Tony Lai, co-founder of LawGives and himself an Oxford University-trained lawyer, said when facing the looming question of "How do I stay in this country?" one of the most important things is finding a good lawyer.
And in Silicon Valley these days, "good" takes on a new meaning: creativity that pushes up against the bounds of an outdated legal system.
Michael Serotte, founder and senior partner of Serotte Law Firm, LLC, an immigration law firm with an office in Mountain View, describes himself as a lawyer who likes to play on the edge. He compares his immigration approach to tax lawyers adept at finding beneficial loopholes.
"Good tax lawyers are creative," he said. "They look at the law, and they interpret it in a way that will stretch the boundaries of what's acceptable."
For startup founders applying for an H-1B visa, this could mean legally naming oneself a member of the company's board of directors instead of CEO to overcome an immigration services requirement that the visa applicant and sponsoring company establish a valid employer-employee relationship.
For someone desperate to increase their chances in the H-1B lottery, it could mean working part-time at two companies in order to file two visa petitions, thus upping their odds.
For student-entrepreneurs who don't want to wait to graduate to pursue their big idea, it could mean enlisting a good American friend to do any of the work that isn't permissible under their current visa status, such as hiring or managing employees; managing operations; ordering inventory; signing company checks and other daily, routine business activities.
"You have an idea and you want to change something — in medicine, in technology, in construction, in fashion," Serotte said of student entrepreneurs. "You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get educated and you can't stay here — easily. You can stay here if you're creative enough."
Serotte said political stagnancy in Washington D.C. on immigration reform necessitates lawyers' boundary-pushing creativity.
"When you look at the law, you look at when it was written, you look at the dynamics of how our culture has changed, particularly in terms of entrepreneurship and how foreign students come here, to the best education system. If Washington isn't going to adapt, the lawyers have to adapt," he said. "Otherwise you have these brilliant young kids, all of which want to change the world, who are going to go some place else."
However, at the end of the day, it's the client's, not the lawyer's decision, he told a group of student-entrepreneur hopefuls at an immigration panel in March.
"It's this risk/reward analysis, which everybody goes through when you're looking at starting a business," he said. "Sometimes you just got to play on the edge. And sometimes you go over the edge. It's up to you. A lawyer can only tell you what you should be doing, what you can be doing and what the consequences are. Ultimately it's up to you to decide if you want to take that risk."