Big Law’s Immigration Advocates

This study examines lawyers working in the federal appellate courts who represent immigrants seeking relief from deportation. By analyzing over 23,000 appellate cases during the Trump and Obama Administrations, the research here uncovers crucial findings. To begin, there was a statistically significant difference in the win rates of lawyers working pro bono and coming from the largest and most profitable corporate “Big Law” firms compared to lawyers based in other, typically more specialized immigration practice settings. Specifically, during the Trump Administration, Big Law lawyers won at nearly three times higher a rate than non-Big Law lawyers in the federal appellate courts. During the Obama Administration, Big Law lawyers won over three times more often.

To supplement these quantitative results, interviews with Big Law and non-Big Law lawyers were conducted. As this study makes clear, it is not that those from Big Law firms are necessarily smarter or better at understanding immigration than non-Big Law practitioners. Indeed, there are certainly those lawyers in the latter cohort who do well in the appellate courts. Still, because of their enormous resource advantages, Big Law lawyers, on average, perform better because they have the luxury of selecting cases they believe are more likely to win. Additionally, Big Law firms have appellate specialists. They also have available personnel who can readily assist on these cases, as well as access to diverse research technologies and a keen familiarity with the federal courts’ norms—all of which are vital in preparing Big Law lawyers during the appeals process.

Of course, Big Law firms are only involved in a fraction of federal appellate deportation cases. Nevertheless, their relatively high win rate, and the reasons behind it, have serious implications for how immigrants who do not have this type of representation are able to obtain justice. Otherwise put, Big Law’s greater success rates sadly perpetuate the already existing inequalities within our immigration system and highlight the unfortunate reality that firms with resources are able to procure advantages and benefits that others may not be able to enjoy.

* Milt and Judi Stewart Professor of Law and Director of the Stewart Center on the Global Legal Profession, Indiana University-Bloomington Maurer School of Law.

** Associate, León Cosgrove LLC, Miami, FL (J.D., Indiana University-Bloomington Maurer School of Law, ’23).

*** Assistant Professor of Sociology, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN.

For their thoughtful comments and feedback on this project at various points, the authors thank Ashley Ahlbrand, Greg Castanias, Scott Cummings, Irit Dekel, Ingrid Eagly, Susan de Maine, Sara Friedman, Lara Gose, Aneil Kovvali, Herbert Kritzer, Ethan Michelson, Christiana Ochoa, Steve Sanders, Jeffrey Stake, Collin Vonderahe, Tung Yin, and the lawyers who provided us incredible insights and educated us about crucial aspects of the legal profession. This project could not have been completed without their generous support. Finally, for replication and transparency purposes, all methodological techniques used are provided in Appendices A—H.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.