Jeffrey O’Brien founded the O’Brien Immigration Firm in 2010, with the goal of using a disruptive business focus and cutting edge technology practices to transform traditional immigration law to better serve immigrant clients. By merging his interest in database and process management with immigration law, the firm has become just that, a disruptor in the field, by harnessing data to work with clients more efficiently. With lower costs and crisp practices as its northstars, the Firm has successfully assisted thousands of clients from a diverse group of countries, including Afghanistan, Brazil, El Salvador, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, México, Mongolia, and Nepal.
Jeffrey grew up in Southern California and graduated from Loyola Marymount University and The University of San Francisco School of Law. He and his team of dedicated attorneys and staff maintain an office in Downtown Berkeley and a satellite office in California’s central valley. Rather than the traditional high cost, fractured service model of immigration law, the O’Brien Immigration Firm is focused on low cost, high value, and transparent client service. We caught up with Jeffrey to learn more about how this avid tinkerer utilizes technology to better serve the immigrant community towards their goal of living in the United States.
What initially interested you in immigration law?
I was astonished with how many immigration lawyers operate in a “pay me and I’ll take care of everything” universe. As clients often come from countries where authoritative practices rule the day, they often accept this as a standard attorney-client relationship. I noticed that immigration cases were often handled in a slow, outdated method, with the client often not involved in the process. Attorneys would often ineffectively communicate case progress and information to the client. Through technology, we have aimed to revolutionize the relationship between our lawyers, staff and clients, while increasing efficiencies and lowering costs.
What was the specific impetus for this technology focused practice management?
Immigration law is intrinsically labor intensive. Our initial strategy was to offer lower fees without sacrificing quality or communication with clients. This led to using technology to create process efficiencies. Maintaining our low fees by keeping our costs low has always driven us to find less costly options. By using data management in a novel and creative way, our collective goal is to offer transparent communication with clients, with less time expended.
The Firm uses the Salesforce cloud platform, along with other complementary apps, to organize our caseload. Our systems allow us to communicate better with our clients. We can inform them of deadlines and more clearly explain deadlines to them that we as a team, must comply with. O’Brien Immigration can offer a team based approach to our clients’ case. Our office is able to answer questions and provide information. Clients at our Firm can expect the type of service that I saw was missing in other Firms. Continuing to improve communication and service drives us each day. As much as we solve our clients legal issues towards a path of living in the United States, we are in the client service business.
How have the large tech firms partnered with you?
Being near the tech hubs of the Silicon Valley and San Francisco has allowed us to leverage partnerships with tech firms that realize they have a stake in supporting our growth. We are able to demonstrate how a law firm can utilize their platforms within otherwise challenging business types. Whereas database management has traditionally been a fit for companies who require warehouse management, it doesn’t fit naturally with an immigration practice. However, we have customized their software platforms to align with our Firm’s business needs. For example, we use Salesforce to manage our data. As the standard Salesforce platform wouldn’t work well for us, we have invested in customizing it and utilizing companion services to establish the practice management systems that we rely on today. This can serve as a model for companies like Salesforce to broaden their business reach.
It seems that your focus requires a long term commitment?
At the outset, I was willing to run the Firm at a loss in order to build a strong internal system to prepare for growth. However, this has never been at the expense of our existing clients. We still charged lower fees, but we invested significantly in our systems to eventually service clients more efficiently.
What have been the challenges in introducing this technology to your practice?
At some point in a case, we hope to connect with clients electronically, whether it be via text messages or email. But, many of our clients, being new to the country, aren’t as versed in technology and don’t have the access that many of us take for granted. The challenge has been making sure our clients are still able to interact with us in the methods they are most comfortable, while still taking advantage of the technology systems we have implemented. We still answer a lot of phone calls and have clients drop by the office. Many of our clients don’t speak English and are intimidated by the process. Often they don’t have a computer, let alone an email address.
As many clients’ main form of communication is their cell phone, the Firm is able to communicate with clients largely through text messages, and send appointment reminders and court deadlines that can have significant impacts on their case’s progression.
With immigration law is in the forefront now, how has it changed since you entered the practice in 2010?
Immigration work has always been an in-demand field, but recently the need for low cost immigration legal services has grown dramatically. It’s always been in our country's DNA to want to help asylum seekers which has only escalated in recent years. We’ve seen a dramatic increase from Central America. The landscape has changed in that fewer people are successfully crossing the border, and more often clients are detained closer to the border and are already in the immigration court system when we handle their case. Some of our technology practices have increased our ability to remotely help those clients in detention.
There’s always been a challenge for immigration lawyers. Many clients immigrate from countries where lawyers, or anyone of authority, are not to be trusted. Building a healthy, strong and successful relationship with our clients has always been paramount. This has become more important as our clients have faced even more horrendous situations in their countries of origin. Immigration lawyers are often the first professional people many clients interact with the United States. It’s important that we set a high standard for them.
Can your clients also use the technology?
Yes, often clients will receive a document, and need help understanding what they are reading and what to do next. Traditionally, immigration practices required clients come into the office and have their attorney review the document.
Many clients have jobs that don’t afford them easy access to a lawyer’s office during business hours. The firm prides itself in being efficient with clients time and money. The time necessary by the client, often requiring they miss work, and the attorneys and staff time on our end, can now be avoided. Using their mobile devices, our clients are able to snap a photo of their documents and seamlessly send them in to the office for review at our convenience.
Has your technology advancements allowed the Firm to handle more pro bono cases?
Very much so. The practice of immigration law is so labor intensive, both from attorneys and support staff. Often meeting with clients to review their backgrounds, making court appearances and the general slowness of the court system creates a heavy time burden. The profit margins have historically been lower than in most other legal fields. Without the benefit of large profit margins, pro bono work can be difficult to handle. As our technology has allowed us to reduce the hours required to handle a case, we have an opportunity to assist more clients who cannot afford legal services.
What’s next on the horizon for O’Brien Immigration?
Within five years, the routine tasks and information sharing that is much of our practice will be automated. While at this point we have shaved 30% of the time a defensive asylum case takes, for example, we are aiming to eliminate another 30%, thereby cutting more than half of the time. I like to think of it as we are halfway there towards the ultimate goal we envisioned. As we enter the age of the 4th revolution, digitization, our firm is poised to lead the way in using smart technology to provide low cost, efficient services to a community in desperate need of legal help in these turbulent times.