise my younger female clients to dress conservatively or opt for natural hair color and nude nail polish. It’s unfortunate because some of my clients have beautiful unicorn colored hair or incredibly elaborate manicures, and I have to advise them to change who they are just so they can meet an officer’s presumed assumption of what an executive or engineer looks like. But these officers go through upwards of 100 interviews a day and don't have a lot of time to really get to know the applicant. I give them this advice as I want to give my clients the best opportunity to succeed.
Finally, are there any resources you can share with those interested in immigration law or starting their own firm?
Ms. Doi: If you’re interested in immigration law, join a local bar association with an immigration centered practice group. For instance, in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Bar Association has an immigration subgroup that includes a listserv providing resources, mentors, answers to procedural questions, and even practice management advice. Additionally, the American Immigration Lawyers Association offers students memberships with mentorship and internship opportunities. Facebook has also been an incredible resource for me. I’m part of a group called AMIGAS which stands for “Association of Mother Immigration Attorneys as well as the Sports Immigration Lawyers Conference.
In terms of starting your own firm, check out the Gen Y Lawyer Podcast. It includes interviews with millennial lawyers and attorneys who are thinking outside of the box. That podcast helped me realize that if I didn’t find a job that fit my values, I would need to create my own. The resources and stories from the podcast also gave me the initiative and tools to start my own firm.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Ms. Doi!
Tatum Wheeler is a first-year law student at UC Irvine. When she’s not studying, she spends her free time exploring the coastline, connecting with friends and family, and cheering on her favorite sports teams. Please feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or further advice.