Attorney at Law Magazine Cleveland Publisher Jim Shultz sat down with Margaret W. Wong to discuss her practice and career.
AALM: Tell us about the founding of your firm. What compelled you to start your own practice?
Wong: As the oldest child in my family who came to United States from Hong Kong with my younger sister, Cecilia, I knew I had to support my family back in Hong Kong. Due to the socio-political tensions, our family’s economic situation was unstable. My parents were staunch anticommunist writers and publishers. My father did not believe in tying the company’s profits to the ideological battle between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. At the time, the publishing industry in Hong Kong was more about spreading ideas rather than making money.
I graduated from SUNY Buffalo Law School in 1976. I was one of the first, if not the first, Chinese woman lawyers to pass the bar in New York. Once I passed the bar, I needed to work, it’s that simple. And I realized that I had no choice but to do it on my own.
AALM: What first drew you to the legal field? And to immigration law in particular?
Wong: I majored in chemistry and biology in college. Instead of applying to medical school my final year, I decided to apply to law school. I think it was by pure luck that I was accepted to SUNY Buffalo with a full scholarship. I still remember the first six months of classes; I felt so intimidated by these New York kids who seemed so much smarter and stronger than I could ever imagine myself to be.
I started my own law practice with one desk and no secretary and I fell into immigration practice in 1978. The practice of immigration law in those days was not very difficult, and there were very few practitioners in Cleveland, Ohio. I was dogged and persistent; looking back, it was a lot of fun. One of the first marriage cases I did with the legacy INS was one where the female spouse did not take her husband’s name. The INS officer pounded on the woman because she did not change her name to match her husband’s, reasoning it must be a fraudulent marriage. I got so angry and argued with the officer, asking why a woman should be required to change her name and how it was relevant at all to her green card.
AALM: How has your firm evolved since its inception?
Wong: Immigration law has changed so much in the past 39 years. Every historic battle or major world event resulted in changes in our country’s immigration laws. Immigration law used to be almost exclusively solo practitioners. Today, boutique firms have emerged all over the country, specializing in specific kinds of immigration work – employment-based, litigation and appeals, and so on. As our firm did more, I wanted to be more and more competitive. Now our firm handles anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 unique matters each year. Every Friday afternoon, my law clerk prints the weeks’ research of practice advisories, opinion letters, and precedent Board of Immigration Appeals and federal court decisions, and I push myself to read everything over the weekend.
In the early days of my practice, we could actually go to INS and speak to immigration officers, or the officers would stop by our office on their way home and discuss cases if they had questions, just to save me the time of going to their office. Every holiday season, we would bring cookies and fruit and sit and chat with the INS officers. Now, with todays’ ethics standards, there are no more gift exchanges or mingling at social functions.
AALM: Tell us about your team. How do you work together?
Wong: I am an early morning person, so I am usually in the office at 5 a.m. Some of our attorneys prefer to come in later and stay later. We have a weekly Wednesday morning meeting where we review the status of our cases over the past few weeks. The great thing about our firm is that we have quite a few people who came from different countries, so it is always an energizing mix of opinions and approaches. Because of our seven offices, we do a lot of communication through email. As an incentive, we can leave early on Fridays in the summer if we accomplish a certain number of filings that week.
I’ve had several really good teams over the decades, and right now I think I have the best ever. Each is an expert in their area and their personalities fit well with the organization. I’m constantly amazed at how the office has come together over the past 10 years, and how easily it handles the volume we’ve experienced due to the most recent presidential campaigns.
AALM: How do you balance running a business with practicing law?
Wong: Perhaps the question should be: how do you maintain your Christian faith, quote fees, and collect those fees when you know that some of your clients are working so hard to stay afloat in America while facing deportation but paying your staff and maintaining a comfortable life for your partners after years of hard work and training? How do you quote fees to clients’ families when ICE has already detained them and is threatening imminent removal? I struggle with this on a daily basis. On the other hand, we are fortunate because we represent quite a lot of foreign borns with wealth.
In terms of management, I insist that my team be as aware of their caseload as I am of mine. We’ve created a very tight system for case management.
AALM: Are there any changes within your firm coming in the near future that you’re excited about?
Wong: I have just invited a firm I’ve known for 30 years to join our firm. Their managing attorney, Beryl Bergquist, is a force to be reckoned with throughout the Southeast United States.
AALM: Who are your legal heroes and how do you aspire to emulate them?
Wong: My clients are my heroes. These are the best and the brightest of the world, regardless of whether they’re already successful or just barely started. They’ve crossed deserts and oceans, and in some cases, battled war, starvation, persecution and untold humiliation. As they approach citizenship, they learn more about the United States than most youth raised and schooled in the United States will ever know – or care to know. I can think of about six (or 60) cases in particular where the individual battled not just the trials of the journey, but years embroiled in the U.S. courts, to finally know vindication, freedom, and acceptance here.