Lara Wagner will readily admit her nascent legal career looks different than those of many of her University of Michigan Law School classmates. Or than what she envisioned while at the school, for that matter.
But thanks to her choosing the less-traveled road, more of Chicago’s immigrant community has representation.
Wagner is the founder and sole practitioner of The Law Offices of Lara Wagner, a firm founded through the Justice Entrepreneurs Project, a Chicago Bar Foundation-led incubator designed to help recent law school grads establish their own firms.
The Justice Entrepreneurs Project’s goal, organizers say, is to fill the “justice gap” — provide affordable services for the people who make too much to qualify for free legal aid, but who make too little to pay traditional lawyer rates. The group estimates that includes about 1.9 million people in Cook County alone.
“That demographic is often priced out of traditional law firms, but also they make too much money to go to legal aid agencies that have a legal salary cap based on federal policy guidelines,” Wagner said. “The idea behind [the incubator] is to help young attorneys be more innovative and accessible so those individuals who want to get full legal services.”
She established her practice in June 2015, splitting her time between it and a working a pro bono internship for the National Immigrant Justice Center; she took over duties for her practice full time in January.
The Manchester, Mich., native talks about her growing practice and some of the challenges of working in a field that is both in the current political spotlight and is one even many lawyers don’t understand.
Chicago Lawyer: When did you first want to become a lawyer?
Wagner: I didn’t realize I wanted it until I was a junior in college. I studied international relations [at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.] and was really interested in doing social justice work. I took the last possible LSATs that allowed me to enroll in law school directly after graduation. I was always interested in doing human rights work, but I had to decide if I wanted to get a master’s in public policy or go to law school. After talking to some professors and mentors, I decided to go to law school and study international law.
CL: How did you get involved with the Justice Entrepreneurs Project?
Wagner: I started with the May 2015 class, almost exactly one year after I graduated law school. I’d never thought about starting my own firm when I graduated; most people don’t go to Michigan Law with the intention of doing that — the statistics out of that school have people working at firms, for the government or nonprofits. Those of us who go into solo practice are the anomaly. It wasn’t until I got here and met other immigration attorneys — they are often sole practitioners, and there are a lot of them, that I figured it was something I could do.
I graduate from the program at end of this month [October] but I intend to stay in this space. I like it a lot and having other attorneys around is a less lonely way to be a sole practitioner and have other people to bounce ideas off of. They can’t get rid of me!
CL: How did your family’s immigration background factor into your chosen profession?
Wagner: It was an extension of my mother talking lots about my great-grandfather, John Slezak, when I was a kid. He was an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he was born near what is now the border of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He was actually the U.S. under secretary of the Army during the Eisenhower administration; he was able to travel around Europe and shake hands with foreign dignitaries. I looked at all of those pictures of him when I was a kid thinking, “That’s so cool, I want to do that when I grow up.”
CL: How does your work fit in in the current political climate?
Wagner: Politics definitely affect it. As immigration attorneys, we are the only lawyers that have to give our clients advice based on pending elections. There are so many things in immigration law that are discretionary decisions; federal agencies change when new presidents come into power. I don’t know what will happen come January. I realize it could change everything, but that’s just something I have to share with my clients.
CL: Are you doing what you imagined you would when you went to law school?
Wagner: Things are a lot different in ways than I expected my legal career to be when I went to law school, but the experience is fun. There are a lot of aspects to having your own practice that, when I went to law school and they taught me, I never thought I’d have to worry about.
For example, I had an ethics class with a professor talking to me about accounting, and thinking to myself, ‘someone else will deal with that.’ And now I’m the one who has to deal with it. I get to interact with all kinds of clients and I feel like I’m helping them better their lives and getting them to that place they want to be and that’s very rewarding. Every single time I get to hand a client their green card or tell them they get to be a citizen and stay in the U.S. is extremely rewarding.
CL: What are some of the biggest challenges of your work?
Wagner: Right now, a lot of what’s happening in immigration law is on pause because they are primarily federal issues, and a lot of the push for reform is on pause until after the election. There are some policy-related things happening on a local level to help ensure that immigrant communities can feel secure interacting with authorities in Cook County and the city of Chicago. But that which I personally find most challenging is when I get people coming into office and I have to tell them there’s nothing I can do for them. I find it very hard to do every time.
CL: What do you wish you could demystify for people about immigration law?
Wagner: Especially in this election cycle, that’s such a gigantic question — there are so many things for so many people that I would love to demystify! One thing that often surprises me that even other lawyers don’t always know is that when I go to court, it’s not an actual Article III court. Immigration judges aren’t appointed by the president the way Richard Posner is appointed by the president … they are federal employees. And it’s not like going to federal court where you have Miranda rights and appointed counsel. As a result, the consequences for my clients can be very dire for my clients in immigration court.
CL: Have you ever thought about practicing a different type of law?
Wagner: I never felt like I missed out on the opportunity to work at big law. My interest was always in working for the government or a nonprofit, and the huge public interest community pushed me in the direction of Michigan in the first place. The JEP allows to do public service and work toward making sure people have access to justice, so while I didn’t see myself working in private practice, JEP put me where I needed to be.