Ikigai and the Joys of Practicing Immigration Law

“Ikigai”—Formula for Happiness and Meaning


Ikigai is the Japanese formula for happiness and meaning, and it is best understood as the intersection between what you love, what you care about, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for.  Choosing to practice immigration law has been one of the best decisions of my life and I am happy to provide a short list of the many joys this practice has brought me: 


1.    Work Life Balance – What you can be paid for

There is a common misconception that life as an attorney is either the high stressed corporate attorney or the impoverished public defender—both which seem to be unsustainable.

 I have found that one reason so many of the immigration practitioners that I meet love what they do is because it affords a very nice work life balance. Many immigration attorneys either practice their entire lives without ever wanting to retire, while others pass on their firm to their children. It is certainly an area of practice that provides a comfortable living for the work that is required.


2.    Room for Curiosity –What you are good at

Ideas and good stories fascinate me and being able to incorporate nearly everything I learn into my cases is a perk few professions can boast. Every TED talk, podcast, and TV show makes their way into the cases that we work on. Because immigration law touches on every aspect of society, a good immigration practitioner is rewarded when he or she applies the knowledge gained from their curiosity. I don’t know any other area of law that is as encompassing as immigration, and case types can include: federal v. state; company v. individuals; extraordinary talent v. victims of abuse; litigation v. transaction; citizenship v. deportation; joy v. sorrow.


3.    Heart of Service – What you love

 Most people go into immigration law because they feel a compassion for people. Being an immigration attorney allows you to apply every fiber of your being into making a difference in someone’s life and then seeing the immediate results.  In one case, you save a father from being deported, and in another case, you help an entrepreneur set up his expansion plan in the U.S. The next day, you help your client who has been living in the shadows for 20 years to get a green card, and by the end of the day, you save a company from shutting down because you helped keep 20 of their international employees in status. Most people find their happiness when they are able to do something, they are proud of and that they find meaningful. As an immigration attorney, I’m able to relieve my clients’ stress and bring them meaningful resolutions to difficult situations. I cannot count how many clients I have seen break down in happy tears when they heard their case was approved, and their happiness only increases my love for the profession.


4.    Work Abroad – What the world needs

Personally, I know of few legal fields where the job market is as promising as immigration law. When I graduated in 2012, a time when many lawyers could not find any jobs in the legal industry, I was fortunate enough to receive offers from firms everywhere I traveled just because I had experience in immigration law. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise since there are foreigners in every country who wish to immigrate to the U.S. and need a competent immigration lawyer. There is always a demand for U.S. immigration lawyers, no matter the country.


5.    Diversity - How the self grows

Immigration practitioners get to experience cultural appreciation on a completely different level. When we work on someone’s case, we get to know them and their beliefs intimately, and when the case involves their core identity— sexual orientation, religious faith, specialized knowledge, talent and genius, oppression and persecution— you can imagine the stories and connections that we feel with our clients. It does not mean simply having an intellectual understanding of their country or a familiarity with their food. Instead, it is a head first dive into their unique world; it is a full immersion experience.


6.    Team Work – How the work gets done

 Like most attorneys, I prefer to work alone. But when there is a thorny, complex problem, it is nice to be able to collaborate with (1) the government who is adjudicating the case, (2) other immigration attorneys facing the same problem, and (3) your own clients who are the experts in their respective fields. I believe few lawyers can consult with the opposing counsel or rely on their own clients for help, but in the field of immigration law, often it is good public policy for the government and the private bar association to work together in adjudicating cases to set good policies. The practice remains a civil and uplifting system despite the politics and news.

 After seeing three generations of immigration practitioners in my own family and having worked under immigration attorneys from all over the world, I can say it is a wonderous career that meets (and surpasses) every aspect of the ikigai formula for happiness. Note that no part of the formula says anything about being easy or stress-free— nothing great ever is—but I can promise that it is fun, enjoyable, and ultimately, highly rewarding.