Mother of four, one of the country’s top immigration lawyers, and an all around golden soul, Zjantelle may be a bit of a unicorn. But she’s also proof that, hard as it may be, having it all is possible.
While working with a Broadway producer, she worked immigration law on the side to pay the bills. She got a big client, then another, then another. Before she knew it, she had a full-scale practice on her hands.
CONVICTS caught up with Zjantelle at her office to discuss the joys of immigration law, the addictive quality of New York and the art of “keeping everything close.”
Let’s start with your story, where are you from?
Where am I from? I’m from Adelaide, Australia. I was born and bred in Adelaide. My parents were both born in Italy, so I have an Italian passport and an Australian passport and then as of the last four years, I also have an American passport.
So how exactly did you end up on this side of the world?
Well, I finished my law studies in Adelaide and thought, “I’m gonna travel the world for 6 months, I’m gonna come back and I’ll be in the same place as everyone else but I’ll have had 6 months round the world!” Right? Sounds like a good idea to me. So I got a big backpack and headed off with my Italian passport to Europe and traveled all around. Then I decided actually Italy is pretty cool I might just stay there for a little bit, so I did. Then I decided “Meh, I’m not really using my law degree here. So I moved to London and started working at a big immigration firm. I kinda had my own #MeToo moment in that job. It was just not the right place for me so I quit that and I decided I wasn’t gonna be a lawyer anymore.
How did that decision ultimately change?
I was working for a Broadway producer who was once a lawyer. I’d always been interested in the theater, I love the arts and am bit of a drama queen at home. That was the most fun job ever: going to Broadway shows every night, reading screenplays. It was a dream job but I was making zero money and at the time. I ended up at this party drinking cocktails in the [New York] Meatpacking District and this guy asked me what I did. I said I was doing immigration and now I need to be a producer. He was like, “Wait we need to bring someone in from the Czech Republic, Spain and Canada in the next three weeks because we’re building this big hotel down here it’s actually right next door to here, can you do the visas?” I’m like “Yeah! Here’s my number.” So I thought I’d just do these people’s visas and make a bit of income and while I learnt to be a producer. The hotel ended up being the Gansevoort Hotel and then the whole Meatpacking District blew up, so the guy referred other corporate clients and the they referred their friends and then I needed help and then we needed bigger office space and then we needed more people. So I went from trying to not be a lawyer anymore to having my own law practice. Now, I love my job.
Why do you love it so much?
Because I feel like I’m helping people and I love that. Maybe, when I retire one day I’ll become a therapist because I love talking to people and understanding who people are on the inside and where they come from. You only really get that from talking to people. The most important things in life and the most precious moments come from interactions with other humans. In this area of law, I get to have lots of client contact. We get to know our clients over a long period of time. In other areas of the law, I feel like most people don’t like their lawyers, right? But I’m in an area of law where my clients give me hugs and are so grateful for what I do for them.
What are your favorite cases?
Some of my favorite cases are the cases where a client has been to a number of different lawyers who have said they don’t have the right qualifications. Then I’ll sit down with them and dig and find a solution and get them a visa. Hearing the phrase “Oh my god, you’ve changed my life,” is so awesome.
Tell us about your success rate with Aussies and E3 visas.
I don’t want to jinx it, but we’re batting 100%. I won’t do a visa unless I think it’s gonna get approved so I think that our success rate is based a lot on that. I’m dealing with people’s lives every day. I’m dealing with their ability to either come and live in America and I’ve been through that myself. It’s important. If I think something’s gonna work, it works. Denial is not in my vocabulary. I don’t like that word. Just don’t say it.
You’ve got four kids — how do you keep your work and home life tied together and balanced?
A lot of women struggle to balance being a professional and running a business and having a family at the same time. The way I’ve managed it is by keeping everything close. When I was pregnant with my first child, I moved the office downtown, closer to home. My kids’ school is a five minute walk one way and the office is a five minute walk the other way, so if a performance is happening at school at 9 o’clock in the morning I can be at the performance and then in my office by 9:35. If I didn’t live in the city and my kids went to school in the suburbs I wouldn’t be in the office until midday or at all you know? So I’ve just kept everything close.
Is New York home for you now?
It is. I’ve been here nearly twenty years. I think once you have a family and children and your work, wherever that place is becomes home. So yeah, New York took my heart.
Tell us a little bit about New York from your experience.
New York is an addictive city. People have a love/hate relationship with it because it’s got an energy like nowhere else. There’s that Frank Sinatra song that says if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. I think it’s actually the opposite. I think everyone can make it here because there’s a market for everything. You’ve got people that will pay for someone to run down stairs to the food truck and bring your lunch to you. Where else in the world? That would never work anywhere else.
What’s the hardest aspect of life in the city?
New York is a city where people work really hard and long hours. It’s not for everyone right? You feel like you’re running all the time, so after a while you do think, “Oh my god, I’m in a concrete jungle I need to see green, I need to see grass, I need to see trees.” New Yorkers definitely need to get that escape.
Couldn’t agree more. What’s your escape?
My father in law lives in the Berkshires where it’s all country and trees and fireplaces and everyone’s so relaxed. I love going up there and just being a country bumpkin for a moment. It’s so good.