International Law & Trade - Law Firms Corporate Immigration Law: A Practice Area At The Center Of Globalization

Saturday, October 1, 2005 - 01:00
Alka Bahal

Editor: Ms. Bahal, will you tell our readers something about your professional background and experience?

Bahal: I have been a corporate immigration attorney for about nine years. My focus has been on the business or employment side of the immigration equation throughout my career. My law degree is from Boston University School of Law.

Over the course of my career, I have concentrated on the corporate side of immigration law rather than on the individual or family side. This is an area of the law that requires great attention to detail - which, I think, is one of my strengths - and as a consequence it is very specialized. As my practice has grown in volume, so has it become more complex, and that ability to marshal complex and detailed factual and regulatory situations is, accordingly, an even more important characteristic for the practitioner.

Editor: Can you share with us the things that attracted you to Grotta Glassman?

Bahal: I have been at Grotta Glassman & Hoffman for a little over a year and a half now. It is a wonderful firm, of a good size, which provides my part of the practice with a full array of resources. The individuals here with whom I work are knowledgeable, personable and have excellent relationships with clients. The firm's client base is very diverse. It ranges from governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, small municipalities to health organizations of all sizes and on to Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies. I think the diversity in our client base is superior.

Editor: You have described a very specialized practice with a lot of focus, but you have access to a very large platform. How do you draw upon the resources of the firm?

Bahal: Grotta Glassman & Hoffman is in a position to offer its clients one-stop shopping. Having clients who come to the firm for a whole range of employer-related questions allows me to then address something of a captive audience and present them with some thoughts on immigration-related items that might not have occurred to them. I have found, particularly in the I-9 arena - the I-9 is the document that every employer must complete for every employee - that many employers overlook requirements, fail to consider them or simply put them so far back on the burner that they never get around to addressing them at all. I possess the ability to present to the firm's client base many of these issues which do not appear, at first glance, to be priorities but which, if not attended to, might have serious consequences. I then can turn to all of the resources that are available at the firm to take care of these issues, the most important of which is the wonderful group of partners that I work with on a daily basis.

Editor: If you can tell us, what was it in your experience that attracted Grotta Glassman?

Bahal: I have a good mix of business skills in addition to those of a skilled business immigration practitioner. One of the reasons I was attracted to Grotta Glassman & Hoffman was that it is a place where I can not only exercise the skills I have developed over the course of my practice, but also those business management skills that I developed as a solo practitioner. I have always been a part of the business side of a law practice, and client development and one-on-one interaction with clients has been a central factor in that undertaking. I think that entrepreneurial aspect of my background was one of the factors that the firm was interested in me and a reason for our cooperative success.

Editor: Sometimes there is a tradeoff when a solo practitioner moves to a larger firm with greater resources. How have you managed to address that?

Bahal: I think I have managed to strike an ideal balance at Grotta Glassman & Hoffman between running my own practice - including autonomy in dealing with clients and driving the business side of my practice - but within a larger firm framework. What makes it ideal is the support I have, both in terms of business management resources and the expertise of other practice areas. The two-way collaboration that I have with the other partners here is the key to a mutual success.

Editor: You mentioned the I-9 document. Can you tell us how it figures in a practice such as yours?

Bahal: As I indicated, the I-9 is the document that an employer must complete for every employee that it hires. It applies to all employers, and not merely those hiring foreign nationals. What makes it tricky is the fact that the employer must verify the individual's identity and ability to work, while, at the same time avoiding discrimination - say, national origin - boundaries. The form is deceptively simple, but there are a number of very complex issues that arise in completing it, and they can be very confusing. One of the things I spend a great deal of time on in my practice is fielding I-9 questions. It is a rather simple matter for an expert to conduct a preventative private I-9 audit for an employer - and look at the potential liabilities - but the point is the audit must be conducted by someone with the requisite expertise. Such a private audit can uncover potential areas of liability, often previously unnoticed by the employer.

Editor: Are there any particular cases in which you take pride?

Bahal: There are quite a few but, overall, I take a great deal of pride in having an approval rating - a success rate, if you will - of 99.99 percent during the course of my career. These are, perhaps surprisingly, often particularly challenging cases involving issues such as previous inadvertent errors or failures to maintain status. These can cause great difficulty and delay to an anticipated start date, which cause great stress both for the foreign national and the employer. Another type of case which is almost always difficult to resolve, but deeply satisfying when resolved, has to do with family members left behind in the process. Very often the employer's HR department will focus on the employee but fail to attend to his or her family members. Over the course of my career I have successfully handled many of these cases.

Editor: Please tell us about strategic immigration planning. Why is this so essential today?

Bahal: When you are talking about employing a U.S. worker, most typically the employer needs to address an offer, perhaps an employment agreement, and set a start date. With respect to the foreign national, there are a great many other factors that need to be addressed. In an era of visa caps and almost daily changes in the law, strategic immigration planning is one of the most important things an employer can undertake. The employers typically need to have the employee at the worksite at a specific time, and the only way that is going to happen is through advance planning because it is necessary to factor in the six-to-eight weeks often necessary to obtain a visa. It is advisable to have the guidance of an experienced practitioner as sometimes even more time is needed.

Editor: What kinds of visas are of central importance to American business?

Bahal: For employers, typically, the critical visas are H-1B, L-1 and O, and to a lesser extent the P, E and J visas. The H-1B visa is for temporary professional workers. The L-1 is an intercompany transferee. The O-1 relates to an outstanding individual. The P visa is for artists, athletes or entertainers. The E visa is for a treaty trader or investor. And the J visa is an exchange visitor visa, often used for a whole range of occupational training positions - commonly recent medical school graduates doing their residencies in this country, as well as professors and researchers. These are all temporary visas and all have a limit as to the period of time the foreign national is allowed to remain in the U.S. The H-1B has a cap of six years, for instance. If a foreign national on one of these visas wishes to stay and become a legal permanent resident, he or she must file additional applications and undergo another process in order to obtain a "green card."

Editor: How many permanent work visas are available on an annual basis?

Bahal: The U.S. allows, I believe, 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas on an annual basis. These are divided into different preference classifications. The first preference is for extraordinary individuals, the second is for the managerial or executive level intercompany transferees and the third is for individuals who hold advanced degrees or have two years experience. There is also a fourth preference for special immigrants.

Editor: The press recently reported that China and India are together graduating 600,000 engineers and scientists every year. We graduate about 60,000. Is there an increased need to draw professionals from other countries if the US wishes to remain competitive? Do you see any acknowledgement of this in your practice?

Bahal: It is important to keep in mind that the numbers from countries such as China and India are always going to be much greater than ours because of the huge differential in population. If you are asking whether, in an increasingly globalized marketplace, we need to be concerned about our competitive place, the answer is most assuredly affirmative. One of the interesting things about globalization, however, is there is constant two-way movement and even simultaneous movement in a number of directions. In my practice, we see people coming and going all the time. Just as there is a constant flow to the U.S. so there is a substantial amount of reverse immigration, as multinational corporations look to allocate staff on a worldwide basis.

Editor: What are the trends in your corporate immigration practice?

Bahal: We still see that H-1B visas remain in demand despite the visa caps. We have also seen an increase in the use of L-1 visas, the intercompany transfer visas, as a consequence of the impact of globalization on more and more of our corporate clients. Many companies have attempted to meet at least some of the challenges by changing their recruiting habits. In the fashion design industry, which is a niche client base for us, there appears to be an inflow of people from China, Europe and Australia just now. This is one of the fascinating asides in the globalization process.

I believe that strategic immigration planning is increasingly important as we serve an ever growing client base seeking a finite number of visas.

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