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Alan Tafapolsky: In Memoriam

April 27, 2023 (6 min read)

A. James Vazquez-Azpiri and Ron Wada write:

"Our dear friend, colleague and fellow BIB editorial board member, Alan Tafapolsky, died suddenly on April 11, 2023, of cardiac issues at the age of 61.  Alan was the co-founder and managing partner of Tafapolsky & Smith LLP.  As we remember, cherish and celebrate Alan’s life, it is fitting to recall the many qualities, both personal and professional, that made Alan the remarkable human being and lawyer that enabled him to forge lasting relationships among his colleagues, staff, and clients.  Many pages could be written about these qualities, but here we will deal with four qualities or cardinal virtues that Alan exemplified on a daily basis in his career as a business immigration lawyer.  These qualities are ones that any successful lawyer in this field must have or must strive to obtain.  Most of us have some, but not all, of these.  The best of us have all four; no fellow practitioner that we have met have possessed all four to a greater degree than Alan. In addition to his fine legal mind, Alan applied his human qualities, to forge lasting relationships among his colleagues, staff, and clients

To be a good business immigration lawyer, one must be wise.  This is because wisdom is needed to understand, digest, and synthesize the wildly disparate assemblage of legal authorities that govern our daily practices.  In telling clients what to do or not to do, we have to refer to a repository of superannuated statutes, regulations that are sometimes byzantine in their complexity and just as often astonishingly incomplete or facile, a non-existent body of case law and ad hoc pronouncements or memoranda by government agencies that are as changeable as the wind.  Few people could navigate this labyrinth like Alan.  He knew exactly where to find the right answer, whether it was in an obscure footnote in the Federal Register or in an extemporaneous comment made by a government officer in a long-forgotten liaison meeting.  Alan’s erudition was, and remains, on display in his many scholarly contributions to our field.  His articles on the Blanket L program, mergers and acquisitions and PERM audits, although written some years ago, remain authoritative sources on these subjects.

A good business immigration lawyer also needs to be calm, even under the most exercising of circumstances.  The impact of the crises we encounter in our practices tends too often to be amplified, since they occur so frequently (a simple corollary of the fact that we represent so many people) and because they invariably have an emotional dimension (few things arouse the passions as much as a perceived reverse in the immigration process).  To Alan, there we no crises, only opportunities to solve a problem for the client.  All of us who worked with him were constantly struck by the almost preternatural sense of calm he evinced when facing adversities that would have driven most lawyers to despair.  In retrospect, Alan’s equanimity may have been more a product of intense self-control rather than of a naturally phlegmatic temperament (his displays of affection for his wife and kids were something to behold), but Alan understood what all lawyers in leadership positions should understand: that a leader who betrays negative emotions will communicate these to his or her staff and will cease to be an effective leader. 

A sense of humor is also a pre-requisite for a good immigration lawyer.  In the particular context of United States immigration law, a sense of humor more often than not consists of an ability to accept the absurdities that riddle the practice of immigration stoically and with good grace.  Alan, being Alan, would employ his abundant sense of humor to enhance the quality of the service he provided to his clients. No-one was better at disarming a manager who was infuriated because his company had to run costly newspaper advertisements for a position that the manager considered to be already filled in order to obtain a green card for a star employee or convincing a bewildered software engineer of that a there was a method to the madness of posting a Labor Condition Application on his kitchen refrigerator. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a good immigration lawyer must be empathetic.  To be an effective counselor, he or she must try to see the immigration process from the perspective of the foreign national client and must, in particular, try to understand the anxiety, disappointment and sometimes sheer hopelessness that this process can engender.  Alan was born in Boston and never had the misfortune of having to go though the United States immigration process himself, but he had an uncanny ability to place himself in the shoes of his foreign national clients and to show them that he truly understood what they were going through.  To Alan, the immigration process was a journey and there was no better service he could provide, and no more important personal objective for him, than to assure his client that he would be a traveling companion throughout this journey, standing side by side with the client through good and bad until the destination was reached and the voyage ended.

Another notable facet of Alan’s empathetic approach to the practice of law was his personal interest in and insistence upon supporting pro bono and community service work by his firm.  In addition to serving on the board of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) in San Francisco, this meant taking on pro bono DACA cases, volunteering for food bank and community kitchen service days among other things.  He welcomed ideas from attorneys, paralegals, and administrative staff for new ways to contribute to the community at large, and was always willing to commit firm resources to support those efforts.  An important goal was one day to be able to support a full time attorney and staff doing nothing but pro bono work. 

Most enduringly, Alan’s virtues of empathy and loyalty deeply impressed colleagues, staff and clients alike.  He understood that life journeys take many twists and turns, and relationships can blossom and fade.  But he welcomed opportunities to go the extra mile to preserve and maintain those relationships, both professional and personal, whenever possible.  He also had the vision, over twenty years ago, of developing a law practice whose members would have a true work/life balance and, gratifyingly, he achieved this.  His foresight was also evident in his awareness of the need of immigration firms to have a global, as well as a domestic, practice, and Tafapolsky & Smith was well ahead of the curve in this respect.

Alan has gone, but he lives on with us through his publications, his legions of grateful clients, the huge number of friends he had at the immigration bar and beyond, and, most importantly, the firm that he founded with his good friend Tony Smith and which the two built from the ground up to what it is today: one of the leading business immigration practices in the nation, with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London and Singapore.

Please consider making a donation to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center or the Alameda Food Bank.  The missions of both of these organizations were important to Alan. and"