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Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Cynthia Aziz, a certified specialist in immigration law, and current chair of the immigration law specialty committee. Cynthia graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and from The New England School of Law in Boston in 1987. She is licensed to practice in both Massachusetts and in North Carolina. A wider variety of job opportunities led her to settle in Charlotte and she is currently the principal in the firm of C.A. Aziz, PA, located in Charlotte. Practicing with her are Elizabeth Edwards and Kim Smithwick. Her comments on specialization in immigration law follow.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I became certified with the first class to take the immigration law exam, back in 1997. I really felt that it was an important step to take professionally. It provides a public service and establishes a standard for the public to measure competency. I wanted to set myself apart as someone who is committed to this practice area.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

At that time, there were no study guide materials available to applicants, just a list of possible topics areas. I read recent seminar information and current articles. I really focused on areas that I didn’t see in my practice, areas that I would typically refer out.

Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?

The process was very useful. In studying, I completed a very thorough review of immigration law. I also very much appreciated the positive references from my peer group. It was a nice acknowledgment of my level of professionalism.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice? In what ways?

It has been helpful, but not in traditionally measurable ways. Being a specialist and aware of specialization, I often use my directory to make referrals to other specialists. I know I get referrals from other specialists in the same way. When I speak in public forums, I always try to educate people about how to choose a lawyer. I do let them know about the directory of specialists that the State Bar publishes each year, as well as the online version.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

Sometimes they ask about my credentials and I explain certification to them. I see it as an opportunity to let them know that I am committed to immigration law and that I am serious about continuing to improve my skills as an immigration practitioner.

Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?

Specialists have more stringent continuing legal education requirements, and fulfilling those requirements helps me to stay current and to keep informed of the frequent changes in the law. I also serve on the State Bar committee that oversees the program and writes the examination. Working with the other committee members to draft exam questions and answers each year provides a tremendous opportunity for dialogue. We write the exam questions from our experiences and discuss the cases we’ve handled. Talking to colleagues about the tough issues that arise helps each of us become better practitioners.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Because immigration law changes so frequently, I am constantly reading to keep myself updated and to look for modifications that may affect my clients. I am a member of several list-serves and I attend numerous continuing legal education courses each year, including those sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

Q: Is certification important in your practice area?

It is. In an ideal world, it would serve to discourage dabblers who really provide a disservice to clients. Immigration law has become too intricate and full of oddities for someone to dabble successfully. Certification encourages continuing education and limiting one’s practice to the specialty area, both of which ultimately make us better advocates for our clients.

Immigration practitioners have been around in the Carolinas for about 30 years and the need is greater today than ever before. There are also a lot of non-lawyers doing this work. It is a consumer protection issue. Unfortunately, the nature of our clients makes it easier for them to fall prey to the unqualified.

Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?

Immigration law is fraught with controversy these days. Since September 11, we’ve seen a combined hysteria about national security issues and a slipping economy. This led to the public and lawmakers limiting their focus to border protection and employment restrictions without working out comprehensive immigration reform. We regularly deal with policy changes and statute changes, trying to work within the system to help our clients.

We have many family members and employers wondering why it is so difficult to bring someone into this country legally. A big issue for immigration lawyers and employers of foreign nationals are the reduced number of visas for foreign workers. Each year the number of professional visas is exhausted leaving employers scrambling for qualified workers. Family-based visa categories also have long waiting periods, which cause family members to be separated for several years.

Q: How does specialization benefit the public? The profession?

It provides a measuring standard. It helps a person to evaluate a name they were given or found in the yellow pages. It raises the level of professionalism among the lawyers who choose this type of work, and it provides a mark of the lawyer’s seriousness about the practice area. It provides an outward sign of the commitment to being competent.

Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?

I would encourage other lawyers to work toward the goal of becoming a certified specialist. It enables someone to say “I care about what I do and I’m committed to it. Here’s proof of that.”