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January 2012
Roll the Dice
By Margaret Carr Hughes

     Steve Garfinkel knew the stakes were high when he started his own small business. It was September 1997. He had a secure job as the “partner-in-charge” of the immigration law practice group at a large, multidisciplinary law firm. He was planning on getting married soon and within a couple of years it would be time to start a family.

     But Garfinkel could tell that Charlotte was in a growth cycle. The city’s businesses were thriving, the airport was expanding, and Garfinkel knew that the economic developers were talking more and more to foreign companies. So, like most wide-eyed entrepreneurs, he decided to the roll the dice.

     No time would ever be a perfect time, but it was a good time to take a risk.

 

The Work Will Come

     Garfinkel opened Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm in a small office in the SouthPark area. The firm initially employed two paralegals and an administrative assistant. A small reception area fit only a desk and a chair. Beyond the entrance, there were four offices and a cozy conference room. Another room doubled as a kitchen and a copy room.

     Office supplies and the server were stored in a small closet. There was no need for the receptionist to page anybody using the new phone system; the staff members were all within earshot. Tall, metal file cabinets lined the single hallway adjoining the offices—mostly waiting to be filled in anticipation of a growing city and new clients. Yet, in spite of the minimal surroundings, Garfinkel was busy from the get-go.

     Garfinkel started the firm with a handful of corporate clients. He knew these businesses would serve as a foundation for the firm but he also knew that he would need to “earn” more clients for sustainability. Garfinkel’s philosophy was simple: “Do exceptional work and the clients will come.”

     Garfinkel was absolutely correct. With long hours and a lot of patience, he trained his staff to prioritize caseloads, to meticulously monitor details, and to write clearly, concisely and persuasively. He also put technologies in place to increase efficiencies. He hired more staff as needed. And he hired, and he hired…

     Soon those tall, metal file cabinets began to fill. Garfinkel had to renovate and expand the office three times. Before long, the receptionist was even forced to page the staff using the phone system!

     As one longtime client and manager for the department of legal services in a global manufacturing company puts it, “Steve is, without doubt, an expert immigration attorney who provides excellent advice, alternative choices, and solutions to address immigration issues that arise in our global organization. Over the years that I have worked with Steve, he has implemented substantial growth and improvements within his firm to adapt to and address client needs, as well as streamline response and processing times, always remaining personally accessible.”

     In 2001, Garfinkel hired Jennifer Cory, an immigration attorney with over 10 years of experience. Garfinkel and Cory work well together. Garfinkel is more direct; Cory softens the delivery. In 2010, Cory became a partner in the firm, taking on the role of overseeing the majority of the firm’s work product, including supervising the associates and paralegals. Garfinkel strategizes, conducts most initial client consultations, manages the bulk of the administrative matters, and does all of the business development work.

 

Immigration 101It’s Complicated

     When Garfinkel meets someone who is not familiar with immigration law (which is quite common), he is often asked, “What does an immigration lawyer do?” He explains that there are several practice areas within the field: family-based, removal/deportation defense, and employment-based. Garfinkel has concentrated his practice on employment immigration (although the firm handles cases in all practice areas).

     An employment immigration attorney assists businesses with obtaining work authorization for foreign national employees. In fact, ALL foreign nationals who enter the U.S. legally with the intent to work must obtain the correct employment visa—whether they are a brilliant scientist who has earned the Nobel Peace Prize, a climber who has climbed Mount Everest, or a personal friend of the President.

     Identifying and obtaining the correct visa can be challenging. There are over 20 different types of employment visas. Each visa has its own set of requirements. The requirements may relate to the foreign national, the business, or both. Garfinkel says, “In many cases, it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

     Of the immigrant visas (commonly known as “green cards”) there are only five ways an individual may qualify. Like nonimmigrant visas, the requirements are specific but the process can take much longer, up to 10 or more years.

      As if the process were not complicated enough, all visa petitions are filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), which is a massive bureaucracy housed within the Department of Homeland Security. Sounds a little complicated, doesn’t it?

 

Simple Recipe for Success

     Like most businesses in Charlotte, Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm was impacted by the economic downturn.

     “Many of our corporate clients were forced to cut back or delay hiring decisions,” Garfinkel says. “This impacted our business, but we became leaner and meaner just like everybody else in Charlotte.” There are, however, a few policies that Garfinkel never overlooks in an effort to reduce cost because he believes these polices constitute a simple recipe for success.

     Point one: Make sure the client is happy. Garfinkel knows very well that timely communication is one service that clients expect and deserve.

     “Immigration is personal,” he explains. “It affects the family. It means that dad gets a paycheck, mom qualifies for a driver’s license and the children can enroll in school.”

     So Garfinkel harps on providing outstanding customer service. He makes it clear to his staff that all calls and emails are to be returned within 24 hours.

     A computer engineer with a financial services company substantiates Garfinkel’s commitment to service by stating, “This has been a long trip, a lot of paper work, follow-up, phone calls, inquires, forms and extreme attention to detail. Throughout this experience, you’re office has been extremely professional and supportive. Your team always responded quickly and accurately to all my questions and concerns. You provided services in a timely and professional manner. I could not have asked for a better team to be on my side throughout the process from the very beginning!”

     Garfinkel invests in a state-of-the-art immigration database that tracks cases and sends clients email immediately upon updates to their cases. He reiterates, “Timely communication is critical. The client needs to know that they are important to us.”

     Point two: Make sure your employee is happy. There is very little turnover at Garfinkel Immigration. People are happy to work at the firm because there is a sense of community. The staff has organized movie nights, periodic “Thirsty Thursday” happy hours and a book club. The staff is organized into teams, so they are accustomed to relying on one another. They gather outside of the office to volunteer for numerous charities including, but not limited to, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House.

     For years, Garfinkel was the only male at the law firm so he enrolled the entire staff in a Panthers Football 101 session so there could be “Monday morning quarterbacking” at the firm. At the firm’s inception, Garfinkel implemented a free half-day Friday policy where a single staff member takes a Friday afternoon off. The benefit rotates through the staff throughout the year and is still in place today. The staff touts this benefit as most special. It also exemplifies Garfinkel’s innate generosity.

     Point three: Be able to change with the times. Remember those file cabinets? They became too cumbersome, too bulky. So in 2003, Garfinkel decided that the tall, metal file cabinets must go. Further, one of his employees requested that she be able to work from home during her pregnancy and thereafter.

     At the time, it seemed that only large medical practitioners knew about the benefits of high-speed scanners and imaging software. Although expensive, Garfinkel decided that imaging the firm’s large paper files was a good idea, and the savings in storage and convenience of access worth the expense. So he converted the office to paperless.

 

Paperless law firm—is that an oxymoron? Maybe…but the technology has enabled the staff to expedite the processing of cases and allowed employees to work remotely without the need to transport bulky paper files. It has been a win-win in cost savings and convenience.

 

One-Stop Shop

     Under U.S. immigration law, there is an employment visa known as the O-1 which has some of the highest standards for qualification. The person must be “extraordinary in his/her field in terms of knowledge, ability, expertise and accomplishments.” Were Garfinkel a foreign national, he would indeed qualify.

     He earned both his bachelor’s degree cum laude and his Juris Doctor from Wake Forest University. He has practiced U.S. immigration law since 1984. Garfinkel is often asked to speak at national conferences on immigration and visa law and offers free talks to area businesses and professional associations.

     He has authored numerous articles and each year he is rated by his peers with the highest possible (AV) Peer Review Rating. He is listed in the Best Lawyers in America and North Carolina Super Lawyers. He is certified as a Specialist in Immigration Law by the North Carolina State Bar and is a member of the prestigious Alliance of Business Immigration Attorneys. He has served on the board of several Charlotte-based organizations and contributes to multiple charities in region.

     In 2010, the firm added two new practice groups due to client demand. “We received an increasing number of calls from employers who had received an audit of their I-9 forms from the U.S. government,” Garfinkel says. “We were also getting a lot of calls from our current clients who needed to send U.S. citizens abroad to work. Outbound visa immigration can be an even more complicated because you have to deal with the immigration law of numerous other countries,” Garfinkel says.

     So Garfinkel harnessed his connections with lawyers in multiple foreign countries. He consults with these attorneys as outbound matters arise.

     Garfinkel has proven that he is ready to meet the demands of changing technologies and businesses. He says, “I want Garfinkel Immigration to be a one-stop shop for all matters related to immigration.”

     Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm currently employs 22 people (five attorneys and 17 paralegals, legal assistants and administrative staff). It hires summer associates and interns. The firm recently moved to new offices located at 6100 Fairview Road.

     Garfinkel says he is blessed with a great staff and loving family. He has a beautiful wife and two wonderful daughters. When not working, Garfinkel enjoys playing golf and exercising.

     Garfinkel reflects on his journey, and the wager he made 14 years ago; he is pleased with the outcome. The firm is now the largest immigration law firm in the Carolinas and it boasts a solid reputation of doing exceptional work.

     Eighty percent of new business comes from referrals. Clients are happy. Employees are happy. Garfinkel says, “I’m really glad I rolled the dice. It was a bet worth taking.”

 

Margaret Carr Hughes is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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