Written by: Nicole Black
Defending the downtrodden
A framed picture of Rosa Parks and a passion to defend the underdog. These are just a few of the things that motivate Helen Parsonage, an attorney based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Injustice deeply offends Helen, as does bureaucratic red tape and the arbitrary enforcement of laws. So, for her law practice, criminal defense and immigration law are a natural fit. As she explains, she’s inspired by people who refuse to take “no” for an answer: “I’m inspired by women who struggled for the right to vote, by African Americans who struggled for their civil rights, by Mexican parents who struggle through adversity to bring their kids across the border for a shot at a better education, by all people who come to this country from other parts of this world in hopes of a better life.”
That’s why she has a picture of Rosa Parks in her office--to serve as a daily reminder of the injustices and hardships faced by her clients on a daily basis.
An immigrant fighting for immigrants
Immigration law, in particular, is close to her heart. This is because, as an immigrant herself, she can identify with the plight of her immigration clients: “I know what it feels like to be an immigrant, how frustrating it can be and how scary it is to have your life planned by, and dependent upon, bureaucrats who tell you where you can and cannot live your life.”
She derives tremendous satisfaction from her immigration law practice and has handled a number of high profile cases, including her recent involvement in a number of deportation cases on behalf of immigrants arrested during a Charlotte rally and an asylum application on behalf of a homosexual Armenian couple who faced torture, and possibly execution, if the application was denied. Her work on the latter case helped to earn the Defenders of Justice award for her firm, Elliot Pishko Morgan, P.A..
Helen’s work on behalf of aliens of extraordinary ability--applications for permanent residency (i.e., a “green card”) made on behalf of those with exceptional talent in science, the arts, business, athletics or film--is particularly rewarding to her. She explains that these cases humble her: “These extraordinary people rely on me. These are graduates from institutions like Columbia University, standout community achievers and award winners, people who have an extraordinary gift or talent and have the potential to contribute fundamentally to society. And they entrust me with this life-changing application.”
The importance of a strong online presence
According to Helen, it’s important for lawyers to have a strong online presence: “Have a presence! Whether it’s social media or not, if nothing else, just have a profile because that means when someone searches for you or is looking for something, you’re more likely to show up, and you’re more likely to have control over what does show up.”
She emphasizes that the beauty of social media and online profiles is that you never know what will bring potential clients in the door: “Clients come into my office and tell me ‘I saw you were from England on your LinkedIn profile,’ or they will have seen on Google or Facebook that I went to the same undergraduate university as their uncle. You just have to put that information out there because you can’t predict what will capture someone’s eye.”
For Helen, her personal Facebook page is her most effective client development tool, although LinkedIn has proven to be useful as well: “I hold a fairly open policy when it comes to my personal Facebook page and my friends include former clients, current clients, and colleagues I personally know, most of whom are local. I’ve received lots of inquiries from Facebook friends that have resulted in new clients. I’ve also obtained referrals through LinkedIn. Most of those were from lawyers in groups that I participate in, as opposed to those with whom I’m connected.”
Some advice for fledgling lawyers
Helen--who had attended law school while in her 40s after years of working as a paralegal--offers the following insightful and very useful tip to young lawyers: “Your legal support staff and the courthouse staff are your best friends. Young lawyers don’t realize this and end up getting left in the dark. They show disrespect to their support staff and end up rightfully doomed.”
This is sound advice, from someone who’s been on both sides of the fence. So take this tip to heart, young lawyers, and never forget--offend support staff and court personnel at your own risk.
Someone who cares
For Helen, it’s all about helping fight for the rights--and lives--of her clients. When asked how she would like to be remembered, she replies: “As someone who kept people out of jail one day at a time. In some ways that’s not a measurable answer, but sometimes keeping families together and keeping people out of jail--keeping them alive--is a measurable success. When it comes right down to it, I want to be remembered as someone who gave a damn.”