Colleague Corner: Meet Michael Fondungallah

'I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I left high school'


MICHAEL FONDUNGALLAH, a native of Cameroon, received a bachelor’s degree in law and a graduate degree in business law from the University of Yaounde. After migrating to the United States in the 1990s, he earned his JD from the William Mitchell College of Law in 2001. His practice is focused on immigration and employment law. 

When did it first occur to you that you wanted to be a lawyer? 

I was born in Kumba, Cameroon to parents with very little education. While driving a dump truck, my father taught himself how to read and write and brought a newspaper home every day for me to read. This instilled in me a love for reading and writing and a desire to know everything happening around the world. I listened to the BBC and Voice of America and wrote out the news and presented it to my grade school classmates every morning. 

I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I left high school. So when I enrolled in the lone university we had in Cameroon at the time, the University of Yaounde, it was into the Faculty of Laws and Economic Sciences. I studied English private law and after obtaining my LLB, I did a post-graduate diploma in business law.

I joined the law chambers of Barrister Tazem in preparation for the bar as a pupil lawyer. I still loved writing and the journalist in me did not give way to the lawyer I wanted to become. So I worked for the Herald Newspaper covering sports and politics while preparing for the bar.

I did not complete my pupilage before I got an opportunity to come to the United States. When I told those who had come before me that I wanted to become a lawyer, I was told it was too difficult to become one in the United States. It was too expensive and I had no money to pay for it. While working in a Pillsbury bakery in Lewisville, Texas, I took classes in legal assistance at North Central Texas College to learn about the American legal system. Five years after my arrival to the United States, I took the law school entrance exam and was admitted to William Mitchell College of law in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

Minnesota? “It is too cold and there is snow in the winter. You cannot survive there,” I was told. I arrived in Saint Paul in the fall of 1998 vowing to complete law school and return to Texas. That vow was reinforced after my first taste of winter and its frigid cold. Twenty years after, I am still here and loving everything about this beautiful place, its people, and the law. 

Did you go into law school hoping to practice in the areas—immigration law, employment law, discrimination law—that you focus on today, or did your experience lead you to them?  

No. I came into law school wanting to be an international business lawyer. Fate led me into immigration law and then employment law. After I passed the bar in 2001, a Cameroonian family I know came to my apartment and told me that their son has been arrested in Atlanta and I needed to go get him. Thanks to the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and various mentors, I did—and won my first immigration case.  I got into employment law the same way after I was asked by a friend to help a VA police officer who was facing removal from the federal service.

Immigration law was a difficult and rapidly changing practice area during the last presidential administration. Has the change in administrations yielded any changes that you can see in your practice so far?  

A few things have changed that allow lawyers and some of their clients to sleep peacefully. Asylum seekers at the border are being allowed in to make their claims. DACA recipients are assured they will not be denied work authorizations or removed. But it is going to take time to really see the effects of the changes this administration has put in place.

What aspect of your job do you enjoy most? 

Meeting people from different countries and diverse cultures is what I enjoy most from the work I do. The ability to listen, find solutions to their problems, and use the law to make things happen is fulfilling, especially when you win. As one of my teachers said, “the law is a beautiful rose that smells bad.” 

How do you like to spend your time when you aren’t working?  

I like to travel, watch youth basketball and football (I have three boys). And I am learning to play the guitar.