I recently had an opportunity to talk with Heather Ziemba, a board certified immigration law specialist practicing in Charlotte. Heather attended Duke University, earning her undergraduate degree in political science in 1993, and subsequently received her law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1996. Following graduation, she worked in the Department of Social Services in Gaston County for a year before a mission trip to Mexico inspired a shift in her career path. She joined Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont to establish an Immigrant Justice Project and worked in that role for ten years. Heather then went into private practice, working with the Aziz Law Firm before joining Garfinkel Immigration Law in 2009. She became a board certified specialist in immigration law in 2011. Following are some of her comments about the specialization program and the impact she anticipates on her career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
There were a number of things that led me to pursue board certification. One of the main reasons was that I saw a surprising amount of unauthorized practice of law. I really believe that it’s important for the community, and particularly the immigrant community, to know who to trust with their legal issues. Immigration law is very complicated and clients need to find a lawyer who has real expertise. I was also drawn to the personal satisfaction aspect of the program.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I relied heavily on my American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (AILA) course materials from previous years. I paid particular attention to those areas that I don’t see in my daily practice, like employment issues. I reviewed and studied in a similar fashion to the way I prepared for the bar exam, including going over scenarios with other immigration lawyers. I studied with a couple of other lawyers who were also taking the exam, and relied on the expertise of my colleagues as well.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
It was helpful and gratifying to see that my peers are supportive of the certification program in general, as well as being willing to serve as personal references. I reached out to others who were already certified and I value that opportunity to strengthen those relationships. Studying for the exam was the most helpful part of the process. I really enjoyed taking a more in-depth look at areas like removal and family immigration issues. Learning more about these types of issues will benefit my practice and my clients.
Q: How do you envision certification being helpful to your practice?
I think that the board certification is an important way to attract clients and to give them a sense of confidence to know that they are receiving the best representation available. Now that I’m in private practice, providing a quality product to my clients is something that’s deeply important to me in a new way. I want to understand the issues that they face, to really know the process for handling them, and to provide the best assistance possible.
Q: What have your clients, staff, and colleagues said about your certification?
I received quite a few “congratulations” from colleagues, and a number of lawyers asked me about studying for the exam and if it was worth it! I have already had clients seek me out because of the certification, knowing that they wanted a specialist.
Q: How do you think your certification will benefit your clients?
For my clients, it ensures quality representation. I’ve seen many situations where immigrants have been taken advantage of and I think certification lends credibility to the work that we do. As certified specialists, we assure our clients that we are up to date on current topics. In immigration law, changes take place very quickly. When I took the exam, I remember that one question presented a scenario in which the law had just changed the previous week! I knew that the exams must have been printed earlier and thought the graders would have to change the answer key to accommodate the change.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
Probably the biggest topic in immigration law currently is the Dream Act. If passed, this would enable young people who are in the country illegally, but graduate from a US high school, to receive some benefits, including employment and college opportunities. The proposed act did not pass Congress, but President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security have established new policies that can defer action in some of those situations. We will all be watching this issue closely.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
As a member of AILA I attend their annual conferences and participate in their list-serve. I am also a member of the National Immigration Project list-serve. Since immigration law is a federal practice area, it is very helpful to see how laws are implemented in different parts of the country. I also read new case law and follow closely how the Board of Immigration Appeals interprets issues. These are all critical for staying up to date in our field.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area or region?
Board certification is very important for immigration lawyers in North Carolina. Though the State Bar has become more aggressive about pursuing unauthorized “notarios” and putting them out of business, I still see clients who find me because they have received bad advice from a notario. I also occasionally see lawyers, who typically focus on other practice areas, accept an immigration case, assuming that it will be easy. They soon find out that without experience and learning, these cases are very difficult to handle. Further, because immigration law is a federal practice, I sometimes see lawyers who are not licensed in North Carolina attempting to practice here. I recently watched as a judge told a non-North Carolina lawyer to “get out of my jurisdiction and stop preying on the people of North Carolina!” I think board certification raises awareness among lawyers and clients of how challenging it is to practice immigration law, and also assures clients and judges that those who are board certified made the extra effort to really understand this practice area. It shows others that we are not dabbling.
In the Charlotte area, we have a very large and growing immigrant population. We have many companies that need assistance with immigration issues. Some are foreign owned and bringing in employees from other locations, and some are local companies that have difficulty finding qualified employees and want to bring in someone from another country. The smaller companies tend to ask the questions early to plan out their time and financial commitments. It’s gratifying to help them navigate the process, as it would be nearly impossible to figure the issues out on their own.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I think that the program will continue to help people. As the immigrant community continues to grow, it will become even more important for them to distinguish qualified attorneys.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
Becoming a board certified specialist has helped me in many ways. Learning about other issues has allowed me to become a better lawyer as I integrate that knowledge into my practice. I really like learning and enjoyed studying for the exam. The exam itself wasn’t nearly as bad as the bar exam! I thought it was a fair test.
I have also really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the other specialists, including those in other practice areas. I use the directory that’s published each year to make referrals to specialists in other practice areas. That’s a huge benefit, as I get referrals from other specialists as well. Even if I don’t know the lawyer personally, I do know that they are committed to their practice area and that they stay current in their field. That gives me comfort in making a referral.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs please visit us on the web at nclawspecialists.gov.