Teaching moments: Attorney of Russian heritage shares immigration expertise

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 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
 
Alexandra LaCombe hails from Yaroslavl in Russia, one of the oldest and most beautiful of the Volga cities, founded in 1010. For LaCombe, a partner at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen, and Loewy in Troy and a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the “law” always only meant “immigration law.”
 
“I came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union when I was almost a teen-ager, together with my mother and grandparents. Although we came here legally, we were stripped of our Soviet citizenship and arrived in the U.S. as stateless refugees,” she explains. 
 
“I felt I lost my home and my identity, and didn’t belong anywhere for several years until the United States gave me citizenship. It’s a very scary thing to not be a citizen of any country, and even once I got the much coveted ‘green card,’ I felt second-class.”
 
As a result, LaCombe wanted to do the kind of work that would allow her to help people who are “strangers in a strange land” as she once was and to make a difference in their lives.  
 
Immigration law was a logical career path. After earning her undergrad degree in Political Science and Russian & East European Studies from the University of Michigan, LaCombe went to Columbia Law School with the sole intent of becoming an immigration lawyer.
 
She then spent the first few years of her career in solo practice, handling primarily asylum, removal, and family cases. She worked almost exclusively with former Soviet citizens and other Eastern Europeans in the Metro Detroit area, often providing pro bono services. 
 
“Because of the shared background and closer ties that inevitably develop in that kind of a setting, I was often called to help not with just immigration assistance, but business registrations, obtaining personal documents, and just general advice about life in the U.S.,” she says. “I always believe that everyone deserves good advice and help, and have tried to do what I could, as an attorney and as a person.”
 
Although her practice has evolved greatly since those early days, LaCombe believes the basis of her work continues to be helping people to ease them into their new lives in the United States.  
 
“A client recently told me that I’m very fortunate to have a job where the end result is someone’s happiness,” she says. “And although every day is not perfect, and sometimes it’s difficult to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel of various legal and administrative obstacles, I try to remember that I am partly responsible for my clients’ ‘happily ever afters.’”   
 
At Fragomen, she handles all aspects of corporate U.S. immigration, including extraordinary ability cases in the arts and sciences, outstanding professor and researcher matters, and all types of waivers. She also handles individual and corporate client matters in the automotive, technology and other industries, as well as universities and research institutions. 
 
LaCombe, who also served as in-house immigration counsel at Electronic Data Systems Corp., shares her expertise as an adjunct professor with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, teaching Immigration Law within the innovative “Law Firm” practice curriculum. 
 
“I’ve always felt that teaching is an integral part of the legal profession, even if it’s done in an informal setting or for just one person,” she explains. “The law in general is complex, and immigration law especially so. I deal with all types of individuals on a daily basis, including foreign nationals, U.S. citizen relatives, technical managers, human resources professionals, legal counsel in other areas of the law—and I feel I spend a great deal of time explaining, counseling, advising, and yes, all of that is teaching. Some of my clients call with questions and actually say, ‘Alexandra, time for one of your teaching moments!’”  
 
So, when the opportunity came up to teach in an actual classroom setting to actual law students, it was a natural extension of what LaCombe had already been doing for a long time.  “I already felt I was a teacher—UDM just formally acknowledged it!” 
 
It is critically important for law students to be exposed not just to the study of law, but to the practice of law as well, she notes. 
 
“In today’s market, not all of them have had exposure to what an actual lawyer does. I consider myself a representative of the profession, and I enjoy not just teaching about the statutes and regulations, but about the practical aspects of handling cases as well. I often stop and tell the students, ‘Real life situation!’ and they pay attention because they know this is not something that can be learned from a book.”
 
LaCombe has even brought colleagues to her class for role-playing, so her students can observe a simulated interaction between attorney and client. 
 
“I enjoy teaching in this particular setting because it’s so interactive and engaging,” she says. 
 
Grasping immigration law can be a challenge for her students. 
 
“It’s basically administrative law, requiring a very high level of compliance, and can be very political at that, and rules and regulations are many and frequently counterintuitive,” LaCombe notes. “Sometimes the students struggle, and justifiably so, with keeping track of all the various details that may go into filing a single petition, and if one small fact is neglected, the result can be dire. The practice of immigration law requires impeccable attention to detail, so we work on that throughout the curriculum.” 
 
LaCombe enjoys participating in various chambers of commerce and other industry events because it puts her in her clients’ world.  
 
“Often the leaders of our corporate clients are featured speakers and presenters at these events, and it gives a whole other meaning and perspective to who they are and why we do what we do for them,” she says. “I think it’s important for me as the advocate for their interests to understand their business and to relate to them on a different level. Immigration might be the only issue that I try to resolve for them professionally, but I like seeing the whole big picture.  It helps me to see the greater meaning in my work as well.” 
 
LaCombe has always been a devoted Francophile. 
 
“My last name is French, but that’s an coincidence of marriage,” she says. “When visiting France, I’ve been known to successfully pass myself off for a foreign-born offspring of French parents, because my French is brisk, but accented!” 
 
In her leisure time, she is passionate about theater, a big creative outlet for her as well as a family affair—one son acts, another son works backstage, and her husband is an enthusiastic spectator.  LaCombe has been acting and directing for about 10 years at Ridgedale Community Theater in Troy, where she is directing “You Can’t Take It with You” this spring. She also is directing a children’s musical at Greenfield Presbyterian Church in Berkley.  
 
“I laugh that on Tuesdays I go to all of my three jobs: Fragomen, then UDM, and then GPC.  It makes for an exhausting 12-plus-hour day, but I wouldn’t trade either one of those jobs,” she says with a smile. 

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