Students who want to pursue an immigration law career will have an edge after earning their J.D. degree if they choose the right law school and professional experience.
That’s according to some experts, who recommend that aspiring immigration attorneys consider factors like geographical location, clinical opportunities and course options before applying to law schools.
“I think it definitely helps if you have experience because you can go into your interview with an immigration nonprofit or firm and talk about the experience that you’ve had in school,” says Karla McKanders, a clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School in Tennessee and chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration.
What Is Immigration Law?
Immigration law includes several categories, among them family immigration, business immigration, and asylum and refugee law. Attorneys in immigration law can take on a variety of cases, from clients who need help finding a pathway to the U.S. to those who need job permits.
Overall, the number of lawyer jobs in the U.S. is expected to grow 10% by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There’s a current shortage of immigration attorneys in the U.S., experts note.
“Seriously, it’s always changing, even when you get a breather and it’s more or less the same for a while. Your clients are always different. You’re always learning about different parts of the world. It really is a fascinating practice.”
Gaining Clinical Experience in Immigration Law
Some law schools offer legal clinics where students work in teams and represent clients under the supervision of faculty. From serving clients who are applying for U.S. citizenship to helping immigrants obtain work visas, clinical experience in immigration law is highly recommended for law school students.
When applying to law schools, students should research institutions with immigration law clinics before deciding on top picks, experts advise.
Kyle McEntee, senior director for prelaw engagement at the Law School Admission Council says he’s observed that law clinic programs have been a popular trend for law schools to offer since about 2016.
A survey by the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education found that the median estimated percentage of students graduating who had participated in a law clinic or field placement course slightly increased from 76-80% in 2016-17 compared to 71-75% in 2013-14.
“Schools are investing in those programs because they care about turning out lawyers who have good values and good skills and know how to work with clients and treat them well, while also representing them well,” McEntee says.
At UT—Austin’s Immigration Clinic, participating students learn communication, interview and litigation skills, Gilman says.
Students representing clients also help fulfill an unmet demand for immigration attorneys and lawyers, Gilman says. “We are trying to provide desperately needed legal services to an underserved community of migrants who are facing incredibly complex proceedings and where there is no appointed counsel.”
Law school hopefuls can apply to select schools that serve specific groups of clients in its clinics. Students at Vanderbilt’s law school work on humanitarian immigration cases and mostly asylum cases, McKanders says.
The Crimmigration Clinic at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts focuses on services for immigrants who are convicted of a crime, which can lead to deportation.
“I definitely think that doing some type of clinical experience is important,” McKanders says. “Several of my students who have gone on to work for nonprofit organizations have said that their experience really helped when they were interviewing.”
Those pursuing an immigration law career should also look for law school programs that offer a robust pro bono clinic. Students at the Pro Bono Service Initiative at the University of Chicago Law School in Illinois work with clients to fulfill 50 hours of pro bono service before graduation.
Most lawyers still provide pro bono services after graduation, per an ABA rule that states that lawyers should provide at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year as a matter of “professional responsibility.”
To find clinical opportunities that align with the current topics in politics, law school applicants may want to consider the geographical location of a law school. For example, faculty at UT—Austin’s Immigration Clinic bring students to the U.S.-Mexico border to work with clients.
“It really is just incredibly dynamic, and I think students come out appreciating that whether or not they pursue immigration law,” says Elissa Steglich, the clinic’s co-director. “They see how diverse the practice is and just how cool it is to know that you never know where your client is going to come from and the ability to learn about the world through them.”
Law School Curriculum and Immigration
Other than clinical experience, students who want to pursue immigration law should look for law schools that have specific courses in immigration law.
Law schools with immigration law concentrations commonly offer language courses for students to learn legal terminology in a second language, and second language and communication skills can help students get a leg up in the practice of immigration law, experts say.
For example, the Spanish for Lawyers course at Stanford University Law School in California gives students a chance to learn legal terminology in Spanish.
McKanders says a lot of legal jobs, especially work at the U.S.-Mexico border, require Spanish language skills.
“You can use an interpreter, but when you’re in the field it’s easier to be able to speak a second language,” McKanders says.
Concentrations and Certificates in Immigration Law
Some law schools offer certificates in immigration law or areas in the J.D. degree to declare a concentration in immigration law.
Similarly, at New England Law Boston in Massachusetts, students earning an immigration law certificate may take courses such as Immigration and Citizenship Law, Human Trafficking Law and Policy, and Detention and Removal Defense.
Like clinical experience, students or professionals can represent and provide legal advice and advocacy to migrant and refugee families through the VIISTA program at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
What to Do When Applying
Law school hopefuls should talk to a pre-law adviser at their college or university about their personal statement in law school applications, McEntee says. Your personal statement is a good opportunity to express your goal of an immigration law career post-graduation.
For most students, the cost of a law school is a deciding factor during the application process. Tuition and fees at private law schools in the U.S. averaged $52,325 for 2022-2023, according to U.S. News & World Report data gathered from 72 private law schools. At 65 public law schools the same year, the cost was $26,917 for in-state tuition and fees and $40,056 for out-of-state students.
Gilman says students should ask themselves if the law school they choose will provide a pathway to the work that they want to do, and should consider its curriculum and internship and community work opportunities outside of the university.
“Being able to take advantage of those opportunities outside of the law school or the university is also really important,” Gilman says. “It’s a lot of factors, but I do think all of those are really relevant to assessing a program.