As senior legal coordinator for Boston-based immigration and employment law firm Tocci, Goss, & Lee, Laurel Woodward juggles 20-30 cases at one time, working on an alphabet soup of visa categories: from employment-based green cards such as EB-1 and EB-2 to National Interest Waivers (NIW). For the uninitiated, these are visa categories that allow foreign workers to remain in the United States, including the highly educated clientele of Tocci, Goss, & Lee, PC, which includes the very best and brightest foreign scientists, such as a brilliant Harvard astrophysicist from Greece or a talented pianist from Japan.
As a legal assistant, Woodward is one of two paralegals who works with three attorneys, helping clients maneuver the complex maze of federal, state, and local employment regulations and laws, a process that can be confusing and lengthy. Her days are filled with answering e-mails, writing support letters, entering information into an electronic database, filling out forms, dealing with national visa centers and government agencies, and corresponding with immigration or the Department of Labor. It’s a job that she found herself in after graduating from college with a degree in English and Spanish. “I considered becoming an attorney, and thought that working at a law firm was a good way to check this out,” says Woodward.
A recent “best job” list ranked paralegals as higher than lawyers or even federal judges, based on employment outlook, working environment, and stress level. Employment of paralegals – a term that is used interchangeably with legal assistant – is expected to grow 22 percent to 2016, especially as law firms use paralegals as a way of expanding legal services.
Q: This is supposed to be a field with rapid job growth. What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming a paralegal?
A: To work at most law firms, you’ll need a paralegal certificate or a bachelor’s degree. Think about the type of atmosphere that you like to work in, because working for a large law firm versus small is very different. And personality plays a big role in the job too, so find an attorney you enjoy working with.
Q: Your work ultimately, in many cases, helps people become citizens of the United States. What was one of the more rewarding cases that you’ve worked on?
A: It felt really good the first time I helped write a support letter for one of our “alien of extraordinary ability cases” and had it approved by an attorney, who examines all of our work. These “extraordinary ability” cases are people who have risen to the top of their field of endeavor and seek to enter the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.
Q: What are the frustrating aspects of your job?
A: Dealing with all the different personalities. There’s a lot of negotiating and mediating involved, which can get trying at times. Everyone has a bad day, after all. But, on the other hand, a lot of people are grateful for our help. I have a bulletin board with e-mails printed out that say “thank you for your help.” It’s great seeing people so happy because they got their green card.
Q: Has working at an immigration law firm made you appreciate being an American citizen more?
A: Definitely, I think mainly because how much time and money and effort that people are willing to put in to become an American citizen. We take so much for granted.