Filomena Lepore Taylor founded a solo immigration law practice in July 2016.
She had no idea the sort of volume she’d be facing just four months later.
“We are going to be challenged in so many new ways under this administration,” she said.
Lepore Taylor warned that New Jersey employers — specifically, those who employ foreign workers — now need to be more informed and prepared than ever.
“More people are going to need to seek out professional advice in this area, and not many will have the deep pockets to pay hourly rates associated with larger law firms,” Lepore Taylor said.
That is why Lepore Taylor partnered in November with her friend and former colleague, Rosanna M. Fox, to create Lepore Taylor Fox in Ridgewood, a boutique law firm dedicated exclusively to the practice of U.S. immigration and nationality law.
“We want to be able to preserve that high-quality service without the high cost and volume,” Fox said.
Lepore Taylor had practiced immigration law for two years at a boutique immigration firm in Philadelphia before working her way up to partner at a large immigration practice in Manhattan.
For more than 13 years, she had primarily represented employers who employed foreign workers.
“I got a lot of experience helping employers design immigration compliance programs and sustain work authorization for a high volume of foreign workers,” she said. “I also sometimes worked with individuals, helping to prepare U.S. citizen applications and with those who had claims to U.S. citizenship based on their parents, grandparents or spouses. And, sometimes, I worked with entrepreneurs who wanted to come and start companies in the U.S.”
Fox started working in immigration law in 2004 as a law clerk at a large boutique immigration firm.
“I got to work with very sophisticated clients and corporations, while at the same time having a direct effect on people’s lives by helping individuals obtain visas to come here and work and pursue their dreams,” she said. “I’m also proud to say that I worked with a number of startups, mostly young people and recent graduates who didn’t have a lot of money, who have grown into truly prominent companies with household names.
“I really liked that combination and decided that is where I wanted to go in my legal career.”
Fox received another clerkship — and eventually also became partner — at the firm where she and Lepore Taylor first met.
“Working with startups therefore became sort of my niche, because the greatest value that I thought I contributed as a lawyer was working together with clients to brainstorm the best ways to get from point A to point B,” she said. “Individuals who started their own endeavors and I had the same mindset.
“They wanted guidance and advice, but they also wanted to take some calculated risk.”
Lepore Taylor admitted that she was at first seduced by her work within a large corporate practice.
“I made a lot of money and I met many interesting and smart people,” she said. “But in the end, a lot of the work remained quite repetitive, and with the volume we needed to handle, I felt like I was losing touch with my clients.
“I began to crave what I had first experienced in the beginning of my career, assisting small and medium-sized companies and having that personal interaction with startups — working with someone who was at the brink of taking a huge risk, and a lot was at stake.”
Lepore Taylor said that’s when she knew it was time to fly solo.
“I was ready to be in the driver’s seat of something new and creative, so I decided to combine my professional vision of how to best service clients in this space with my personal vision of what I thought a law practice should feel like,” she said.
Though Fox had since joined a different immigration law firm, she always had remained friends with Lepore Taylor.
“I also wanted to grow something of my own, with the same vision of how I would define and service our target clients,” she said. “We both wanted a different culture in the workplace, and that is how Lepore Taylor Fox was born.”
While Lepore Taylor and Fox are co-founding partners of the firm, Lepore Taylor also serves as the head of the firm’s private client practice, while Fox serves as the head of the firm’s entrepreneur and startup practice.
“We are coming from a very high level of practice and are willing to offer our services to those who would not usually be able to afford it,” Lepore Taylor said. “We are going to offer competitive flat fees to enable more people to seek advice.”
Lepore Taylor Fox provides comprehensive U.S. immigration counsel to small and midsize employers, foreign startups and individuals.
That means mostly working with companies who employ or wish to employ foreign workers, including procuring the full-range of temporary work visas, business visitor visas, worksite compliance advisory services and corporate immigration policy.
It also means working with individuals who wish to establish permanent residence and citizenship in the U.S. based on a family relationship, including marriage-based petitions.
“We can have three clients at any given moment, but that means we could be completing 50 different processes at the same time,” Fox said. “We also could have 10 clients, all with individual matters, so our client roster varies and is highly cyclical.
“That is why a substantial portion of our initial investment went into technology that would enable us to provide top-quality service in a smaller setting.”
The firm may soon experience a rush.
“New Jersey is an incredibly diverse state,” Lepore Taylor said. “There are, particularly, a large number of Muslims in New Jersey who are very keen on knowing whether or not they can travel to certain countries.
“And we are still unsure of what will happen with all of the young people who previously were authorized to be in this country by the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program authorized under the (President Barack) Obama administration.”
Fox said such uncertainty results in more pressure on all sides.
“You want to reassure your clients that everything will be fine, but you also have to prepare them and be that much more strategic about presenting the case,” she said.
For example, since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January of this year, there has been an uptick in deportation and internal immigration arrests under the current administration, Lepore Taylor said.
“Blue-collar industries may start being raided more often, such as those that often turn to immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented, for construction and hospitality services,” she said. “That will severely impact New Jersey. We are constantly thinking about how we can proactively prepare our clients for if and when those enforcement actions happen.”
Fox said there also is now a much higher change of rejection across the board.
“Most of the time, in my experience, these rejections don’t always seem to be thought through,” she said. “It almost seems as though there is a formula that says, ‘Every third case must be rejected because our target approval rate must be X.’ We have to have our guard up at all times — a case that would have been solid in the past, one that no one would have even thought twice about approving, is now being met with follow-up questions.
“For example, if you are filing a petition for a senior level manager and your only requirement is to establish that this person is an executive, in the past, there would have been no issue whatsoever. Now, we’re getting rejections based on insufficient information. … My clients are seeing an increased number of I9 subpoenas and audits and getting requests for more site visits for visa holders to make sure everything represented is consistent with the petition. … Employers used to not have to be in such a rush to proceed with green card sponsorship, but now they are now getting nervous because they feel pressured by what will happen tomorrow. What if this visa category doesn’t exist tomorrow? If an employee is critical to the overall success of the business, that can greatly affect the company.”
People not in the U.S. who need to get a visa are also experiencing more difficulty at the borders and with the consulates, Lepore Taylor said.
“It used to be that I could send my client a bullet-point email to prepare them for their visa interview, but, now, I get on that phone and I tell them about all of the difficult questions they may be asked. I also prepare them for the fact that their visa may be denied. And then, even if they do get a visa, their experience at the border will be that much more difficult.
“This travel ban has been like a game of pingpong, with it being banned one minute and the courts preventing the agency from enforcing it the next. Now that the travel ban has been permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court, there will certainly be more issues to navigate.”
It is imperative that Lepore Taylor Fox grow quickly to keep up with the fickle administration.
That is why the partners project to have between five and seven employees by January 2019.
“Initially, it will just be myself, Rosanna and one additional attorney,” Lepore Taylor said. “Our next phase will be to hire a strong support staff, including paralegals and administration.
“It’s been a challenging year, but I am very excited to be partnering with Rosanna, now, for sure.”
“We used our own savings to create the firm and the culture we envisioned for ourselves and for our clients,” Fox said. “We certainly want to preserve that as it will be the personalized attention that will ultimately distinguish us from other boutique practices and larger corporate firms.
“But I am excited to be building this business in New Jersey. There are so many great companies here who are supportive of newer, small businesses.
“That is what will help us to create change.”
Filomena Lepore Taylor: “I helped a victim of human trafficking who was lured to the U.S. under the guise of meeting family and being able to work here. When she crossed the border, she was instead forced into prostitution and held as a sex slave. She escaped and reported the men who did this to her, and because of that, was eligible for a visa. I helped her achieve her immigration status and later learned that she had met someone and started a family. I thought that was pretty awesome.”
Rosanna M. Fox: “I assisted a swim coach in securing a visa to work for a nonprofit organization in New York. This woman, who was a ranked swimmer in China, went to school in New York to get her master’s degree in sports education. She then decided that, rather than going to work for a fancy school or swim club, she wanted to provide swimming lessons to underserved populations in New York. Before she was awarded a visa, she had to enter a lottery. I was very pleased she was selected.”
Rosanna M. Fox, co-founding partner at Lepore Taylor Fox in Ridgewood, was born in Moldova, a republic of the former Soviet Union.
She came to the U.S. in 1991 and is still fluent in Russian.
Filomena Lepore Taylor, her co-founding partner, is fluent in Italian, having been brought up by entrepreneurial parents who owned an Italian deli.
She made sure to join the group of volunteer lawyers who traveled to John F. Kennedy Airport to help travelers navigate the sudden immigration bans.
“This government seems to be leveraging anything and everything within its existing administrative power to make it as difficult as possible to obtain immigration benefits,” Lepore Taylor said.
Fox knows firsthand how touchy a subject immigration can be around the dinner table.
“It is a very personal thing for people, whether they are immigrants themselves, they have family members who are, or they work for an employer who recently sponsored people from abroad and they’re not sure what that entails,” Fox said. “Now, it’s been politicized even more and has become that much more divisive. The many negative policies and feelings that this current administration has expressed about this issue directly impacts how we practice law. We feel as though we must completely rethink how we practice and become more creative with our arguments.
“But, at the end of the day, we are lawyers as much as we are businesswomen and we want to advocate for our clients. It is a scary but exciting time to do this, because we can never be complacent or passive with any of our clients. … This was an opportunity for us to not only shine as entrepreneurs but as lawyers.”
Fox said she finds it useful to be immigrant immigration lawyer practicing in the U.S. at this time.
“It is so interesting to be pursuing and achieving my own American dream,” she said. “It has helped me to identify with my clients that much more.”
Reach Lepore Taylor Fox at: firstname.lastname@example.org, ltf-law.com or 908-873-1800.