Immigration Law Practice: My Approach

  • Client interests are primary – not money
  • A lot of work goes into being the best
  • Specialization is essential
  • Client X – a sobering example
  • How much is the client’s trust worth
  • Diehl said, “It is not surprising that there are many failures”

Law Isn’t A Business

The notion of law practice leading to an opulent lifestyle is a recent idea. Before World War II the law practiced for prestige and standing, but not for money. Edwin W. Diehl wrote, “Your calling differs from business vocation for the reason that service comes first and money or its equivalent comes second.”

Immigration law practice isn’t easy. It requires extensive legal knowledge, discipline, effective people skills, a bulletproof hide, and a missionary’s zeal. Money concerns are important, but they must stay in the gas tank – not get up front and steer.

Being Excellent – A Lot Of Work

Time demands are immense for legal work. The best attorneys always strive for perfection. Otherwise, why are they doing it?

Immigration law consists of massive amounts of material to absorb. There is the INA, the Federal Regulations; case law, both the BIA and Federal Appellate cases; and then extra fun stuff to absorb – agency policy memos and directives, fact sheets, stakeholder meeting minutes, agency manuals, articles. And attorneys must keep up with politics, because immigration is a politically sensitive issue.

So if you want to be a good immigration lawyer, you need to study a lot. You must do your daily reading and study so you’re better tomorrow than you were today.

Charlie Hustle Esquire: Flim-Flam Man

An alarming reality: unethical and incompetent immigration attorneys can make money. It’s disgraceful. Here’s why,

  1. There are tens of millions of potential clients out there, and the outdated laws can prohibit ethical lawyers from helping them – legally;
  2. It’s easy for a lawyer to take a client’s money, promise a solution, and do nothing;
  3. The poor client never files a grievance. They’ve been robbed, and now they’re stuck.

Think this doesn’t happen? In New Jersey, one scam involved “pilot fish” being sent into immigrant communities. They assure people that there’s a lawyer who can get them a green card. One of the scams was a 245(i) scam; the other was a marriage fraud ring. The cost was around $7,500. I asked one client, “What was the bride’s name?” He said, “I don’t know; I never met her.” I replied, “Didn’t you meet her at the ceremony?” and he said, “There was no ceremony.”

Dabbling For Dollars? Not Good Either…

Some lawyers know nothing about immigration law, but still take on immigration clients simply because they’re after money: a Spanish-speaking lawyer taking on immigration clients, and not knowing what the term DHS meant; another lawyer at the Newark clerk’s office shouting and fuming because she didn’t know how to file a motion; another lawyer calling me wanting to know what “biometrics” means.

Practicing immigration law and not specializing is borderline malpractice. Does a podiatrist attempt neurosurgery? Immigration law is too complicated to dabble in. That’s playing games with people’s lives.

Clients are very smart, they eventually always find out who the very best attorneys are. Those that aren’t devoted or honest enough to become excellent won’t get the clients. The excellent immigration attorneys specialize in immigration. Clients like working with good lawyers.

Client X

Here’s an example of the tension between client service and money. Client X was an Asian national. In the US, she married Chan Doe, an LPR. Chan neglected to adjust her. Five years passed. Since she hadn’t adjusted status, ICE apprehended her and threw her into detention. I bonded her out.

I billed Client X reasonable fees. While her case looked favorable, Client X always paid me and followed my advice. She was nervous, even frantic at times, but she always listened to me; and in dribs and drabs, I collected fees. Suddenly Chan was put into detention on an old drug charge. Everything changed: my calls weren’t returned, letters weren’t answered, and I was paid no fees. An investigator found out that Client X was planning to flee the jurisdiction and go into hiding. She was hoarding money in order to flee. Eventually I convinced her to stay put.

But what if money had been my primary objective? I could’ve told Client X that 1) She needed to give me $11,000 immediately, 2) once I had her money I’d get Chan out of detention, and 3) then I’d get her a green card. She’d have trusted me. She’d have found the money and paid me. I’d have $11,000, and in a few months I could tell her that things had changed, the government had unexpectedly clamped down, and that now there was no hope.

So by being devious and putting money first, the client’s life is ruined. My reputation stays intact. Client X suspects no wrongdoing. She’d doesn’t file a grievance.

How Much Is It Worth?

For unethical lawyers, the thrill of a big fee lasts about a week. Then all that’s certain is that they’ve swindled a client. They’ve lied to get their dirty mitts on a few bucks. Maybe if you make your conscience a conspirator, you can rationalize this type of hoodwinking.

What else do attorneys offer except honesty, trustworthiness, and competence? Is anything lower than extracting fees by playing games with someone’s hopes, and fears? How much money makes it okay to know you’re not worthy of a client’s trust? (What about not returning phone calls? What about being a poor listener, or an inconsiderate boor – is that competence?)

My law practice must charge and collect fees, and we must make a profit. But that always has to be secondary. That’s okay. I can live with myself because the client interests come first. That’s worth plenty. And clients have an obligation to pay fees too. You can’t build a priceless kingdom for pennies.

Conclusion: Money Isn’t Winning, Winning Isn’t Excellence

Winning is a dangerous concept. Many “winners” are below average and dangerous people because they’ll do anything to win. Excellence isn’t always winning, because some cases are simply unwinnable.

Excellence is doing the best possible work, all the time, whether you feel like it or not. If you do the best possible job and lose, that’s excellent work. If a halfhearted effort wins the case, that isn’t excellence.

A lawyer must be devoted, must continually improve, and must be consumed with the client’s welfare. However much money you make, you’re a failure if you’re content with being tolerably average. In 1929, here’s what Edwin W. Diehl said: “The law is a high and noble profession that demands such diversity of talent and such tiresome energy in fitting the mind and body for so great a part in life’s business that it is not surprising that there are many failures.”