Alumni Story: Gawelek Focuses Solo Practice on Family Immigration

Posted 2016-09-06 11:07am

“I love what I do because the world comes to my doorstep every day.”

Those words, prominently featured on the website for the Law Office of Melissa Gawelek, provide a window into what makes the 2013 Cleveland-Marshall College of Law graduate a successful immigration lawyer. And when Gawelek says “the world,” she means it — she’s worked with clients from nearly 100 different countries in the past two years.

Gawelek’s interest in immigration law stems from her experience with a college classmate who was a refugee from Rwanda, escaping the genocide that occurred in that country in the 1990s.  While attending her friend’s naturalization ceremony, she had an “a-ha moment” about her career path.

The Maple Heights native’s practice focuses on bringing and keeping families together, specializing in family immigration.  This includes obtaining green cards, gaining citizenship, petitioning for family visas, petitioning for asylum, and defense against removal.  Her largest client base has been a cluster of refugees in the Northeast Ohio area from Burma and Nepal.

“I get to meet people from different countries and cultures every day and I’m really blessed to do that,” said Gawelek. 

Knowing this was the area she wanted to practice before entering law school, Gawelek focused on an international law concentration.  She studied international human rights abroad in France for a semester during law school, and is greatly appreciative of Cleveland-Marshall’s focus on engaged learning and acknowledges how it has helped her practice.  During law school Gawelek externed at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, worked as student associate in the Civil Litigation Clinic, and received the school’s Pro Bono and Community Service award.

Gawelek received additional support from C|M|LAW as one of the first tenants in the school’s Solo Practice Incubator.   She is currently in her second stint in the Incubator, after having significantly downsized her practice for a year while working in immigration law for a non-profit in Akron.  Gawelek now maintains an office for her practice in Akron in addition to her incubator location in the Cleveland-Marshall Law Building, and is committed to growing her practice while continuing to take pro bono cases through several area non-profits and volunteering at the Cleveland Immigration Court through Catholic Charities.

“Solo practice has a lonely sound to it, but it’s funny because I’ve never felt more supported by mentors, friends and former professors,” explained Gawelek.  “There is a strong network of support to help sustain and grow my business.”

While Gawelek’s practice will continue to evolve, so too will immigration law.  The matter is strongly debated and a focal point in our highly polarized climate. She feels that rhetoric has obscured the most important topics.

“By making immigration such a polarized political issue, we’ve taken away the human face of it,” said Gawelek.  “You’ll find some of the people vehemently against immigration are people who have never sat down or shared a meal with a person from another country and are not familiar with our immigration laws.  Immigration laws are very complex so to think that we can boil them down to one or two issues is missing the point.   We need comprehensive immigration reform that keeps compassion and the human face in mind.”

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