Career Development

Driving Your Career to Follow Your Interests

Fragomen’s Amy Cococcia’s career path paralleled the growth of immigration law.

CCBJ: How did you get into immigration law and your role at Fragomen?

Amy Cococcia: I majored in international relations at Tufts and studied abroad in Geneva. I had a great internship with the secretary of migration at the World Council of Churches that focused on internally displaced persons, and then another internship with the International Service for Human Rights, an NGO associated with the UN. It allowed me to be close to the human rights issues that the UN was dealing with that summer, and listen in on the Human Rights Committee’s first special session on Yugoslavia and the human rights issues that were occurring there. Later, back in the U.S., I also interned at Amnesty International.

Along the way, I realized that the people I respected the most on human rights issues were lawyers. It had been a childhood dream of mine to be a lawyer. After college, I joined Legal Aid’s Federal Defenders as a paralegal for two years, working on the public-service side of criminal defense. There, I found my way into immigration-related issues because I was based in the Eastern District of New York, which had jurisdiction over the airport, which meant that we had lots of clients with immigration issues. I served as a de facto liaison between our office and the foreign consulates and embassies, as well as the Varick Street Detention Center.

When I was in law school, I discovered Fragomen and the field of corporate immigration. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant at the time, but I joined the firm, got to know the people, and I was hooked. It was the perfect intersection of my interests in international affairs, advising people and engaging with different cultures and countries. I thought, I can make this my home. And I did. This year will be my 20th at the firm!

A few years ago, you spent time in the firm’s Singapore and Malaysia offices, where you were instrumental in the opening of the Kuala Lumpur office. What was that experience like?

I was based in both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and I’d say the experience was critical at many different levels for me. It was an opportunity to work very closely with my colleagues outside of the U.S., and to work overseas in an emerging market like Malaysia and a more established market like Singapore, which are both tremendous growth areas for us. As well as I knew our firm, I was not familiar with the business culture there, so I had to learn to approach things from a different vantage point. And because I was opening and stabilizing a new office, it was certainly very entrepreneurial. There was much to deal with, from integration and operational issues to working with clients and jurisdictional legal changes. So I was learning how to work in an entirely different environment, where I really didn’t know what to expect. The experience really informed my world view from both a professional perspective and a personal perspective. It was an invaluable experience.

Outside of Fragomen, you’re also a fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, a board member of the Tufts Lawyers Association and a member of several other associations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Foreign Law Association and the Federal Bar Council. How does your participation in these organizations benefit you professionally and personally?

Those organizations have enabled me to keep developing contacts in the field, growing my professional network. Some of those organizations connect me to fellow immigration practitioners; others connect me with other professionals – lawyers or people who work globally or who touch on issues I’m interested in. It’s also a good opportunity to connect with people personally to help them understand the firm and immigration law. My participation in these organizations has also provided me with opportunities to connect with people whom I could help mentor or who could help coach me through different aspects of my career.

I don’t always have a specific agenda when I get involved with an organization – it’s more a matter of following interests and making connections that you might not have anticipated. It’s always gratifying to talk to people who have different perspectives and to be exposed to diverse ideas. Sometimes it’s good to step away from your desk to interact with someone that you don’t deal with day to day.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?

Making the move to Asia was certainly one. The need to move came up without any notice, right at the holiday season. That was a challenge both personally and professionally. It was something I wanted to do, but I was quite anxious about it. But it ended up being quite a successful endeavor. I think that’s the way it usually works – the things you are the most worried about often teach you the most and provide you with the greatest opportunity for introspection and growth. Of course, when you’re embarking on that new experience, you have no clue about that level of thoughtfulness. It’s only easy to see in hindsight.

Also, thinking back to more than 20 years ago, when I was first learning about the firm, coming here was not initially an easy decision, and that was something of a challenge. I had questions about whether immigration law was the right path for me. The field certainly didn’t have the profile it does today. But I remember just deciding to move forward because I knew I was following my interests. Sometimes you don’t have all the answers, but you know you’re moving in the right direction.

Who has influenced you and your career choices?

It’s definitely a mix, not just one person. There have been a series of important individuals in my life over the years – family, friends, mentors in the firm. I’ve found that you can learn from people at every level, at any point in time. Sometimes, when you’re teaching someone more junior than you about the law or your experience, things can get turned on their head. The person that you’re supposed to be guiding guides you. That’s a great feeling – when two people have that mutual learning experience.

What advice would you give to others looking to advance or enhance their careers?

With me, there’s been a theme of driving forward to follow my interests, to follow what I like. When I embarked on a career at Fragomen, I didn’t see a clear path forward, but I knew that I was following my interests. I’ve found that following my interests is the best way to gather steam and feel confident that I’m headed in the right direction.

It’s also critical to be authentic in dealing with people, assessing what your goals are and balancing professional and personal needs. Don’t be hampered by the mold of what you or others think your career should be. That’s true of our firm, too. It has grown into an international immigration powerhouse, with half of its partnership rank being women, and that was because we weren’t looking to fit into a specific mold. We’ve grown by using an alternative entrepreneurial model, and when approaching clients – and in developing our growth and development strategy to the practice of immigration law in general – we weren’t looking to achieve this the way everybody was doing it. We were looking to evolve and innovate our way and we ended up being tremendously successful. And we continue to be.

Amy Cococcia is a Partner in the New York office of Fragomen where she has practiced immigration law for more than 20 years. Amy currently leads worldwide engagements for multinational financial services and technology companies, where she provides counsel on immigration program management and compliance issues. Amy is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and a board member of the Tufts Lawyers Association. Amy devotes significant time pro bono helping individuals and families on a range of immigration issues. Reach her at [email protected].

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