Living the Dream

From top athletes to top companies, South African native Leon Versfeld guides clients through immigration law with a global touch

Published in 2012 Missouri & Kansas Rising Stars — November 2012

After working as an advocate of the High Court of South Africa for almost two years—a role in which, under common law, he was able to take cases to the courts but not able to go into partnership with other attorneys—Leon Versfeld was ready for a vacation. So when a former roommate asked Versfeld to visit him in Kansas City, Mo., Versfeld jumped. In late 2000, the South African native got a six-month tourist visa and left for the States.

The trip led to big changes. In short order he met his future boss, his future wife, and ultimately, started an internationally regarded immigration firm.

But it started with a love for rugby.

“At the early age of 5, I thought of playing rugby,” says Versfeld, who wanted to learn what U.S. rugby was like. So while on his tourist visa, he joined a local rugby club and met former player Jim Wirken. Wirken, who had traded his cleats for a law degree and helmed The Wirken Law Group, asked Versfeld to be his law clerk.

Versfeld liked the idea of being a law clerk. “I [thought] it was a very welcoming idea,” says Versfeld. “It seemed to be a good opportunity to find out what the American legal system is about and to get hands-on experience.”

With just a suitcase to his name, Versfeld began at The Wirken Law Group in 2001, working on general litigation matters. “He had a very diverse practice,” Versfeld says of Wirken. “He’s not just the plaintiff’s lawyer, not just the defense lawyer. … He did a variety of stuff at a small firm, and that was even better [for me] than working with a big firm.”

Once he took the job, Versfeld realized he wanted to stay longer than his tourist visa would allow. He applied for a three-year work visa, then returned to South Africa to notify attorneys in the community of his extended absence and put his condo lease on hold.

Next on the agenda was passing the bar. With growing avenues for American businesses in South Africa, Versfeld figured that a U.S. license would greatly benefit his practice when he returned home. Except he decided not to return home. ”I ultimately met a beautiful lady,” Versfeld says. “And so I just decided to continue on in the United States with my practice.” He married Heather in 2003, the same year he passed the bar. The couple now has two children, Johannes and Annike.

Versfeld & Hugo, the firm Versfeld eventually founded in Kansas City, Mo., with partner Etienne Hugo, also an immigrant, provides counsel to companies hiring foreign nationals and advises on immigration employment compliance. It wasn’t a focus he saw coming, considering his business litigation roots. “It’s kind of funny how [prospective clients make] certain assumptions if you are a lawyer and you’re an immigrant or foreign national,” Versfeld says. “They assume that you must know something about immigration and immigration laws. The clientele I subsequently got really kind of wanted me to specialize in this area.”

Versfeld’s practice is varied. He helps businesses deal with I-9 forms, the document employers must provide that verifies an employee’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States. Versfeld says that issues with I-9 forms have increased since the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has grown stricter in enforcing employment eligibility matters and charging fines for mistakes. He also helps clients like Olympians and members of Sporting Kansas City, the local Major League Soccer team, apply for visas and citizenship, either in the U.S. or the U.K. His partner Hugo maintains an office in Australia.

One of Versfeld’s most memorable cases involved a woman applying for a green card. The woman’s employer was slow in moving the process forward. Versfeld, who told the client that it’s tough to move a case when an employer is uncooperative, kept digging. It turned out the woman’s husband was in college on a track and field scholarship—he would go on to become an Olympic athlete who competed against Michael Johnson.

Versfeld switched gears. “We can solve everybody’s problem here if we can get him a green card,” Versfeld told his client. “And guess what? He doesn’t need a sponsor. We can apply to immigration to give him a green card because of his extraordinary abilities.” They are now both permanent U.S. residents and soon to become citizens.

His unexpected practice has worked out well, although staying on top of constantly changing immigration policy can be challenging. Sometimes he laughs and asks himself, “What have I got myself into?” But, he says, “It’s actually been very rewarding. You get to help folks from all different kinds of areas to realize their American dream.”

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