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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Jeremy McKinney, a board certified specialist in Greensboro. McKinney earned his undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University and his law degree at Campbell. He is a principal at McKinney and Justice, PA. He became a board certified specialist in immigration law in 2002 and recently served in Jordan as a member of the North Carolina National Guard. Following are some of his comments about the specialization program and its impact on his career.

Q: How has your certification been a part of shaping your legal career?

I was certified in 2002 and deployed to Jordan in 2003. I was a member of the North Carolina National Guard stationed near the Iraq border as a JAG attorney, providing defense assistance for soldiers. I also worked as an assistant to the chief judge advocate and completed a legal study for the country of Jordan. At the time, there was no understanding in place to guide either country if a US soldier was accused of a crime in Jordan. It was a very educational and rewarding experience to be able to learn about Jordan's civil and criminal system. My certification trained me for the ability to digest and summarize a body of law.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

After I graduated from law school in 1996, I originally pursued immigration law, along with criminal, education, and employment discrimination law. The other areas fell away as I developed a love for the immigration practice area. I quickly realized that you can not dabble in immigration law. I obtained the certification to achieve the maximum level of competence.

Q: How did you prepare for the examinations?

I used the specialization program's website as my primary guide, including the exam outline and the sample questions. In immigration law, there is a pretty complete outline called Kurzban's Immigration Law Sourcebook. I used that outline to supplement my knowledge of the areas of practice that I don't see. Most of my practice involves immigration litigation, removal defense, and criminal immigration law. So I focused my studies on business immigration law, since I don't handle many of those aspects.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

Yes it has, in many ways. I have the certification on my client brochure, corporate website, and business cards and try to inform my clients. More importantly, the continuing legal education that specialists are required to maintain helps to ensure that I stay at the top of my game. In immigration law, we compete with general practice attorneys, other specialists, and also non-licensed practitioners called notarios, some of whom are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. It is critically important that clients with major deportation problems see a certified specialist, but many have low resources and are encouraged in their communities to seek out non-attorneys. In many of the cases, their legal problems just increase as a result of sub-standard representation.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

AILA, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, helps me stay current in a variety of ways. I'm the vice chair of the North and South Carolina Chapter and am very active in the organization. The organization is headquartered in Washington, DC, and is very well staffed with a lobbying arm and a litigation arm. In addition to receiving litigation support and continuing legal education courses, members also receive daily updates regarding changes in the law.

Q: Is certification important in your practice area?

Yes, it is essential. There is a disproportionate level of incompetence in immigration law. Most licensed attorneys don't handle immigration cases on a regular basis and are unprepared for the reality of what's involved in this type of work. It creates frustration for the court, clients, and for Homeland Security.

In our state, we seem to be stuck at between 15-20 immigration specialists. There are none west of Charlotte. This is a field where I think mentoring could be a very important link in attracting more attorneys to the field. I learned so much from Cynthia Aziz (who is a former chair of the State Bar's immigration specialty committee and practices in Charlotte) and hope to be able to provide similar assistance to new attorneys who are willing to devote themselves to this practice area.

Q: Can you share an example of a recent case where your specialization came in handy?

Yes. Recently a non-specialist lawyer in South Carolina referred a case to us where the client was unlawfully detained in Alabama. This lawyer had tried but wasn't able to help the client. With my firm's competence, experience, and certification, we understood that we could help this client regardless of her location. We filed a habeas petition with the Northern District Court in Alabama and a US District Court judge issued an Order to Show Cause demanding the government justify their actions. The client was released within a few weeks of our involvement in the case.

Since 1997, our office has handled many similar cases. A few years ago CIS, Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly INS) farmed out the duty of complete security checks for green card and citizenship applicants to the FBI. If anything out of the ordinary shows up with the applicant's file (such as a name similar to someone on an FBI watch list), the physical file must be pulled and manually cleared by an FBI agent. This led to delays of months and more often years. Our firm was among the first to sue the FBI, Homeland Security, and the attorney general in these situations just to get the applicant out of perpetual limbo and have a decision rendered.

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

I hope to see the program grow in North Carolina. I don't pretend it's easy. You have to study and challenge yourself to learn, but the payoff far exceeds the work you put into achieving the goal. As a member of the State Bar's Immigration Law Specialty Committee, I believe that the exam is fair and objective; it covers all areas of the practice and focuses on short answer and objective questions. It is a challenge, but not an obstacle.

For more information on the State Bar's specialization program, please visit us on the web at