Building Dreams

From The Practice March/April 2024
Flavia Santos Lloyd approaches clients with empathy and a growth mindset

Flavia Santos Lloyd, founder and managing attorney of Santos Lloyd Law Firm, P.C., approaches immigration law much like she approaches life: she has a plan A, B, C, and D. “I like when people say, ‘Oh, I’ve spoken to five attorneys and they don’t think I’m good enough for that visa.’” Santos Lloyd refuses to accept such a fixed mindset from a prospective client. “I call those Build-A-Bears,” she says. Instead, she listens to them. She hears their story. She tries to figure out where they fit in the vast immigration web of visa possibilities and, more important, where they might fit. She tells them, “Here’s what I want you to do. Do this, this, this, and this. Come back in three months. Let’s work together. Let’s develop a plan.”

Santos Lloyd, who now runs a boutique immigration law firm outside of Los Angeles specializing in visas for individuals in sports, entertainment, and investment, has worked hard to develop herself, too. Having a plan B, C, D, and even sometimes an E? Early experiences moving to the United States from Brazil taught her that.

While “Big Law’s Immigration Advocates” focuses on one type of immigration law and one type of immigration lawyer—Big Law’s pro bono efforts representing those facing the threat of deportation in crisis scenarios—Santos Lloyd’s story presents a different side of the United States’ complex immigration system and the lawyers who work within it. Rattling off letters only known to those in the know, she says, “The Os, Ps, EB1-As, and EB-2 NIWs—those are our firm’s bread and butter.” She explains: “Those are four types of cases: the extraordinary ability visas, the entertainment visas and athletes, the geniuses, and the not quite geniuses but almost good enough,” she goes on. This type of immigration work does not make the news quite as much as the asylum work, which Santos Lloyd used to do more of (and still does on a pro bono basis), but it is no less important and, in many ways, no less complex. In this story, we explore how Santos Lloyd came to specialize in these visas—how she built herself and her firm, and how she continues to build and support others.

Becoming a lawyer

In the early 2000s, Santos Lloyd was a young mother with an infant, having overstayed on a student visa from Brazil and without a stable place to live. For years, she took difficult and frequently exploitative jobs: nannying, cleaning houses, separating threads, working in a vitamin store. Those experiences stayed with her, she says, not only making her the type of person and lawyer with four backup plans but also one with an important asset to immigration lawyering: empathy. (Invaluable though it may be, she says, you can’t teach it.) “Those years change you and how you look at other people’s lives,” she says.

Headshot of Flavia Santos Lloyd smiling.
Flavia Santos Lloyd

The system is complicated. Santos Lloyd never knew she was eligible for a fee waiver, for instance. After some tough years, someone lent her the money, and she applied for and received documents that would allow her to stay in the United States legally. She immediately applied for a job.

“I never intended to be a lawyer,” she says. But when she saw an opening for a receptionist/legal assistant at an immigration practice advertised in the newspaper, she applied. “Don’t look at my résumé,” she remembers explaining in the cover letter. “Look at my ‘why’ for applying—and that I speak many other languages.” The firm hired her.

She stayed at the firm for 12 years, moving from receptionist to legal assistant to paralegal, focusing on removal, deportation, and asylum work. She loved every bit of it, even her first desk job answering phones. “I loved the clients and their struggles—they were my struggles,” she says.

I never intended to be a lawyer.

Flavia Santos Lloyd, founder and managing attorney of Santos Lloyd Law Firm, P.C.

By the time she became the supervising paralegal in the law firm, Santos Lloyd knew she wanted to go to law school. “Every time I worked on a complex waiver or deportation case, the lawyer would get the win. But those felt like my clients and my wins.” She started attending law school at night while still working and raising her child. But it wasn’t enough to work and attend school. “The bar is a variable,” she thought. “What if I don’t pass?” She had her paralegal career and was a law student. But, true to herself, she wanted another backup plan—a plan B. So, in conjunction with law school, she started a master’s degree in international relations. She spoke Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, and French. She could always go into foreign policy.

But when she graduated law school and passed the bar five years later, that plan B wasn’t necessary. She was a lawyer—one of a number of foreign-born lawyers in the United States. A 2015 article from Ethan Michelson puts this figure at around 7 percent, while a 2018 CBS story says that 0.6 percent of “foreign-born workers” find occupations in the legal profession, many of them through LL.M. degrees after obtaining bachelors in law in other countries.

After law school, Santos Lloyd began teaching bar review classes while building up her immigration practice. “I knew immigration wasn’t a moneymaking area,” she says. “But it was just so fulfilling, and it still is, and that’s why I keep doing it. When I was a receptionist, it was as fulfilling as it is now as a lawyer because I was talking to those people. I was helping them navigate a very stressful situation.”

Building the firm

When Santos Lloyd decided to ramp up her solo practice, a key goal was flexibility—and to work less. She gave six months’ notice at her bar review job, giving herself time to build her business and brand as a solo practitioner. She remembers the hopelessness she felt when she arrived at a homeless shelter, just two weeks after her son was born, and she knew she needed to invest carefully in both her plans and backup plans.

In July 2016 she formally launched the Santos Lloyd Law Firm. It started as just her; then a part-time paralegal joined. According to the state bar association, small firms are common in California, with 42 percent of attorneys operating in firms made up of between two and 10 employees. This is particularly true in immigration law, where 42 percent of attorneys surveyed by the American Immigration Law Association were solo practitioners.

Flavia Santos Lloyd believes in “doing the work.”

But Lloyd Santos’s firm began “growing organically” with the need she saw in the community, she says. Today, the firm is about 20 lawyers and 70 staff members. But in truth “organically” is a bit of a misnomer. As Santos Lloyd will tell you, she believes in “doing the work”—even as tries to find a more sustainable work-life balance.

As we have documented elsewhere in The Practice, lawyers are not frequently trained in marketing and business development. But Santos Lloyd was driven, figuring it out as she went along. Attending programs like Leadership in Law Firms and the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Harvard Law School Executive Education were tremendously helpful in this pursuit. She also developed her client base using numbers and grit, driving twice a week to Beverly Hills and San Diego, offering free consultations at consulates, connecting with potential clients at companies and car washes. Each trip had a goal—relationships made, potential dollars on the table, and time spent. “Everything that I do has to be quantifiable because that way I can put it in a chart and I can see if it makes sense,” she says. Collecting data is still an integral part of how Santos Lloyd runs her business.

On one of these trips, she connected with a client who would transform her work. A top director for a Brazilian TV station contracted with her to obtain his work visa. From there, referrals in the entertainment industry started pouring in. And from there, she developed her niche and her brand.

Building a brand

Today, 20 percent—she knows because she tracks it—of Santos Lloyd’s business comes from Instagram. “The brand is me,” she says. Like many immigration lawyers (87 percent, according to an AILA survey), Santos Lloyd charges clients on a flat-fee basis. But “I still have benchmarks,” she says. “I still run reports every month. I want to see what the team is doing, the output and input, how those cases are being profitable.”

After her run-in with the Brazilian director, the focus of her business shifted from threats of deportation to specialized visas. What excited her about the humanitarian work still excites her about these visas. “I like the underdog. I like the people who have been told, ‘No, you’re not eligible.’ That’s how I’ve made the reputation I’ve made,” she says. She worked with one individual, for instance, who did eyelash extensions. In this individual’s occupation, Santos Lloyd saw the potential for the O visa for “extraordinary ability.” But she wasn’t there yet. Over the course of the year, the woman worked closely with Santos Lloyd on her talent, craft, and the considerations of the O visa. Santos Lloyd was successful. The woman got her visa.

What’s integral [in immigration] is thinking outside of the box and delivering something, anything, even if it’s not what you originally thought you would.

Santos Lloyd

Santos Lloyd frequently works with companies and entertainment studios bringing outside talent to the United States. She’ll hear someone say, “Oh, let’s send this question to Flavia because she’ll try to find a way.” She explains:

What’s integral is thinking outside of the box and delivering something, anything, even if it’s not what you originally thought you would. P-3 for a French chef? Maybe. An obscure visa that is not the H or L? Nothing against those options, but sometimes we have to be more expansive. You just need to look at someone holistically and say, “OK, he doesn’t qualify for an H-1B. There are no visas. But what else does he do? Can we get to know each other and try to figure out where their talent lies?”

Santos Lloyd’s own experiences navigating the immigration process have been integral to her approach. Whether it’s a pro bono client or a wealthier entertainer, she dips into that experience, and her empathy, built through her early struggle and background as an immigrant herself. No matter who it is, she says, “they’re trusting us with their dreams—whatever that dream is.” It might be “I want to be a scholar” or “I want my documents because I work at the car wash.” To Santos Lloyd, “There’s no difference between those people.” They all share the dream of being here.

Mentoring and breaking barriers

Empathy goes a long way for Santos Lloyd, including in helping her lead and mentor the next generation of immigration lawyers. She remains actively involved in the AILA and makes the offer to anyone who wants it to be a mentor and sounding board. “I try to give what I wish I had had when I opened my own business or when I was going to law school,” she says.

She wants to see more people like her in the profession. While immigration law itself is more diverse than the wider profession—“less than half the respondents [of the AILA survey] are Caucasian, compared to the national average of lawyers in the United States overall, which was 81% Caucasian in 2022”—Santos Lloyd says she does not see a lot of people with her background who own their own firm.

Empathy goes a long way for Santos Lloyd, including in helping her lead and mentor the next generation of immigration lawyers.

The AILA has 17,000 members, she says. But even with more women and more people of color, she notes, those who succeed are not the women or people of color. “That’s a gap. I’m trying to collect data to understand why,” she says. For the past year, she’s been surveying people to understand what the barriers to success are. Her first insights? Financial literacy. Business savvy. Money management. All the types of skills necessary to operate a small business—and skills that are not frequently taught in law schools. As Santos Lloyd seeks to help, however, she’s trying to cut through the embarrassment. As part of her survey, she has asked people to respond to whether or not they would ask for help or talk about their challenges. Most, she says, are unwilling.

In trying to push for a more engaging and open profession, Santos Lloyd has met with more than a few challenges. For one, immigration law in the United States makes it difficult for those in the profession. “There’s electronic filing for everything in the United States,” she says. “But there’s no electronic filing in the immigration system.” That, she says, needs to change. There are also antiquated regulations. She points to a criteria for the O visa: the sale of cassettes and videos. Or the fact that now, college athletes can make extra money with their name, image, and likeness, but not if they’re in the United States on an F-1 visa. When she talks to other lawyers about the types of laws that she contends with, even they are dumbfounded.

What you can teach

When Santos Lloyd teaches immigration lawyering, as she does on an adjunct basis, or gives talks on leadership in the profession, she still returns to the idea that you cannot teach empathy. What you can teach is the law, however complex, idiosyncratic, and out-of-date it might be. When she looks for that next star attorney, what does she look for? Curiosity. Ethics. A commitment to rules of professional responsibility. A desire to study and really know the law. And overall, she says, “I do believe in doing your own work, so if people ask me for samples, I’m not going to give it to them. I can review the work and give them feedback. But mentoring can be dangerous if you just give them training wheels or a crutch.”

“It’s a balance,” she says. For her, “doing your work counts, even if it means struggling through it and being confused. If you’re not confused, you’re not practicing law,” she says.

But, as with all things Santos Lloyd, knowledge is only part of what she is looking for in new lawyers and hopes to teach them. In a video advertising her firm on her website she says, “Immigration law is happy law. Even when it’s unhappy, I can turn that around and make it happy.” Immigration lawyering can also be a complex, bureaucratic mess—full of inefficient technology, unethical practices, regulations that seem a decade or two behind. But when you approach it as Santos Lloyd does, maybe, just maybe, it can be happy.