Karen Wong

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     KAREN WONG

“I think of all the people I’ve helped in the last fifteen years to start a new life in Australia, and it brings me satisfaction.”

­I am an immigration lawyer and a businesswoman.

I started out wanting to be a doctor, but as a result of a serious illness, I changed my mind and decided upon law. However, I still had an interest in science, so I did a combined degree at Monash University – Bachelor of Science and Law. I thought that would lead my down the path of some science-related law work, like intellectual property.

But when I finished my degree, I found that as a newly admitted lawyer, the employment market was quite tough and I had to take whatever job was available to me at the time. I applied to a few places, and eventually got an offer through a recruitment agency to interview with a firm that was looking for a Chinese speaking lawyer.

I could speak Mandarin and Cantonese, so I went for the interview and got the job at Stamfords Lawyers. They had a lot of Asian clients, so were looking for lawyers who could communicate directly with them.

My first area was working in commercial leasing and litigation. And I hated it. I could not see myself practising long term in these areas.

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Luckily, three months into my employment, someone from the immigration department within the firm resigned. The firm’s managing partner asked me if I had any friends who would be interested in doing immigration law, and I volunteered myself for the role, so that I could stop handling leasing and litigation matters!

I found myself a lot happier doing immigration law.

I got to meet a lot of people from different countries, especially from throughout Asia. I enjoyed talking to people, learning about them and their backgrounds.

To be honest, at first I was a little hesitant about committing to this field. I knew there were a lot of migration agents, who are not qualified lawyers, doing immigration law work anyway.

I felt as a lawyer, I should be doing something more “sophisticated”.

But once I got a taste of it, I realized that immigration law is not that easy. It is actually very complex, involving work like appeals before the federal circuit court, appearing before tribunals. There is definitely more to it than just filling out forms and submitting visa applications.

People wishing to migrate to Australia or to stay in Australia permanently would usually come to a lawyer like me for help.

I need to speak with them, understand their background and situation, their history. I need to make an assessment based on all that and make a decision under which visa category they will apply for permanent residency. Then each category has its own rules and regulations that I help the client to navigate.

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The other type of work we do is when people already have visas, but they may have fallen afoul of the law or other rules. The visa may get cancelled. For example, a student’s visa may be about to get cancelled, and the student is frantic because he can’t go back to his country for some reason. I’ll review why the cancellation is occurring, and may do an appeal.

In that first immigration job, the partner whom I worked for was not in the office often not long after I started, because her mother was ill. So basically, I was thrown into the deep end – I was a fresh graduate fending all these calls from people needing advice and help.

It was a little overwhelming, but I learnt quickly.

Thankfully, the law at that time was not as complex as it is today.

However, I really enjoyed it and after a few months, I decided to specialize in immigration. To that end, I moved to a bigger national firm Gadens Lawyers, where I was trained under an accredited Immigration specialist.

The work at Gadens was much more in-depth.

I learnt a lot there in not only handling visa applications, but also preparing review applications at the tribunal, requesting for ministerial invention and dealing with unlawful citizens  in Australia etc.

One thing I found quite hard working at a big commercial law firm like Gadens was the timesheet system that costed and tracked every moment of my day. You need to do a certain amount of billable hours per day.

Coming from Stamfords, I was used to a fixed fee environment.

That means if I do a visa job, there is a fixed fee of, say, five thousand dollars. But in a bigger firm, the lawyers’ performance is monitored. We have to clock our activities on timesheets every day. If you spend half an hour having coffee, you have to account for that half an hour, make sure you make up for it.

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I found that difficult, because if there was even the smallest delay on a visa matter, I’d end up clocking more than five thousand dollars, and the client would get charged extra. Obviously, a lot of clients didn’t like it, and I didn’t like getting their complaints. It took away from my actual work.

I felt that the billing hours system was not very client friendly, and my focus shifted from delivering the best work I could for my clients, to issues with invoices and money.

That made me feel uncomfortable, and was part of the reason I resigned after three years. I re-joined Stamfords Lawyers after my former employer caught up with me.

This time I was hired as a senior lawyer, doing the immigration work and helping to train up junior staff members. I stayed on until 2008.

By the time I returned to Stamfords, I was firmly committed to immigration law, and did further studies to deepen my knowledge and specialize. I believe lawyers, like doctors, must specialize in an area. Law is too vast a discipline for one person to know everything there is to know. So it was important for me to become a really good specialist in immigration Law.

In 2008 I sat my specialist exam. I passed it, and after that I started MCI Lawyers.

One of the reasons I decided to branch out was that at Stamfords, the expectation was that you would find your own clients. Very often, I had to go out and bring more work in. I had to go out after work and network at various events, have drinks, keep in touch with old clients, ask for referrals. It was quite a bit of pressure on top of doing my legal work.

So I figured, since I’m already doing that, I might as well do it on my own and for myself! I quit my job and started a business.

It was quite scary to branch out on my own.

I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. To start with, I rented a one-room serviced office on Collins street,  which was still madly expensive. It was quite a risk for me, signing the lease for one year for it.

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But I did good work, and soon had more and more clients coming to me.  They came from all my old networking, referrals, word of mouth. By the first year, I had around 200 files and made enough profit to purchase a full office suite and start a bigger practice.

I started employing people.

My first employee happened to be my client also, a former UK law graduate looking for a job. She was a great girl who was with me for six and half years before she left to have a baby. We worked really well together for the first year, just the two of us. The following year, I hired another person, and so on and on. Today I have seven employees.

We work across all immigration matters and categories. To me, business migration is the most complex especially when some people have so many assets and incredibly complicated business structures and I need to classify their assets and understand their structures so that I am able to explain them to the Department of Immigration.

I do choose my cases. If I feel it’s quite hopeless, I will be honest with the client and not take it.

My favourite category is skilled migration, bringing skilled workers to Australia. These clients are good to deal with, as most of the time they can speak English and understand instructions and rules. They are easiest to deal with.

The hardest clients, irrelevant from the visa category, are clients who are stubborn and who don’t listen to advice.

They may go to several different lawyers and try and play us off against each other.

Once I started running my own practice, with people working for me, my focus shifted from just law to business. Of course, I check the work of my staff members, but I focus a lot more on building the business and supporting all the people working for me, as well as our clients.

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I try to remember my past experiences, and run a firm that I myself would want to work in. I don’t expect my staff to find their own clients. That’s unfair. If you don’t have enough work to feed them, don’t employ them. It’s too much pressure on a person, to do both sales and good legal work.

Business development is my responsibility. I grow the business, I find the clients, and I run the practice day to day.

In running my own practice, the biggest challenge these days is keeping up with the changes in law, and to ensure that all my staffs do also, so that the practice does not give negligent advice to clients.

The laws, especially immigration laws, are always changing.

For example, a person can apply for a visa with an English score of five – this week. But, say the law changes next week, and the minimum score is now six. If the lawyer didn’t pick up on it, they get the client submit the application with a score of five, the client pays thousands of dollars, but the application fails. It’s the lawyer’s fault.

So lawyers absolutely must keep up with the changes in real time.

We have to be very vigilant and make sure we read all the bulletins and online updates, constantly review and read new legislations. You have to really read things and pay attention. Otherwise you embarrass yourself at best, or get sued at worst.

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Once, in the early days, I delegated a business visa file to a staff member. Somehow, we miscalculated the number of mandatory days our client had to stay in Australia before submitting the application.

Pure negligence on our part, and it was our fault it got rejected.

We had to take our appeal on the client’s behalf all the way to the ministerial level, to explain that it was being rejected because of technical mistakes we made. It ended up taking 3 years to grant this visa, and for almost 3 years, this client called me every week, distraught and complaining.

It was the most stressful time of my life. If we didn’t get the Minister to intervene, I think I would’ve been sued by that client for millions of dollars, as I would’ve lost her right to permanent residency.

That’s the stressful aspect – you have people’s lives in your hands.

There’s no room for mistakes. I really learned from that incident. It was the one and only case in my career, in fifteen years, that a mistake like that happened. You can be sure I will never allow that horrible situation to repeat.

But in a way, that was also the high point of my career. Being able to fix the problem, escalate it to the highest level, the Minister, and to get a good outcome. For years, while it was going on, my friends in the industry were telling me it was hopeless, that the Minister doesn’t intervene with cases like that. I was discouraged, I thought it was the end of my career and practice. So finally obtaining permanent residency for my client was a sweet victory.

These days, I still work on complex legal matters with my employee lawyers, but I really enjoy the business side of things.

One of the most difficult things for me in running a practice is to deal with people leaving. It’s hard to find another person to replace them and ensure work still gets done. This may be the most stressful part of my job today!

Also, even though it has never happened yet, I’m always a little stressed about having enough work to cover everyone, make sure that all my employees have enough work, that they are all happy.

My plan is to continue running MCI, and hope to save enough to retire early.

I may then have time to focus on some of my other interests. I’m actually an accomplished pianist. Earlier in life, I had some health issues which made me pause my music practice, but I’d like to resume and do some music composition, perhaps do some further studies or classes.

I am happy I chose this area of law, it really suits me and my personality. It’s really rewarding. I think of all the people I’ve helped in the last fifteen years to start a new life in Australia, and that brings me a lot of satisfaction.

It’s been good financially also, starting my own practice allowed me to achieve financial freedom sooner and gave me the satisfaction of being my own boss.  It’s funny, I named the company MCI after my Chinese name initials, but my mum said it can stand for ‘Money Coming In.’ That worked out well!

All in all, I can’t think of anything I would’ve done differently in my career.

My advice to anyone is don’t be afraid to try new things. I thought for a long time before I started my own practice. Can I make it or not? How much money would I lose if it doesn’t work? What if I don’t get enough clients? I prepared myself for the worst. I had my mortgage, my car loan. I signed an expensive lease for the office, and I was quite scared. But I took the plunge. I thought, “If I lose, so be it. At least I tried.”

 

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