How To Become a Certified Immigration Lawyer in 6 Steps

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 2, 2022 | Published March 8, 2021

Updated September 2, 2022

Published March 8, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Immigration law is a legal specialization that involves working closely with clients by helping them navigate difficult legal proceedings related to immigration. Immigration lawyers most commonly work with people attempting to get residency paperwork or with those sponsoring people from other countries who want to immigrate. While a career as an immigration lawyer can require years of study and preparation, it can also be incredibly rewarding. 

In this article, we define what an immigration lawyer is, describe some of their typical work duties, discuss the average salary for the role and provide a step-by-step guide for starting a career as an immigration lawyer. 

What is an immigration lawyer?

An immigration lawyer is a legal professional who helps people from other countries who wish to live, work or study within the United States. Immigration laws are typically very complex, and the average person often needs legal assistance to fully understand them. Immigration lawyers work with people regardless of their resident status. They can typically find employment in many legal settings as well, from large law firms to solo practices.

Related: Paralegal vs. Lawyer: What's the Difference? (With Salary Info)

What does an immigration lawyer do?

Immigration lawyers represent their clients in court and provide them counsel regarding their legal rights and obligations. Immigration law has the potential to impact a person's life in many ways, such as the ability to work or run a business, pay their taxes and take care of their families. Immigration lawyers may occasionally work on criminal cases as well.

Some common types of cases for immigration lawyers include:

  • Employment-based green cards 

  • Temporary work visas

  • Student visas

  • Asylum seekers

  • Deportation and removal proceedings

  • Applying for a return after deportation

  • Denied immigration application

  • Criminal proceedings

Immigration law is a broad category. Many lawyers within this area have experience with all the cases listed above but focus specifically on just a few. For instance, an immigration lawyer may focus primarily on helping clients obtain visas even though they have knowledge of criminal proceedings involving immigration law.

Related: 10 Types of U.S. Work Visas and Eligibility Requirements

Immigration lawyer salary

The average national salary for immigration lawyers in the United States is $80,518 per year. Factors that influence salary include the types of clients you work with, how many clients you have or the size your firm. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a 9% expected growth rate in the number of all lawyers for the next ten years, which is the average anticipated growth rate for most occupations in that time frame.

Related: 10 of the Highest-Paid Lawyer Specialties (With FAQs)

How to become an immigration lawyer

Here are six steps you can follow to start your career as a certified immigration lawyer:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

Before attending law school, future lawyers first obtain a bachelor's degree. Your bachelor's degree can be in any concentration, but some make it easier to get into law school, as they provide you with significant skills and knowledge that can enhance your legal career. Common concentrations during your undergraduate studies include:

  • History

  • English

  • Philosophy

  • Political science

  • Economics

  • International studies

These fields of study cover topics such as labor laws, the politics of immigration and the most common reasons for immigration. They also provide you with strong writing and critical thinking skills, from which all lawyers benefit.

Related: What Is the Fastest Law Degree You Can Get? (With Examples)

2. Obtain a J.D.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree, it's time to pursue your J.D. from a law school. If you have the option, it's helpful to choose a concentration or specialization in immigration law to better prepare yourself for your future career. This is not technically necessary to become an immigration lawyer, but it will give you more experience within the field, which can then help you after obtaining your law license.

Related: What Can You Do With a Law Degree? Top 12 Law Degree Jobs

3. Gain hands-on experience

Throughout your studies and after graduation, it's essential to gain hands-on experience, as many clients and employers look for this when considering who to hire. Whenever possible, seek out internships, volunteer opportunities and part-time jobs that allow you to gain exposure to anything related to your specialization. While any experience working with the law is good, future employers and clients may prefer experience with immigration law.

Related: How To Write a Legal Intern Resume in 10 Simple Steps

4. Develop your skills

As you work and study, find time to work on your skills. Along with the skills that all effective lawyers employ, immigration lawyers have another set of skills to focus on. Skills that all lawyers utilize include:

  • Researching

  • Public speaking

  • Reading and writing

  • Analytical thinking

  • Problem solving

For immigration law, additional skills to focus on include:

  • Additional languages

  • Social media literacy

  • Active listening

You might develop some of these skills during your undergraduate and graduate courses of study. You can also take online courses, courses at a local community college or develop the skills on your own. For example, you could teach yourself a secondary language that is common in your area using online resources or a phone app.

Related: 9 Skills for a Successful Lawyer (And Tips To Improve Them)

5. Earn certifications

While you're not required to earn a specific certification to become an immigration lawyer, obtaining certifications can help make you a more attractive option to clients, especially in some states. For example, California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas all now offer specializations in immigration law through their respective bar associations. Passing one of their certification tests demonstrates to potential clients the level of your competence in immigration law.

There are also online courses available that can provide additional knowledge, such as how to run your own immigration paralegal assistance office, various ethical codes related to immigration law and the best ways to overcome communication barriers.

6. Gather clients

After completing your education and passing the bar exam for your state, the last step is to gather your first clients. To do this, you can either join an existing law firm that specializes in immigration law, or you can set out as a solo practitioner that focuses on immigration law. Joining an existing law firm provides you with a support system and the ability to start working with clients right away. 

To get a job at an immigration law firm, focus on developing your skills and outside experience, as this makes your resume more likely to get attention from a recruiter. Starting as a solo practitioner provides you with more flexibility as to who you work with, when you work and where you work. However, this requires marketing your services and establishing a strong reputation. Solo practitioners often rely heavily on networking and advertising when they are first beginning to practice.

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