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University: Brown University, United States
Degree: Politics and international relations
Immigration lawyers deal with all legal matters relating to immigration and nationality. The work ranges from asylum and human rights claims through applications by family members and students to advising businesses on securing immigration status for their employees. There is a significant and increasing European law element, and many cases raise important human rights issues. The law is rapidly developing, in terms of both statute law and jurisprudence, and procedural timeframes are tight. There is a good deal of overlap with social welfare, mental health, prison law, criminal law and civil actions.
Many people are inspired to follow their future careers by their experiences at university and Michelle Knorr is no exception. Her journey towards the immigration Bar began with a course on international law during her undergraduate degree in politics and international relations at Brown University in the United States.
“It was my first introduction to legal reasoning and legal argument, and I really enjoyed it,” she recalls. “It is quite a unique type of activity, not like other forms of study. I was very interested in the subject – we were looking at things like the legality of the war in Iraq, and our tutor was a negotiator for Palestine. He was involved in negotiating peace agreements and was fascinating to listen to. It showed me a side of the law that I thought was really interesting – that’s what gave me the idea of pursuing law.”
Michelle set about bolstering her academic knowledge of the subject and garnering valuable wider experience before taking the plunge into practice. She completed a master’s in international human rights law at the University of Essex and a stint working in international development before doing the GDL at BPP and the BVC at the Inns of Court School of Law. After that, Michelle spent at year as an immigration caseworker at Wilson Solicitors in Tottenham, with the instruction of barristers among her duties.
This experience gave her first-hand insight into what life might be like in chambers – although that didn’t mean she wasn’t still a little wary of beginning her pupillage. “I was terrified when I started,” she admits. “I was having nightmares about having to carry people’s bags. You hear so many horror stories about being treated badly and I’m not somebody who has much appreciation for hierarchy, so I think I was a bit nervous about that aspect of it. I knew it was going to be hard work – I was quite up for that – but I was scared of the formality of chambers.”
As it turned out, she had nothing to worry about: her colleagues at Doughty Street Chambers were “incredibly supportive” and the cases she was given to handle “fascinating”. During the first six months of pupillage, much of the work revolves around the caseload of your pupil supervisor. Pupils may draw up initial draft arguments for them and accompany them to conferences and to court. During the second six, young barristers begin to get on their feet in court. At Doughty Street, pupils are kept busy. “We give them a lot of really interesting work on cutting-edge cases” says Michelle. “Once on your feet, the majority of the court work is crime, which is important because it gets you into the courtroom and trains you to be a good advocate. There are loads of magistrates’ court briefs and you are running all over the place. You also continue to work with other members of chambers on their civil briefs, often on very high-profile cases. I did quite a lot of immigration as well, largely because I already had an immigration background. So there were solicitors who were willing to brief me and the immigration team felt that it was safe to brief me on immigration cases. Unless you have a background in immigration or your pupil supervisor is an immigration practitioner, you wouldn’t do many substantive immigration cases as a pupil, but you might do bail hearings or case management hearings – procedural hearings rather than substantive hearings. You can also do pro bono work for Bail for Immigration Detainees or the Asylum Support Appeals Project.”
"I really enjoy meeting my clients: they are amazing people from all over the world"
Today, the main areas of Michelle’s practice include asylum, human rights, deportation, family migration and EU law applications. Other immigration lawyers can specialise in business immigration, but there is quite a lot of crossover, with some covering several different areas. A lot of time is spent in court or at tribunals, and you also do a lot of High Court judicial review work.
“In many areas of civil law, you don’t actually get to do a lot of advocacy, but in immigration you do,” continues Michelle. “You do a lot of tribunal work. If it’s on legal aid, it can be quite badly paid now – there are fixed fees, which are very low – but it’s really important work and you can balance it out with other work. As you get more senior, you will spend more time drafting grounds for judicial review or drafting skeleton arguments for the Court of Appeal. So you might spend slightly more time out of court once you are a few years in practice. But at the beginning, you can be in court more often than not.”
Location for vocation
Michelle readily admits that most barristers who work in immigration have a vocation for the area, and it is the people whom she works for and with that make it all worthwhile for her. “Not many people fall into immigration work,” she says. “It’s not the best-paid area – the real rewards are achieving something for your client and working in a legally complex and challenging specialism. So you definitely have really committed lawyers – people who are, in some respects, activist lawyers – and I really enjoy that. I also really enjoy meeting my clients: they are amazing people from all over the world. They have been through so many experiences, many of which are horrific. You hear stories about their managing to flee across continents; you hear about people who’ve been exceptionally brave and stood up to dictators. You really meet some very inspiring people, the vast majority of whom I feel quite honoured to represent.”
She also acknowledges that because of the close relationships that can develop between immigration barristers and their clients, you have to have to steel yourself for the possibility of defeat – something which can be hard to deal with. “I know a number of people who have left immigration work because they couldn’t cope with it,” says Michelle. “I’m thinking of one good friend in particular, who just found it too upsetting. She won 99.9% of the cases, but it was the others that she couldn’t handle. I think you have to have an attitude whereby you know that you are doing your job the absolute best that you can, and you have to accept that the world is as it is – it is not always fair, and that’s why a lot of your clients are in the position they are in the first place.”
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