THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: Volunteer work at El Paso nonprofit helps prepare duo for bilingual practice in KC

Editor’s note: Zach Roberson and Carlos Hernandez are 2012 graduates of the University of Kansas School of Law. Following the bar exam and a short internship, they will be opening a law firm in Olathe, Kan. In a series of blog posts, they will record the steps they take as they move past graduation and the bar exam and toward their goal of starting their own firm. They are pictured in the back row, fifth and sixth from left, respectively.

Zach: I hope everyone will excuse the length of time that has elapsed since our last blog post, but Carlos and I have been extremely busy preparing to start our firm. In our last posting, we mentioned that Carlos and I were studying for the Missouri and Kansas bar exams, respectively, and I’m pleased to say that we both passed. Shortly after we decided to go forward with the firm, we recognized that we absolutely HAD to do well on the bar exam; after all, it would be difficult for us to provide the Kansas City community with quality bilingual legal assistance if we are not licensed to practice law. Simply put, we had too many people counting on us and rooting for us – family, friends, and potential clients – to do poorly. I believe that this added pressure helped push us to study harder and prepare more completely. Doing well on the bar exam certainly requires a great deal of work, but it’s nowhere near impossible. Devote two months to intensive study, and celebrate when it’s over.

Carlos: The past few months have been pretty interesting. I started working at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services of El Paso (DMRS) two weeks after the bar exam. DMRS helps more clients than any other nonprofit organization in western Texas and eastern New Mexico.  Although DMRS handles many complex immigration cases, it really didn’t take too long for me to get used to the office because I had interned there last summer. Zach joined me a month later, and he caught on pretty quickly as well. DMRS is divided into three different units: trial, residency, and naturalization. Zach and I worked in the Trial Unit, where we screened potential clients for possible representation and represented current clients in Immigration Court. For the most part, we assisted clients with (1) cancellation of removal cases, (2) asylum claims, and (3) adjustment of status cases. Although Zach and I handled different cases, we were able to work together to help each client obtain the best possible relief.

My most memorable case involved a Mexican citizen with legal permanent residency status in the United States. He contacted DMRS and asked for help in October after the government placed him in removal proceedings for a drug possession conviction that occurred nearly 15 years earlier. Unfortunately, federal statute imposes mandatory detention on aliens who are removable for drug crimes, which meant that he was not eligible to bond out of the detention center. This upset his family very much. Sometimes an attorney’s most important jobs is listening to and reassuring a client and his or her loved ones. We worked hard to prepare the client for his individual merits hearing before the immigration judge, who ruled in our client’s favor and allowed him to stay in the U.S. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a thankful family after trial.  

Volunteering at DMRS and handling our own cases with the help of seasoned immigration attorneys has been really helpful. I’m confident that the time Zach and I spent at DMRS has prepared us to help clients on our own.  

Zach: My time at DMRS was amazing. I can’t think of a better way for an attorney to learn a particular area of the law than to volunteer at a nonprofit organization for a few months. Ciudad Juàrez-El Paso is one of the busiest entry points in the world, with thousands of people crossing the border in both directions every day. As you might imagine, many of these people are in desperate need of immigration assistance. Because DMRS provides a wide array of services within the penumbra of immigration law, Carlos and I were able to handle many different types of cases and help clients of many different nationalities and backgrounds. Many of these clients had nowhere else to turn for help. I particularly remember working on an asylum claim for a young Somali man who had endured unspeakable violence in his home country. I visited him at the detention center several times a week and helped him prepare for his asylum hearing. At the conclusion of his case, he handed me a heartfelt letter thanking me for helping him during such a difficult time. I can’t begin to describe how rewarding that was.

Volunteering at DMRS allowed us to gain valuable experience and work on a wide variety of immigration cases. Perhaps most importantly, volunteering allowed us to experience the satisfaction of working closely with clients to solve their problems.  When we open Hernandez and Roberson LLP in March, I know we’ll be ready.

Previous posts in the “Road less traveled” series:
Bar exam next hurdle in journey to firm ownership (July 2, 2012)
Trio to chronicle transition from law students to firm owners (May 8, 2012)