ILPA documents

On Being an Immigration Lawyer in the Era of the Pandemic, Wesley Gryk

Random Reflections

Challenges of the pandemic

These are, I suspect, awkward times for all of us. Preconceptions about how the current phase in our lives would unfold and carefully laid plans for the next stage have necessarily fallen away in the face of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Not only has the pandemic raised fundamental public health concerns on a global scale, but its aftershocks are likely to include economic depression of a magnitude most of us have never witnessed and a possible seismic shifting of the tectonic plates of the world’s geopolitical order as some nations, under cover of the current crisis and sensing a vacuum of leadership at the top, seek to improve their own positions in that order.

It would be a foolish person who didn’t treat this crisis, particularly given the unexpected vagaries with which the virus has targeted its victims, as an appropriate moment to confront one’s own mortality: to weigh up what one has achieved in terms of personal fulfilment and in terms of making the world that slightly bit a better place for one’s fellow human beings before passing out of it.

In my own case, this process has if anything been given a bit of a booster shot since a direct personal effect of the pandemic has been a decision to expedite my retirement, to ensure the continued viability of the firm I helped to create through the pandemic and into the as yet uncharted status quo to follow.

Calm before the storm

Each of us no doubt has his or her own story how they became aware of the enormity of the changes to be wrought by the pandemic. No one could be immune to all that has been going on, at best only blissfully unaware. In my own case, as the crisis began to gather heat earlier this year, I found myself on what was meant to be a six week mini-sabbatical in the US, arriving initially in mid-February for a four week stint in Key West which, for those who don’t know it, is the southernmost outpost of the continental US, 90 miles north of Havana and 110 miles south of Miami.

From mid-February until mid-March it seemed almost untouched by the evolving world crisis:- record high winter temperatures, uncrowded beaches, delicious food (including its signature key lime pie and conch fritters), the customary friendliness of the place and, in a final quirky touch, roosters, hens and chicks wandering freely as ‘wild birds’. The only discordant note in paradise was the nightly news featuring Donald Trump dismissing the virus as ‘fake news’. (See a sample on the political news site The Recount:-

End of an idyll

This idyll ended abruptly on Saturday 14 March. Returning from the beach, I switched on the news while preparing to go to my favourite fish restaurant, Seven Fish. The attraction there was that many members of its bar and waiting staff were Lithuanians, who during the previous decade had taken a decision that the threat of Russia to the future of their home country was too great and, by some means, transplanted themselves to Key West where they were particularly welcoming to the grandson of four Polish immigrants.

But I had no chance to say farewell to the Lithuanians. Trump’s travel ban was to be extended to the UK in two days. Having no intention of finding myself trapped in Trump’s America, I spent four hours on hold until I was able to book one of the last scheduled flights to the UK.

This rapid exit proved fortuitous. I had planned to spend the last week of my stay in New York which could well have been calamitous.

Early weeks of the crisis for immigration practitioners and ILPA’s key role

So I returned to the chaotic world facing all of us immigration practitioners a chaos which continues, final destination unknown.

Key changes in the daily functioning of the firm had already been taken by my partners, Alison Hunter, Barry O’Leary and Diana Baxter. While all three are 20-30 years younger than myself we go back a long way. The firm just celebrated its 25th birthday. Alison and Barry have been part of the team for 23 and 20 years respectively, with Diana joining in 2008. The firm’s new incarnation operated with a skeleton crew in the office daily and everyone else working from home. Client appointments were by telephone or Skype/Zoom type connections. Documents travelled via scanning and e-mailing. Twice weekly virtual meetings were held to share information and maintain morale. These arrangements continue and no doubt are similar to those we have all made to function safely and effectively.

Early on during the maelstrom of confusion as to changing Home Office procedures in the face of the pandemic ILPA took the decision that someone had to ‘take charge’. Using the credibility it has worked effectively to establish over the years with the Home Office, it took on the role of intermediary in voicing the concerns faced by its members and then doggedly pushing for solutions and relaying the results to its membership.

Immigration lawyers talk a lot about how the pace of change in our area of law is unlike any other, partly moaning but partly with some pride that, somehow, we manage to digest and cope with its implementation. Immigration remains constantly at the forefront of political discourse leading to a barrage of policy and guidance updates, new Acts of Parliament and Rules, and new targets, all tied to the political rhetoric of the government of the day. During my three decades working in the system, however, there has never been anything like the current pace of rapid change at every level of immigration procedures. Many issues remain unresolved and more will arise. It is difficult to fathom how, without ILPA playing the role of clearing house, our profession or the Home Office would have been able to cope.

Mind you, there was a period when one was receiving 30-40 e-mails in the space of 15 minutes and I for one often found myself at the end of a 12-hour shift with a backlog of 200 unopened e-mails, a situation which I always sought and generally managed to avoid in ‘normal times’.

Facing the tough economic realities of the crisis

The greatest uncertainties of all faced by us are what our caseloads will look like in the medium to long term and the extent to which we will return to operate with similar staffing levels as in the past. For most of us, some part of our work involves helping individuals from abroad to obtain visas. All Visa Application Centres closed for a period. While they are reopening, no one is forecasting an upsurge in visa applications to previous levels anytime soon. The reduction in visa work will in turn have the likely knock on effect of fewer in country applications.

For the time being, firms have been cushioned from taking the really hard decisions through the implementation of the government’s furlough programme. Like most service industries, most of us are not massively capitalised and as the programme scales back, many of us will understandably be reluctant to assume large loan obligations on speculation that things will return to normal.

A personal decision: early retirement

For me, these concerns led to serious reflection on my own future. I had in fact told my partners earlier in the year of my plans to retire on 31 March 2021. Then, when discussing with Alison Hunter in late March how we might most appropriately and fairly implement the furlough programme, it occurred to me that the best contribution I might make to the firm at this critical moment would be to step down early to free up work for the younger generation. In the end I took the decision to expedite my plans, retiring on my 71st birthday, 12 May 2020.

I found it difficult to justify ‘soldiering on’ when I 1) was fortunate enough to be able to afford to retire, 2) was of an age when many if not most people would feel it the sensible thing to do, 3) had three young partners with proven track records in developing the firm, and where 4) most importantly, my retirement would unlock a substantial caseload hopefully making it possible to avoid the furloughing or indeed the redundancy of a talented young lawyer

So far, no regrets, and watching my former partners working to ensure the firm’s future, I feel the optimism and excitement which young Barbara Coll and I felt when we first set up the practice in those three rooms over a Balti House on The Strand 25 years ago, had the telephones installed and then waited patiently for them to ring.

Writing this article

In May, ILPA’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer Charles Bishop approached me to write an article on the occasion of my retirement. Charles had, in fact, in a previous life served for a very productive year as my paralegal before going off to study for the bar. I have felt a bit the ‘proud dad’ (apologies to Mr Bishop Sr, a very nice man) to see the role he has played in developing ILPA’s strategy as the profession’s Home Office intermediary during the pandemic. Typically, I agreed to write the article without having quite thought it through but fastened upon the vague idea of addressing  the effects of the pandemic on our profession.

Several days ago, however, after writing my initial thoughts as to the ‘challenges of the pandemic’, I found myself afflicted with perhaps the worst case of writer’s block I have experienced in a lifetime. Why so? I suppose because the challenges outlined do not have easy solutions. This was never destined to be a well-rounded story with a happy ending, the challenges outlined in section one neatly resolved by the conclusion of the piece. All I am able to offer is a bit of personal history as to how a major global crisis has affected one person and his firm. While this approach may seem self-indulgent, history is after all made up of the compilation of many such individual stories and there is some worth in recording them contemporaneously to inform the experiences of others either today or in the future.

Final reflections: Confronting one’s mortality

Perhaps one area where I can offer a modicum of comfort relates to whether in retrospect, having now come to the end of my professional life in immigration, I feel that it has been a worthwhile endeavour and will remain so for those still toiling in the field.

My answer on both points is affirmative. Before taking undue comfort from that, however, remind yourselves that my ambitions are for personal fulfilment based upon a moral code which is satisfied simply by ‘making the world that slightly bit a better place for one’s fellow human beings before passing out of it’.

I have never had a doubt during my more than three decades in this field of work that whatever accomplishments I’ve managed to achieve have made important differences in individual’s lives.

Most obviously, of course, there are the clients. My colleagues to liven up my Zoom ‘going away drinks’ formulated a quiz of various information titbits. One was that, during 25 years of the firm’s existence, I had opened up files on behalf of 3,000 individual clients and their dependants, for some of whom I acted on immigration ‘journeys’ which lasted a decade or more. I feel confident that, for most, the results brought not only betterment of their own lives but, very probably, important changes for the prospects of their family for generations to come.

Then there are one’s colleagues. Here I can divide the positive role which one can play into three categories:-

1. Training the next generation

I have always thought it a key role to encourage bright idealistic youngsters to appreciate our work’s importance and to acquire skills to do it effectively. While some have remained with us, others have gone on to excel elsewhere. To pluck three examples out of a myriad of possibilities:-

  1. I take quiet pride that my very first work experience person while practising at B M Birnberg & Co (now Birnberg Peirce) was none other than Raza Hussain QC (and now can publicly confirm that, contrary to the teasing that I have mercilessly dished out to Raza on every possible occasion during the intervening 30 years, his pagination and preparation of appeal bundles was ‘reasonably good’ back then!).
  2. Barbara Coll followed. Her excellent work and dedication were my catalysts to set up a firm at the ripe age of 46 when a training contract failed to materialise. She left to make a broader global footprint, working with the respected Norwegian Refugee Council, her most recent posting inside the Syrian border to protect displaced Syrians until Trump’s regional troop withdrawal made the mission too dangerous. Next stop:- Sixth tour in Myanmar protecting internally displaced people and returning refugees.
  3. Jumping ahead over two decades and skipping over many other worthy candidates, the chain leads to ILPA’s own Charles Bishop, for whom I know first hand that knowledge of the pragmatic realities of working as a solicitor has informed his work at ILPA and will make him a better barrister at Landmark Chambers.

2. Creating a supportive group of like minded people

Another route to making a significant improvement to the individuals around us arises from the very act of creating mutually supportive teams of like minded people to do our work, sharing basic moral values and principles. Particularly during these recent divisive years of Brexit debate, all of us in such collectives have needed such protective and comforting cocoons from the harsher realities around us, something which all of us can benefit from on occasion.

3. Collegiality of our profession

On a larger scale, this creation of such an affinity group carries over to our branch of the legal profession generally.  I have always felt that individuals practising immigration law seem a group of lawyers more collegial and generous than, perhaps, one finds in other branches of the law. It may be because we are all effectively dealing with the same ‘adversary’, the Home Office, and recognise that a collective approach, sharing information and developing common strategies is most effective. Perhaps it is also because, at least in some areas of immigration law, the problem is not that clients are scarce but, rather, too plentiful to be accommodated by the limited number of good lawyers available. Or, who knows, maybe immigration law just attracts nice people?

While issues around immigration are politically charged it is a relatively rare occurrence that, in working to achieve our modest goal of improving the lives of our individual clients, we can effectuate change which can improve the lot of large groups of individuals. When one has the good fortune to accomplish this, by winning a key case or by persuading the Home Office to change their policies, it is necessarily a moment of great satisfaction. I really have had the good fortune to play a role in one such major breakthrough — the recognition of same sex couples for immigration purposes in October 1997, which in fact was the first recognition of same sex couples anywhere in British law. As described in this blog post (, however, this change of such magnitude arose from a handful of affected individuals fighting their individual cases who only decided to work collectively for when it became apparent that collective action was more powerful.

Finally, on occasion, even when political winds blow in a direction other than one had hoped for, we can play a role in assuaging the detriment faced by individuals as a result. We could do nothing, for example, to hold back the political forces which propelled this country to Brexit. The response by my colleagues and myself was, from the time of the referendum, to set up a series of pro bono outreach sessions around London and as far afield as Norwich and Eastbourne to ensure that Europeans were aware of their rights to remain and how to exercise them. It was an approach we had the tools to implement, allowing us to change the lives of individuals affected, many of whom had no idea whether or how they might be able to remain in the United Kingdom, Brexit notwithstanding.

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If anything, to the extent that the world situation deteriorates as a result of the pandemic and its aftermath, the importance of damage limitation through such actions to address the effects of what is happening to individuals is probably the best contribution that those working in fields such as ours can hope to achieve. Furthermore, the camaraderie and generosity which for the most part exists amongst those doing this work carries with it the comfort of knowing that one is not alone in trying to do the right thing. So I can only conclude by urging comrades to keep up the struggle on all fronts in the hope that the accretion of our many small acts will bring about better lives for those we seek to help as well as for ourselves. A happy ending of sorts?


Wesley Gryk

Document Date
Wednesday August 5, 2020