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Last fall I completed coursework at the University of Chicago to receive an MBA from that institution’s Booth School of Business (hereinafter, “Booth”).  The twenty courses together with the myriad suite of leadership training from what—according to many sources—is as the world’s top learning institution, gave me a new perspective on being a business immigration law attorney, among other things.  When I began this program, I was already several years into the practice of law in Chicago and Mexico City, and I had taught high school in Chicago for some years before that.  Thus, having had, by this point in my life, the benefit of so many diverse life experiences as well as a degree in the teaching of history and a Juris Doctor, I entered the program cocksure and content.  Believing that this degree would only add this outlook, what I got instead was a huge dose of humility.

At Booth, I instead discovered that far too many assumptions I had made about how to run a business, about how to approach investment visa lawyering, and even regarding how to approach philanthropy, were often severely misguided.  In this article, I hope to share some of these insights with you, and in the process hopefully offer some immigration law tips for entrepreneurs.

Law Schools Do A Tremendous Disservice To Lawyers And The Public In Failing To Introduce Basic Business Principles To Their Students

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Although there is now a gradual trend in the opposite direction, many a business immigration law attorney, and all lawyers, for that matter, are far too often insulated from the “real world.” Most have imparted a supercilious and narrow-minded view of the world, which almost always is rooted exclusively in the letter of the law.  Of course lawyers need to know the law and to be able to discern the answers to complex legal issues when they don’t have the answer at their fingertips.  That said, the answer to every client query brought to the lawyer is not necessarily within the statutes or the case law.  This is part of the reason why the rules of professional conduct (which govern how lawyers are supposed to do our jobs) in fact instruct attorneys to give our clients the benefit of all of our counsel, not only our legal counsel.

Perhaps because lawyers have a self-serving interest in turning every problem into a serious legal morass (as one my law professors - the venerable Bruce Ottley – was fond of saying about the Supreme Court’s decisions resulting in the expansion of the Court’s own power, “isn’t that just the fox guarding the hen house??) we are too often reticent to look beyond the law and consider whether a client’s issue might be more personal or business related, or can otherwise be resolved more efficiently and/or less painfully without the need for litigation or by engaging other lawyer-centric processes.  This does not make an attorney’s role irrelevant; perhaps a memoranda to a client explaining the result of some important lawyer investigation and that attorney’s reflection on the legal and non-legal implications of a client quandary may at times make a lawyer’s involvement germane when otherwise not, or such a service may also help quell a client’s fears about a lawyer making a mountain out of a molehill solely to drum up more business.  Consequently, a lawyer who says to a client facing a potentially more serious, long-term legal project, “I propose to review the details of your case and research the jurisprudence more thoroughly and then draft a memorandum that you may subsequently carefully reflect on” can earn great credibility with current and future clients.

The law schools’ failure to even introduce to their students the basics of disciplines such as financial accounting, microeconomics, marketing, strategy, management, and operations, inhibit the lawyer’s ability to do exactly what I’ve outlined above, because they will regularly not be able to identify when these issues might exist in lieu of a legal issue being the central piece in the client’s puzzle.  To offer up an example, let’s take for a case in point a lawyer for immigration’s client, “Charlie,” who is present in the U.S. on an E-2 investor visa.  Charlie has opened a dry cleaner’s in Seattle with an investment of $100,000.  Hoping to subsequently transfer his investment to an EB-5 visa, he opened his business in a low-employment area that he hopes will qualify as a “targeted employment area” (TEA) for EB-5 investment purposes, meaning he could obtain lawful permanent residency by way of a half-a-million dollar investment in lieu of investing a full $1,000,000 in the business.

Given this scenario, business immigration law attorneys will typically hone in on the issue of whether the E-2 visa funds can properly be converted to an EB-5 visa investment, so as to allow for that business client’s eligibility for U.S. permanent residency.  Distinctly, the MBA will likely see a strategy issue present in Charlie’s decision to locate his a dry cleaner business (which industry typically obtains most of its clients from higher-income consumers) in an area with higher unemployment and doubtless a greater proportion of lower income residents.  The business strategy perspective will want to ask, “are there competitors in the same area, and if not, does this indicate a lack of business opportunity in the specific local market?  If there are competitors, on the other hand, what will Charlie bring to the local dry cleaning market that will harness for him a unique competitive advantage in his favor vis-à-vis those other dry cleaners, and how will that get him to the $500,000 mark in x number of years and sustain his current business cash flow by the time he needs to renew his E-2?”

Of course immigration law attorneys will want to always caution their clients to “see a business immigration lawyer and business consultant” when issues such as these come into play, but what epistemology will discern how or when to govern this recommendation, and how it will be couched?  Typically, immigration attorneys will offer up this rhetoric at the outset of their engagement in these types of cases, principally to serve as a disclaimer which limits their liability by demarcating clearly and early on, where their assistance ends, but not as actual advice to the client regarding when or why they might want to see a business consultant or business lawyer.  Immigration attorneys will want to respond to this point that “this is precisely why we don’t want to ‘go there’ – because it’s not our area of expertise” which, again, is why law schools would do attorneys and the public a good turn by helping to eliminate this grey zone in interactions such as the one I’ve outlined above.

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An Understanding of Business Nuances Can Help Mold a Significantly Better Lawyer for Immigration

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Any attorney working with businesses and managers will benefit from a sense of the nuances that often make the gap between lawyers and business people seem similar to that gap between men and women that a famous book once described along the lines of men are from mars...  This all starts in that attorneys are trained to be extremely conservative, because we wear the eyeglasses of forever approaching everything we see as potentially creating some sort of liability.  To put it plainly, we are trained to see lawsuits everywhere, all the time.The drawback to this mentality is that the lawyer’s every movement is subject to this sort of scrutiny, which, as one of my friends once put it, “makes lawyers such a bore to be around!”  Similarly, attorneys have a disproportionately high rate of divorce because they unfortunately too often make a habit of cross-examining their spouses.  Our austere training follows us everywhere.

Business people, on the other hand, and even more so with entrepreneurs, are risk takers by nature.  They like to do things differently, to be creative and unique, which is precisely what lends itself to being able to create – as in the business strategy jargon – that unique competitive advantage that truly brings a special type of service or product to the market and makes a business thrive and profit.  Thus, we have two very distinct, and in many ways contra positioned cosmologies in business professionals and attorneys, and it would do lawyers serving business people well to have a firm grasp on this juxtaposition, and why it exists and how it may influence the advice we offer.

Booth’s Competitive Advantage

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The amazing thing about going to school at Booth that I haven’t felt anything close to since attending advanced placement classes at the top-ranked Evanston Township High School, is the enthusiasm and confidence that was in the air virtually everywhere you went in the Booth community.  Professors were always colleagues more than superiors who knew their students would be off to do great things, and they were always inspiring, caring, and encouraging.  This was remarkable to us because virtually every instructor at this world-class institution was at the pinnacle or his or her field.  Students listened to one another intently, knowing that their next brilliant game changing idea might come from that regular-Joe looking (genius) sitting next to him or her.  Leadership seminars and student organization events always shared a sense of awe, excitement, and certainty that everyone who graduated from this superlative institution with numerous Nobel Prize recipients and a legion of additional accolades would climb the peaks to tremendous new heights.

The motto was always, “make your mistakes here in the classroom, where it’s safe, so that you are less likely to do it wrong out there.”  Innovation and entrepreneurship were the name of the game, which fed an enormous energy and excitement, a veritable current of success through brilliance in synergy in dazzling minds’ interaction, like an intellectual nuclear reaction.  In my second to last quarter, I had a conversation with one of my classmates in the hallway during our digital marketing class’ break that I will never forget.  When we realized that both of us would be graduating soon, he shared with me that he “felt scared” to leave Booth.  Surprised and confused because this fellow had always seemed both confident and relaxed, and was a super nice guy, I responded, “why scared?  I don’t get it!”

He proceeded to tell me that he had never felt so smart in his life, that in fact just the other day his boss had asked him a tough question and he gave an answer that was so remarkable and ingenious, he couldn’t believe his own mind’s quickness and precision.  Later he realized that the idea had in fact come from one of the Harvard Business Review articles he’d read for one of his Booth class sessions.  Crediting the case and the institution, he refused to take credit for himself.  “I don’t want my mind to stop working like this!  I’ve never been around so many smart people in my life, never had so many ideas myself.  I’m scared that when I’m no longer in this program I will lose it.”

I love this memory and will cherish it forever, because it’s just this sort of creative mind-force that the former high school instructor in me believes we can create everywhere, if we just engage the resources and proper attitude.  That said, it was a bookmark for me of the humility at the core of the genius of the Booth attitude that helped put my earlier arrogance in its place.  It was in the constant rigorous learning and the discussion, the group work, the inventiveness and renewed ingenuity, in forever creating new ideas and new ways of thinking about old and new issues that true genius was rooted.

Collaboration Over Competition

Because the law by its nature creates such an extremely antagonistic type of competitive mentality, it sharply contrasts with the sort of competitive collaboration seen in the business world.  Of course there is competition when firms interact in the market, but there is also a great deal of collaboration.  Indeed, one of the surprise lessons for me in my business school education was in discovering that often a firm can make a great deal more profit by collaborating with their “competitors,” which is precisely what gave way to the anti-collusion statutes we’ve the U.S. Congress institute.

The mere fact of seeing the collaboration among my classmates, who were engineers, doctors, attorneys, finance and marketing professionals, among other fields, was an inspiration and significantly removed my mind from the attorney cubicle.  Despite these folks being from such divergent backgrounds, the culture of support and teamwork created by Booth was uniquely fostering of the bringing together of a higher level of cooperation that I’d ever been witness to.

My final quarter at Booth (because we are permitted, indeed encouraged, to take up to six courses from the university’s other graduate schools and thereby benefit from even more diversity in exposure to this great institution’s resources) was a sort desert for me, and a returning to my undergraduate passion in liberal arts scholarship: four courses at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.  I won’t go into much detail, here, as we’re already at the end of a now quite long essay, but studying philosophy and theology with some of the world’s top scholars was mind-blowing and reminded my lawyer’s haughty brain that there’s still a great deal that we don’t know about the cosmos, and thus there’s still a great deal more to study.  I am inspired now to continue studies in religion as I pursue rabbinic ordination and a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology in the coming years.

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None of the advice contained in these materials serves as a substitute for individualized legal representation by a licensed attorney with experience in the practice area.

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