Helping Others is the Basis of Being a Great Lawyer

Sigalle Barness | November 9, 2022

 

In this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Ruby Powers, founder of Powers Law Group, P.C., board-certified immigration and nationality lawyer, and author of the book Build and Manage Your Successful Immigration Law Practice Without Losing Your Mind. Ruby’s journey reveals focus and intentionality through her work in immigration law, writing her book, and government and politics.  But most importantly, her story teaches us that there are various ways lawyers can help others.  Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.

 



Interview With Ruby Powers

 

On Gratitude

Hugs to Her Kids Before Work

 

Getting a hug from my little kiddos before I went to work and just, you know, giving them a little love before we started our day.

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On Life’s Key Indicators to Becoming an Immigration Lawyer

Helping Others, Interest in Government and Politics, Human Rights, and International Law

 

You know, I think that I knew I wanted to do something to help people. I didn't really know what it would look like. I had thoughts about being the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright was a role model. I was thinking about international law, human rights. It's really interesting because when I look back at my high school scholarship application essay stuff, it's sort of crazy cause I pretty much am doing what I said I wanted to do, which was business, human rights, international law. I just didn't really know how to do what I wanted to do and somehow it all worked out that I'm in the space where I can hit up all those interests of mine.

I had a lot of different mentors. One of them was a judge in San Antonio and she helped with this scholarship to go to DC for a week. It was back in high school and that had such a huge impression on me, and I think between the mentorship I had from her and that experience in DC that had a huge impact on wanting to go into law. 

I had an aunt who was a lawyer, so I interned for her. She does a different area of law, but it still sort of taught me a little bit about what a lawyer does. I was also in speech and debate in high school. So I think it was just a matter of narrowing in the focus within law, but having those mentors and those influences helped give me more of that focus. 

 

On Ways She Connected with Mentors

Became Involved in Leadership from a Very Young Age

 

I was applying for a lot of scholarships for college or something. I was in a lot of activities in high school. I was in what we called Interact, which is like a division of Rotary, which is a community service organization, and I was in the student council. I was in a lot of leadership roles at RYLA, which is part of Rotary CrossCountry, I did debates. I just was asking lots of questions and sort of reaching out for answers and guidance. I was a very driven, inquisitive type of a person. 

 

On Where Her Drive and Inquisitiveness Comes From 

“I come from a line of really strong women on both sides of my family”

 

I come from a line of really strong women on both sides of my family. And then just sort of this resourcefulness because my grandparents were dairy farmers. So the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work. And then on the other side, they were American missionaries in Mexico. So entrepreneurial and very driven, and there wasn't really a path for what they were doing, so they forged away. 

 

On Knowing Early on that Immigration Law Was Her Calling

Focusing on Immigration Every Summer Well Before Law School

 

I was sort of a weirdo because I already knew that. Like everybody applies to law school saying I wanna do something, but they don't really know if they wanna do that or not. They just say that and I get it. I get it because you have to sound confident when you apply. I get it.

But I had already worked at the international student office at UT in Austin during 2001, during 9/11 and I had gotten accustomed to the old INS (Immigration Nationality Services), and so I had already had exposure to immigration back in college, and I knew that I wanted to do immigration by law school, so that helped me because by the summers I was already focusing on immigration every summer. That helped me get really quality internships as well because, just as I know as an employer, if they have that experience, then I'm willing to hire them more than the person who doesn't have the immigration experience. 

 

On Working in the Immigration Industry During 9/11

UT Austin International Student Office and Committee on Homeland Security

 

Well, I learned a lot about Immigration and INS for the majority of that year (international student office at UT in Austin). It was very peculiar and I was exposed to F1 and J1 students, which was very narrowly focused. That's only a piece of what I do now. But then 9/11, a lot of the impact that affected immigration happened within the like couple of years afterwards, which actually I also worked for the Committee on Homeland Security in DC in 2004. And so the Department of Homeland Security was created, I think mostly in reaction to 9/11 in March 2003. Then I worked for the Committee on Homeland Security in 2004. So I started seeing the changes that were happening afterwards. Which was basically they created a SEVIS program to track F1, J1, M1 students. And I mean, there was a lot of other changes that happened as we know. 

 

On How Her Mother’s U.S. Citizenship Shaped Her Legal Journey

She Was Applying for Naturalization Without Knowing She Was a U.S. Citizen Her Whole Life

 

 My mom was born in 1957 in Mexico to American missionaries, American citizens. And in 1975, she renounced her American citizenship because we had a family ranch, we still do. And to own land at that time, you had to be a Mexican citizen. So she took one for the team, renounced her U.S.citizenship, and then they put the ranch in her name. This is what they thought was the best thing to do at this time. You know, obviously I wasn't around to give them legal advice. I mean, it's Mexican law too. And so then the irony is after she renounced her citizenship, she moves to America. She marries my American dad, she has three American kids and she lives pretty much the rest of her life in the U.S., right? And somewhere when I was in law school, I realized my mom was still applying for naturalization and she was having issues and I was like, wait, wait, wait a minute.

So I talked to my law immigration law professor, and he gave me some advice and I did some research. I followed the advice and wrote to the State Department and got her citizenship back. In fact, she actually had been a citizen her whole life because there was a Supreme Court case that clarified the situation that was pretty much on point for her. So this happened while I was in law school, and I've actually written about it and I've spoken about it at State Bar conferences on complex citizenship matters. And so this also gives me more of an interest in citizenship because bottom line, there are people who are U.S. Citizens who don't know it. Not everyone has a piece of paper that says they're a citizen. That's why I also love complex citizenship cases because, inspired by my mom's story who her whole life, she was actually a citizen, but she was living in the U.S. thinking she was an immigrant.

She only got her U.S. Passport, you know, a couple of years before she passed away. So basically I was a detective, I figured it out while I was in law school, and I helped make a big impact on my mom's life. 

 

On the Difficult Issues Clients Face

Psychological Impact of U.S. Citizenship

 

What's more common, especially under the DACA that came out a decade ago, is that I'm having to tell people that they're not a citizen when they thought they were one. Because their parents told them or something, and that's really heartbreaking. But back to telling people they're a citizen when they don't have proof. I always say, you know, let's cross our T's and dot our I's before we start celebrating because it just seems to be too good to be true when we do find those like diamonds in the rough. 

Psychologically it has a huge impact. My mom, I think she felt like she was less than. I think she even thought that there was this thought that she married my dad for immigration purposes. And there's always that underlying subconscious thought, I think, having done this for so long that people sometimes don't want to do the paperwork cause they think that it's for another purpose. But she was married to him for like 30 plus 40 years.

 

On the Importance of Bedside Manner for Lawyers

Deliver News Yourself, Don’t Rush, and Encourage Second Opinions

 

Well, do doctors get bedside manner training or something? I don't like having to give people bad news, especially if I'm the first person to tell them. I might say, have you talked to an attorney before? Has anyone told you anything about your case? 

But I research it before I say something, and I'm trying to be careful with my words, and I try to be as gentle as possible when I'm passing on that news. But generally, I've gotten good at it, unfortunately, and people really respect the manner in which I had to tell them. And it's not just about them not being a citizen potentially. It also could be about other news like that they're not eligible for something or they have a permanent bar, or that they probably will never be a change because of the circumstances that they have. 

You should think about if they were your family, how would you want to be given bad news? And not in a rushed manner. You shouldn't avoid giving them that information, you should give them directly, don't have an assistant or someone else give it to them. And you should explain where you got that information and where you got that opinion. And that's the other thing I also say is like, this is my opinion from the law and policy that we have right now, but please feel free to get a second opinion. This is where I got this information from. 

You know, also, I give them hope. I say, you know, there might be changes in the future, so please check in every year or two. Pay attention to the news. If something seems on point with your fact pattern, that could change. I also give them like, if this were to happen, maybe you would be eligible. And so I try to get to the point, tell 'em the situation, tell 'em that there's maybe somebody else has a different interpretation, and then also tell 'em there might be change or hope in the future. I think that's the best we can do. 

 

On Starting Her Own Firm

Having Immigration Experience Pre-Law School Helped Her Be Bold Post-Law School

 

If you go back and you think about, I've actually interned every summer, every semester, and I worked at the Committee of Homeland Security, and International Student Office, so sometimes when I calculate how much immigration experience, it's beyond me being an attorney. And if I wouldn't have had that, I wouldn't have been as bold, I don't think, to have started. Because when you start a firm, you're wearing so many hats. You're trying to do operations, hr, marketing. Do the actual work, answer the phone, and then you have to know the law. And if I wouldn't have had all that other experience, I wouldn't have felt competent enough to do it. So the first couple of years was tough because the economy was still trying to figure out what was going on with that. 

And so I worked from my house. About six months into it I hired a part-time assistant that worked at a firm. She also had been laid off at a firm I was at, laid off from, and so we worked together. We had had a good rapport and I learned a lot from her. We worked together for two years and I really soaked up with a lot of experience and knowledge from her. She was basically a mentor to me. 

I was just working hard. I mean, if I didn't have the phone ringing, I was working on marketing to get the phone to ring, and then when the phone rang, I had to do the cases. And then I realized I had to keep making sure the phone would ring. I mean, I really was just talking to lots of people who had firms like, How do you do this? What's the best place to advertise? I spent so much time asking questions, and I also had read the Jay Foonberg book from the ABA about Start and Build, but I had found that some of the sections were a bit outdated. 

 

On Writing Her Book

Wanted to Help Lawyers Focus on Actual Lawyering

 

Why did I write my book? I wrote mine because I didn't wanna have other people have to reinvent the wheel. You know, if they could just read a book and it help guide them so that they could be better lawyers and focus on the lawyering part instead of having to go do what I did, which was ask so many questions, read so many books. Do so many different things like courses and groups.

That's what I was hoping, that I would help others. And then maybe they could sort of leapfrog ahead by just reading the book and then that can guide them to opening other avenues of resources. But I know that not everybody reads and not everybody knows what they don't know, and not everybody is open to learning from those in the past and so you have to be ripe and open for it. 

That same law professor who helped me with my mom's state case, he gave a similar piece of advice. He basically said, go out and find the people who've done the things you want to do. And ask them, How did you get here? What would you have done differently? And have those like mentors at different stages of your life. You know, maybe somebody who's done it five years, 10 years, 20 years, 40 years out, and Right. Learn from people, you know, I guess that's why you have the podcast, you know, it's, it's a great source.

 

On Finding Mentors and Guidance

Proactively Reach Out and Ask Questions

 

When I was starting my firm, I just talked to all the people that were within reach. Like had either graduated law school, one I attended, or the one I graduated from, and, and asked them like, Tell me how did you start your firm or what advice would you have? And I asked very pointed questions, Lots of coffees, lots of lunches, lots of phone calls. Then I would try something and then I would experiment with it. And then I would see how it would go. 

And now I see like there's a lot more Facebook forums and there's a lot more community groups where people are sharing. But I don't feel like that existed as much when I started my firm 13 years ago. So it was a lot harder to do that.

There was one really good mentor at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). His name's Reid Trautz and he and I struck up a good relationship about 12 or 13 years ago. And so he's been a really strong mentor of mine and he does law practice management consulting for AILA, so that's his role amongst other things. And so he's been like a constant for the majority of me having my firm as well. 

 

On Running Her Firm Remotely from Dubai 

Worked on a Niche in Immigration Law

 

I started my firm in November '09. Then I had my first baby in January 2011. Then my husband wanted to do something different with his career, so he quit his stable job and accepted a job in Dubai and I knew that we might go on an international assignment, so that's why I kept everything on a shoestring and didn't sign any long term contracts because I needed to be flexible and agile.

So long story short, it was the Arab Spring. There was a lot going on in the middle of 2011, and my husband flew over there first, and then I landed in a sandstorm with my six-month-old. But I set up my firm so that my assistant was at an executive suite in Houston. I basically was a mommy by day and attorney by night, and by around 2:00 PM Dubai time to about maybe 10:00 PM I would work. I used Dropbox, Skype and Gmail. 

So that's when I had to also pivot my marketing to be all virtual remote representation. So I worked on a niche within immigration. I did a lot of what we call waivers and consult processing that didn't require me to go to an interview, go to court, or have to see the client necessarily. So that's where I had to pivot my marketing a bit. And everything that was like a weakness, like I'm far away or I'm somewhere else. I tried to turn it into a strength. So like in Dubai at the time, Sunday was a weekday. So I would work on Sundays and that actually was good for people in the U.S. because then they didn't have to take off work. Or they could do a Skype prep call with me or a consult. And so many people a decade ago were used to having to do it in person. 

So basically come Covid 2020. I had already done this. I had already done my 1.0, so this was like 2.0 for me. And reality when I came back from Dubai almost 14 months later, my firm had grown. I had more staff. But I still kept that remote representation mentality so that I always was thinking if we can do the intake online, if we can try to do this over Skype or phone, like we can probably maximize our time and also benefit the client who doesn't have to find us and come park and you know, all that. And also in-person consults take a lot longer than Zoom or phone calls. But anyway, I kept that mentality the whole time. 

 

On What Leadership in Law Means

Sharing What You Learned With Others

 

You have to be forward thinking and you need to share what you've learned with others. That's what I did with my mentoring that I do, with the book that I wrote. And another thing is I started another business about law practice management, small business consulting. 

And I do monthly webinars on different law practice management topics. And the reason why I started that was because I realized we were all craving, like we were saying, you know, those Facebook groups and I'm on several of them, I even have one, Power Up Your Practice. But I think a lot of people are craving that community because they're trying to reinvent the wheel and they realize, Wait, somebody else has already done this, let's learn from them. So that's one of the places that I feel like I'm giving back and I learned from them too, so, you know, in these discussions. 

 

On Other Opportunities for Legal Leadership

Public Service and Relationships with the Media

 

And another thing that I did that takes a lot of leadership too, but I ran for a state rep a few years ago, and I mean, that takes a lot of energy away from your family, your business. But I had a strong conviction about some things that were being done, and I wanted to go out there and speak out against some things and, you know, put myself out there for public service.

And in the process I learned a lot about public service, about myself, and I met a lot of other leaders and even though I didn't make it in the primary, it was a three-way split, but I still learned so much and I'm still in that leadership space in my community, and I think that we should also consider that, as well as another place to be leaders, is in the public service space.

My state rep had helped sponsor a bill that was the Show Me Your Papers Bill SB4, I think back in 2017. And I had gone to the state senate and a hearing, and I had testified against that bill. It still went through. So even that testifying experience and driving all the way to Austin to do that and waiting the whole day to speak my three minutes. It had a big impact on me as well. But they still passed it. It's almost as if they didn't listen to the hundreds of people who went. 

And then the reason why that also impacted me is because a lot of my clients were living in fear here in Texas. We have such a huge immigrant community, and so I just felt like they needed somebody to help represent them, and that was just one of many things. So I put my hat in the ring back in 2019 and as soon as I turned in my book, I started running and then I ran from 2019 to March, 2020. I lost the primary March 3rd, 2020, and then I turned my whole firm remote like 10 days later. 

But in the process, I just learned a lot about how state politics really have a huge impact. I mean, a lot of people only know who their federal level representatives are, and they don't really think much about their city council persons or their state reps or state senators, but they really have a big impact as well on the way their lives are. I did a lot of walking, a lot of canvassing, and a lot of talking to voters. And it's something I'll consider maybe in the future, but it really just gave me a whole other perspective on life. And I mean, it can be consuming, considering I also have a family and a firm and clients and everything.

It can be hard to wear all of those hats, but I think that you don't always win your first time, but you learn so much and just how you would maybe do things differently if you ran again. But I think the other takeaway is even if you aren't the elected official, You can be helping others through canvassing, making connections with community leaders, through donations for campaigns, and just sort of letting people know what's going on and elevating that message.

And that's the other thing I do is with the media. I've been on the media advocacy committee for a few years with AILA, American Immigration Lawyers Association. Really, that's the other way I've been trying to get the word out about change is by my relationship with reporters and taking interviews and just letting people know what's going on in the immigration space.

 

On One Thing She’d Change about the Legal Industry

Law Should Keep Momentum and Embrace Technology to Improve Access to Justice

 

I don't think I have one thing, but what I will say is that just like we mentioned more than a decade ago, I was already doing what we're sort of doing now. And so that's why I like to do a lot of talks about the future practice of law because I feel like if you look around at other industries and you see how much the legal space has changed in just the last two years, I mean, I feel like we need to keep moving in that direction in terms of automating, leveraging technology. Like in immigration space, only after Covid, they use copies of signatures. Otherwise, we were chasing original signatures around. Do you know how antiquated that is? And laborious and costly for our clients? Under immigration court they only started doing WebEx, which is like Zoom, if you will, hearings only in the last year. They didn't even do it during the majority of Covid. 

Only in the last like since summer 2021. So that's immigration space, but basically just let's keep this trend going where we're leveraging technology, we're keeping up with the other industries. Don't regress and revert back to the old ways. Because what it ultimately comes down to is being able to be affordable and provide access to justice for our clients. And I really see that a lot of people are gonna try to do more and more on their own, and attorneys are gonna be needed mostly for complex matters.

It's not just us though. It's also on the government actors that we interact with. So if the federal government, like for immigration court, doesn't provide video courts, then we have to physically run down there. Or they only allowed eFiling recently for some of the cases, unlike most other areas of law, which have been eFiling for ages. So depending on whom we interact with in the government space, making sure that they also are thinking forward and all the actors, all the pieces of the puzzle. And I think a lot of the times, we blamed our clients for why we didn't evolve technologically. But I think our clients are already there for the most part. I think we should just quit making excuses. 

 

On Something People Misunderstand About Her Work

It’s Not Easy Crossing the Border and Seeking Asylum

 

A lot of people think that the people who come across the border, like somehow get some magic ticket to getting status and then their whole life is amazing. And I'm like, Are you kidding me? No. They are in this mirage of court. When is it gonna be? Is it gonna be really quick or is it gonna be many years? And then they have to try to build up their case and then they're trying to survive because they don't have any funds. They spent all their money probably paying somebody to leave and traverse several countries with their children to come here.

And they didn't do it because they wanted an easy life. It's, it's because they were just trying to avoid being, you know, murdered, raped, or what have you in their home country. So it's not easy when you come across the border and apply for asylum. It's not easy. I've got cases that have been pending for a decade. I've got people who've applied affirmatively for seven years waiting. Now some of them wanna file mandamus because they've been waiting so long. So asylum is not easy. Those who apply from the border, not easy. Most chances, very high denial rates. So I don't know, some people tell me, Oh, if I just came across the border, I'd get the stat[us].

I'm like, No, that's not how it works. No. Immigration. Is really complex and there actually hasn't been new laws for like 25-plus years. It's all policy interpretation, case law. Executive power, executive documents.

 

On a Piece of Practical Advice

Always Have Goals, Reassess them, and Make New Ones

 

I'll just echo my professor's advice because that's really worked for me. Maybe you don't know what you wanna do when you grow up. Maybe you've gotten where you are so far, but you're still asking, and I think that's healthy. Don't think anything of it. But I think you always need to have goals. You always need to reassess them and you need to make new ones. Maybe you've already accomplished them and you haven't reset the next decade, 20 years or so. 

Self reflect, read a variety of information and have a wide variety of mentors that can guide you, but most importantly, find people who are where you think you want to be and ask them how do they get there? What would they have done differently? Do they regret anything? and have several people out there that you can build that relationship with. It doesn't have to be one-and-done coffee, but you really bond with them, stay in touch with them because I'm sure their answers could change over time. 

There's just the richness of having that long-term mentor / mentee relationship that is invaluable. And I think there's not enough focus on that in society today, but we should continue those relationships so that we can, we don't have to reinvent the wheel and we might be able to use a lot of their wisdom to save us lots of time and just help guide us on the right path.

 

On Self-Care

Protecting Herself and Staff from Vicarious Trauma in Asylum Work

 

I'm doing a lot of reading right now about energy and chakras. I got into that the last few weeks, especially because I do a lot of trauma work with asylum, so I'm also considering how to best protect myself and my staff while we're doing a lot of asylum cases. We're already experiencing that because we do a lot of asylum work and there's that vicarious trauma and there's PTSD, and we don't wanna have the burnout and I wrote a lot about that in my self-care chapter in my book. But usually if you do too much of this victim, Violence Against Women Act, U-Visa, which is a victim visa or asylum, if you don't know how to handle it, you can internalize it, especially if you're an empath. And so that's why it's important to be aware of the energy and you know, boundaries. 

Mostly I get reflexology or massage. I do Pilates and I try to read and go on national park vacations with my family and try not to work too much on the weekends or evenings. 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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