A few practice areas tend to dominate discussions of technology innovation in law—immigration law isn’t often one of them.
San Francisco-based immigration firm Berry Appleman & Leiden (BAL) is hoping to change that. The group last week released a completely revamped version of its Cobalt digital immigration services platform, along with what they believe is the first client-facing mobile app.
Berry Appleman first launched its Cobalt system back in 1997 as a way to experiment with potential technology applications for their corporate immigration processes, but decided to revisit the system in the last few years. Name partners Jeff Appleman and Warren Leiden have transitioned to emeritus status, which managing partner Jeremy Fudge said has given way to a renewed sense of excitement around innovation from the firm’s new emerging leaders.
“There was a real shift in the firm, which is a big part of the underlying psychology of all this. We really want to push the firm and really change the industry, and have this fresh new sense of passion about doing this,” he said. “This is a whole different group of people. We’re a different firm now. We’re really trying to break a lot of traditional molds of law firms.”
The firm began work on overhauling its Cobalt system about two years ago as part of this effort, and has found use for most, if not all, of the most buzzed about legal technology innovations.
Because a core component of immigration law is transactional, essentially preparing applications and forms to submit to government agencies, Fudge found that automation and predictive coding have a huge role to play in the firm’s new technology. “We see that so much of our practice can be really really prone for automation for AI machine learning, all the current technology if you will. Everything we do in a sense can be decision tree-d out. If we can apply that logic to what we’re doing and be able to again through AI automatically prep documents and forms and letters and all of that piece, we see that that’s hugely efficient both for us as a business, but also for our clients to get their work done quicker and, at some point, cheaper.”
Fudge increasingly sees a role for predictive analytics and data science technology to help the firm advise clients on workforce planning. “That client piece ultimately is driven by data, data on who their employees are and where they’re going,” he said. “If we can marshal that data for them, which we believe we can, we’re presenting a really compelling case for them to make better business decisions.”
But with more data comes more security risks. In previous years, the firm, like many, had its IT team pulling double duty managing both the firm’s technology and cybersecurity efforts. Recently, the firm has built out a separate cybersecurity team to tackle these issues more seriously.
Fudge explained that immigration law has some unique security concerns to deal with. “In immigration, we have [personally identifiable information] on everyone we’re helping. In lots of cases, we have health information or criminal information on them. We also have corporate information if we’re talking about a company [in] some new country they’re going to go to, or some new M&A deal,” he said.
Immigration law as a whole has seen a fair amount of tumult over the last year. President Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict travel and immigration from Muslim-majority countries, along with reports of the president’s disparaging commentary about immigrants from non-European countries, has created a lot of uncertainty for both U.S. foreign nationals and immigration attorneys about what to expect from the immigration process.
“The anxiety levels of our clients right now is at an all-time high. That’s both our corporate clients as well as the foreign nationals going through the process,” Fudge noted.
Cobalt’s mobile app is part of an effort for the firm to get clients better, more specific updates on where they stand within the immigration system. “The real selling point of the system is that it’s got such a detailed workflow engine built into it. It’s not just that they see, ‘My case is in progress,’ they can really granulary see what’s going on with their case,” Fudge said.
Fudge said that the workflow information in the app is intended to help quell some of these anxieties. “It adds to that sense of calm and stability,” he added.
Berry Appleman is not the only firm to bring technology into their immigration processes. Littler Mendelson this year partnered with technology group Neota Logic on a project called ComplianceHR, to offer potential clients a “general guide” to current immigration law following Trump’s travel ban. Global immigration firm Fragomen also announced plans in summer 2017 to create an immigration technology innovation center in Pittsburgh.
Looking ahead, Fudge said that he expects that both automation and analytics are expected to factor in heavily to the firm’s immigration technology innovations.
“The road map is heavy the rest of this year on automation. I think the ability to use automation to drive our practice will be a big part of what we do this year. I think the other big one in a broad sense is the analytics piece. You’ll see Cobalt getting deeper and richer in the analytics part of it, more data visualizations, more dashboards for different purposes for again that mobility and workforce planning piece,” he said.