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D&I Leadership Series: Fireside Chat with James Vázquez-Azpiri

July 08, 2020

Morgan Lewis partner James Vázquez-Azpiri sat down for a virtual fireside chat with partner Melissa Rodriquez to discuss his career and previous experiences in the law. James serves as co-leader of Morgan Lewis’s global immigration practice and is part of the firm’s cross-practice Global Workforce team.

Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer? If you did not become a lawyer, what were some other career paths for you?

In my case, I came to the practice of law fairly late in life. I originally saw myself in academia and becoming a fulltime Spanish professor. I spent my twenties teaching Spanish at Princeton. I found myself interested in the connections between law and literature. In thinking more about it, I thought that becoming a lawyer would offer me the same academic rewards and challenges as being an academic so I went to law school.

Originally when I started my practice after completing law school, business immigration law was not an area that one could truly stay busy. It was unusual for someone to graduate from law school to go directly into immigration work. So I found myself starting out my career as a labor and employment litigator. I did not see this as an immediate entre into the immigration world, however, the first BigLaw firm I was at did find themselves experiencing a need for immigration experience and knowledge. I found myself getting involved in a variety of immigration matters for the firm’s various clients and I very quickly became the resident expert. I was also finding that I was able to work on a number of pro bono cases – particularly asylum ones. I found a passion and enthusiasm for this kind of work. 

Do you have any advice for junior associates/midlevel associates/senior level associates? What do you wish you had known as an associate?

This is a great question and there are four points I would like to make. First and foremost, associates who are just starting out need to understand how law firms operate and what are the general expectations for your role and for advancement. For other associates, it is important to remember this as you advance through the years. Secondly, I would advise associates to find a partner who can serve as a sponsor or a mentor – someone who is truly willing to accompany and support you in the process. This person should be someone who knows you and is committed to helping you out. Third, recognize that while technical excellence is a key requirement to success, it is not everything. Writing the best brief or drafting the best agreement is not enough. Find ways to be the type of lawyer who is going to be able to develop and grow within the firm, cultivate existing client relationships, and attract new clients for the firm. Finally, though maybe simple, be likeable and a team player. I am sometimes rather shy so getting to know my colleagues does not come as naturally as it does for some, in fact, it’s something I had to work on. But I found that the best way to be liked is to treat everyone with respect.

Given these unprecedented times, are there best practices that you would recommend for working from home or working through stress?

As mentioned previously, I can be someone who is rather shy so this current work environment has created both challenges and opportunities. Most importantly, I would say to our associates that it is so important to stay connected with colleagues, both those who you are working on matters with and others. If this happened 15 years ago, this would have been more problematic. But now we have technology to help us out and it can certainly be used to our advantage. I have found that with the immigration team, weekly calls with the lawyers and staff has certainly helped us stay close even if virtually. We discuss work and non-work things as we would have if we were in the office. Personal connections are key and we are all working to make sure that people do not feel like they are too disconnected.

Try and keep the same schedule as if you were in the office. Though we find ourselves sheltering-in-place from our homes, which have become our offices, it is important to try and keep the same schedule. We always make sure that we are available for our clients when they need us but making sure that there is still some separation between work and your personal life is key to ensuring that we are staying healthy and well.

I may not an expert in this but I would say getting exercise – and not just mental exercise, we do get a lot of that – is good for us. I find time to get on the treadmill every day as part of my routine. The firm is offering great resources through ML Well, including mediation breaks.

And finally, even if it is just to stay home with family, taking a day off or a vacation to recharge a bit is helpful. 

Could you describe a time you had to be innovative to stay on course?

There are many instances in which we have had to think creatively. In fact, many clients have come to us for our innovative thinking. Immigration law is a field that does not have much case law to fall back on or is not a particularly regulated area and this provides us opportunities to be creative in ways that benefits our clients.

One particular instance, years ago, we were working with a very large IT company that was experiencing difficulty obtaining green cards for some of their very high-level employees. Our team found a rarely-used provision, “Schedule A.” This allowed employers to have high-level employees go through the screening process without necessarily needing to have an alternative candidate provided the desired candidate meets the criteria of “exceptional ability.” This helped streamline the green card process for these candidates.

Are there any matters you’re especially proud of?

We take great pride in maintaining some very loyal and high-level relationships for many years now. I think this is largely due to the quality of our services. But I would say I’m equally proud of my pro bono cases. Some of these cases hinged on a matter of life or death. My personal preference for pro bono work is asylum work and particularly toward taking cases from Central America.

One case that will give me a great deal of pride, if it’s successful, is for an Olympic swimmer who has the potential to be the first Central American swimmer in the finals. Currently, a student in the US, we are trying to get a green card for him. One of our main arguments is that his involvement in the Latino American community as a swim instructor is beneficial to a seriously underserved community. As far as I know, no swimmer has obtained a green card on this basis. Wish us and him luck.