Practice Tips for the Newer Immigration Practitioner

By Tsui H. Yee, Esq.

So you have decided to pursue the practice of immigration law – an area that can be tremendously challenging yet immensely rewarding. As we all know, immigration law is notoriously complex, and for newer practitioners, it may seem a daunting and impenetrable legal field. Karen Kraushaar, a former INS Spokesperson, once said, “Immigration law is a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation, and the lawyers who can figure it out are worth their weight in gold.” Article, The Washington Post, April 24, 2001, “Maryland Family Ensnared in Immigration Maze – After Changes in Law, Couple Faces Deportation.”

Here are a few tips and pointers offered for the newer practitioner, based on personal experience:

1.  Knowing when to say “I don’t know”

We have all had this situation before– a prospective client comes to you for a consultation involving a convoluted fact pattern or complicated legal issue(s), and that client is looking to you for a resolution to his or her dilemma. Of course, it is great when we are able to provide an answer to our client and recommend a legal recourse or strategy. Inevitably, however, we will encounter situations involving a novel legal issue or question to which there may not be a clear-cut answer. Perhaps more than any other area of law (except maybe tax law), immigration is rife with “grey areas,” where oftentimes there is no definitive “yes” or “no” answer. While it may be tempting to provide your client with an answer or resolution after their consultation, it is much more advisable to tell the client three simple words: “I don’t know.”

When despite your best efforts, you are unable to provide your client with a clear-cut answer following a consultation, the best tactic is to simply inform the client that although you do not know the answer to their legal question or issue, you will get back to them after you have conducted further research or reflected on the matter. Most clients will appreciate the attorney for his or her candor and honesty.

I would venture to say that it is just as important – if not more – for attorneys recognize when they do not know the answer to a particular issue or question than to have subject matter expertise over the issue at hand. As attorneys, many of us are expected to always have an answer “at the ready.” Much of the time, this expectation is engendered by our clients, but if we are honest, a lot of the time it is self-imposed. (How many of us are “Type A” personalities?). Yet, rather than rushing to conclusion, a more considered approach would better serve the client’s interests without compromising the attorney’s credibility. After all, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” (Confucius, Sayings of Confucius).

2.  Learn as much immigration law as you can

Generally speaking, the more years you are in practice, the less time you will have to “learn” immigration law. This rings even truer for those immigration attorneys who are solo practitioners or who own a small firm practice, as they are not only responsible for practicing law but with marketing their practices; business development; and all the various duties associated with running a business. In my first years of practice as an associate, I spent many hours than poring over Kurzban’s; checking AILA InfoNet for the latest developments in immigration law; attending CLE’s; and the like. These days, such activities seem like a luxury. For those of us who handle matters involving complicated immigration issues often in the face of pressing time constraints, there is not always enough time to mull over legal issues.   Handling such matters requires quick absorption of facts and legal analysis; the ability to think on our feet; and rapid decision making skills. The further along we advance in our careers and practices, the less time we will have, in general, to devote to learning substantive law. Therefore, while they still have the time, newer practitioners should try and learn as much immigration law as possible, as this will undoubtedly help to build a solid foundation of legal knowledge that will be invaluable in handling increasingly more complex cases.

Even for attorneys who have a niche practice, i.e. narrow their practice to a particular area of immigration law, gaining some exposure to other areas that they do not routinely practice is nonetheless valuable. Having a working knowledge or familiarity with areas not practiced will complement and enhance an existing practice and benefit clients, by helping attorneys to identify potential issues and pitfalls more holistically; “think outside the box;” and come up with novel resolutions that they may not have otherwise realized.

3.  Don’t “Dabble” in Immigration Law

I always marvel at attorneys who claim to practice multiple areas of law, immigration being but one of several practices areas. For my part, I don’t see how an attorney can handle the occasional immigration matter without raising questions about their degree of competence. Given its complexity and the somber nature of what is at stake, immigration is a discipline that deserves to be practiced as a calling. One error or misstep, no matter how seemingly insignificant or trivial, can lead to disastrous and devastating results to a client and his or her employer, family members, etc. To dabble in this area of law is not only risky but irresponsible.

4.  Don’t “Take it Home With You”

Personally, this pointer has been the most challenging for me. As immigration lawyers, many of us work with clients who may be dealing with difficult and extremely stressful situations. Some may be presently detained by immigration and customs enforcement; struggling with marital problems, domestic violence, the threat of imminent deportation, etc.   There is no question that by choosing to practice in a field where we are representing a particularly vulnerable population, empathy is a requirement of the job.

However, we should remind ourselves that we are immigration attorneys – not marriage counselors, social workers, or even our client’s friends. Without question, we have a duty to zealously advocate for our clients. At the same time, there is such a thing as “caring too much,” which can lead to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” According to the American Bar Association, compassion fatigue is the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.

The ABA goes on to state that:

“Lawyers, like others in the helping professions, are at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue. Lawyers in certain practice areas, such as criminal, family or juvenile law may be especially susceptible to compassion fatigue, as they are regularly exposed to human-induced trauma, and are called on to empathetically listen to victims’ stories, read reports and descriptions of traumatic events, view crime or accident scenes, and view graphic evidence of traumatic victimization.  Those with high caseloads and those with a high capacity for empathy are also at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue.”

Moreover, several bar associations have started to recognize this phenomenon among attorneys:

“Recent research shows that a growing number of attorneys who work with victims of trauma are exhibiting a high rate of Compassion Fatigue symptoms. In fact, lawyers are four times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public. They also have a higher rate of suicideand substance abuse. Most attorneys, when asked, stated that their formal education lacked adequate training in dealing with trauma. Besides working directly with trauma victims, one of the main reasons attorney can develop compassion fatigue is because of the demanding case loads, and long hours that are typical to this profession.”

Compassion Fatigue – Because You CareSt. Petersburg Bar Association Magazine, February 2006

See also:

To avoid compassion fatigue, the ABA recommends “taking steps to sim­plify, do less, ask for help, and stop trying to be all things to all people, including your clients.”



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