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Quick, name the hottest practice areas right now. Corporate? Intellectual Property? High tech? How about immigration law? If that last one wasn’t on your list, it should be, say big-firm practitioners. With high-volume caseloads, low rates and heavy use of paralegals, immigration practices traditionally had been viewed as ill-suited for the big-firm umbrella and had operated as boutiques instead. But since the 1980s, when companies began a dealmaking frenzy that spread their operations across the globe and created a constant flow of immigration matters, a handful of large firms have quietly developed immigration practices. Both big-firm and boutique lawyers say that as the economy continued to expand, fueled by technological advances, their practices morphed from shops that largely relied on individual clients into ones that primarily served corporations. “Now, you have a lot more purely domestic corporations, which never thought they’d be dealing with immigration issues, but go to the universities and find that [a large amount] of the top 20 percent of the graduating classes in the sciences, computer sciences and engineering are foreign nationals,” says H. Ronald Klasko, of Philadelphia’s Dechert Price & Rhoads. Today’s immigration lawyers also have a broader role. Take Lance Director Nagel, of Palo Alto, Calif.’s Cooley Godward, who heads the firm’s immigration practice and serves as counsel to Toyota Motor Corp., Apple Computer Inc., American Online Inc. and eBay Inc. Nagel’s practice is far from the visa-crunching service that promises cheap rates to keep paperwork flowing. He spends just as much time advising clients on their human resources needs, counseling them about which jobs likely can — and which probably can’t — be filled by bringing in foreign workers. Equally important, Nagel is charged with making sure that multinational corporate clients are able to transfer key personnel into the country when needed — a task that is a crucial part of merger and other deal negotiations. Ralph A. Donabed, who owns his own immigration law boutique in Boston and estimates that 90 percent of his practice is business-related, says that the local immigration bar has exploded. Most of his clients are computer-related companies looking for networking and Internet-related communications expertise. But other lawyers stress that it is not just high-tech companies demanding foreign workers. Dechert Price’s Klasko says that his clients are a diverse lot, from software companies to academic institutions and health care organizations. Daryl R. Buffenstein, who heads the immigration practice at Los Angeles’ Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and serves as general counsel to the AILA, says that his clients hiring specialized foreign workers include major manufacturing companies. And they’re not just hiring in the hard sciences, he says, but in areas such as finance and marketing. Lawyers say that skilled temporary worker visas, known as H-1Bs, have become virtually the only way for foreign nationals to work in this country legally while applying for a permanent resident alien’s “green card.” That’s because in 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which bars otherwise-eligible green card holders from entry into the United States if they had previously been unlawfully in the country. The result of that law, attorneys say, has been a shift in immigration practice dramatically away from laborers to the highly skilled. Many lawyers find themselves working for corporate clients that must show they have no option but to fill specialized slots with foreign professionals. If approved by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Labor, H-1B applicants may work in the United States for six years before they are required either to obtain a valid green card or to leave. UPS AND DOWNS The shift in immigration practice from the labor to the professional class has a downside for lawyers such as Donabed, whose Assyrian father came to this country in 1920 as a barber. “There was a lot of psychic reward in helping [nonprofessionals]. … It was such a gift to them, the green card, that you would get Christmas cards from them for years,” he says. The upside to the shift in practice, however, is that it has become much more lucrative because corporate clients supply practitioners with a much heavier caseload than most could round up by targeting individuals, Donabed says. America Online is one example of the new corporate client. Paul Onitsuka, manager of the company’s global human resources services, oversees international assignments, transfers, relocations and immigration. The largest issue he faces, he says, is the cap Congress has placed on the number of H-1B visa applications granted each year. This year, the INS stopped accepting H-1B petitions in March for fiscal year 2000 employment because the service estimated that it already had reached the statutory cap of 115,000 between visas approved and those still in the pipeline. Onitsuka says that AOL files about a dozen H-1B applications a month. But given the cap, “we have a six- to nine-month period where people we want to hire can’t be hired,” he says. Out of about 12,000 employees, he estimates, about 400 are foreign nationals, many hired to fill high-tech engineering positions. Workers come primarily from India, China, other parts of Asia and Europe, particularly Ireland and the United Kingdom. AOL is one of many in the industry lobbying Congress to raise the H-1B cap. Although AOL uses more than one firm for its immigration work, it sends most of the work to Nagel at Cooley. Nagel not only advises AOL executives on immigration issues, but he also leads what the company calls “town hall meetings” to help explain the process to employees. H-1Bs have become synonymous with the hiring of computer techies. But companies are filling a variety of slots using these visas. Macromedia Inc., which develops software for designing Web sites and is another client of Nagel’s, has used H-1Bs to fill a number of key executive positions, says Macromedia General Counsel Loren E. Hillberg. The company’s CEO, the head of human resources and a key executive in its e-business division all come from Canada. Another client of Nagel’s, Phone.com Inc., which provides software and services that allow consumers to access the Internet via wireless phones, outsources virtually all of its immigration work to Cooley. That way, in-house lawyers can concentrate on licensing, mergers and acquisitions, and commercial transactions, says Steve Peters, Phone.com’s vice president and general counsel. BOUTIQUES HANDLE THE BULK “We kind of span the whole gamut of immigration issues,” says Peters, whose company has grown in the past year to 800 employees from 100. Intra-company transfers are a pressing concern because the company recently acquired subsidiaries in Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. In consolidating operations, the company needed to transfer some foreign workers here. And because Europe is ahead of the United States in cell phone development, much of the company’s talent comes from Europe, he says. But boutiques such as Berry, Appleman & Leiden, in San Francisco, still handle the bulk of immigration work. “We don’t do hourly billing; we do project billing. That’s common in immigration work,” says Warren R. Leiden, a partner at the firm. Another thing that sets immigration practices apart is their heavy use of paralegals and other nonlawyer staff. At Berry Appleman, there are 140 staff members but only 19 lawyers. Lawyers point to such differences to explain why more large firms haven’t leapt to acquire immigration boutiques. The large firms that have added such practices have had to make accommodations. Harry J. Joe, who heads a 10-lawyer and 25-staffer immigration practice at Dallas’ Jenkens & Gilchrist, credits the success of his group to management’s flexibility on billing arrangements, allowing his group to charge mostly flat rates and thus, to compete with the boutiques. Says Joe, “Our board at J&G views our group as a point of entry for the firm’s other practice groups, such as corporate, securities, intellectual property, franchise and distribution, labor and employee benefits, and our … group [as] devoted to serving high-tech start-up companies.” Depending on the type of work, Cooley charges either flat fees or hourly rates, says Nagel. For advice on a merger, the firm charges by the hour. But many things can be commodity-priced, he says, and such pricing is becoming generally less objectionable at large firms because clients increasingly prefer fixed fees in a number of areas, he contends. Pillsbury Madison & Sutro has opted to meet its clients’ needs through an of-counsel relationship with Los Angeles lawyer David Kussin and his partner, Dennis M. Mukai. The two get their calls through Pillsbury’s switchboard and use the firm’s file management and billing systems for Pillsbury clients. They share fees from Pillsbury clients with the firm, but they also are free to accept their own clients. The arrangement gives Pillsbury’s clients access to a specialty practice at competitive rates, while Kussin and Mukai still can bill like a boutique. Political hot button that immigration is — several corporate counsel contacted for this article declined to be interviewed upon learning the subject — lawyers say that the pendulum is swinging toward allowing more foreign workers into the country. At least three bills before the House and Senate this term propose increasing H-1B quotas. At the same time, attaining approval for individual foreign workers to come and stay is getting harder, attorneys say, because each time lawmakers increase the number of immigrants allowed, they also increase the requirements U.S. companies must meet to hire such workers. And the more workers allowed in, the larger the backlog at the INS and the Labor Department. Immigration lawyers foresee larger and more complex caseloads. Says Donabed, “I don’t think we’ll ever develop enough people to meet the needs of our [nation's] industry. Our industry is far more robust than the growth of our population.”

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