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Why Most People Hate Lawyers - Maybe Immigration Lawyers Especially…

by Anthony Guidice

Why do medical research labs now use lawyers instead of rats?

Answer: Because lawyers do things that rats won't do…. And because lawyers multiply faster than rats[1]

What is slothful waste?

Answer: A busload of lawyers going over a cliff, and there's one empty seat[2].

Why don't immigration lawyers go to the beach?

Answer: Cats keep trying to bury them[3].

The Creature

Regrettably, I know a consummately uncouth and ill-mannered immigration lawyer. He reminds me of a cockroach in a cheap suit. His manner is so churlish, his presence so ignoble, that interacting with him is like suddenly discovering two-month old putrid leftovers in a refrigerator. Picture it. The only reaction is flight. When I'm going to court I keep a fragment of stale bread in my pocket. If I should see him, I fling it into a corner. Then I can get away safely while he scurries off after it on all fours (neat trick, huh?).

I'm not exaggerating. Well, maybe a little - sometimes I use old cheese instead of bread. Wonderfully, no other attorney I've ever met plummets even close to the creature's blackened depths. But most lawyers have pretty awful manners. In a Catholic grammar school, most would get many sharp raps on the knuckles with a ruler. Bad people skills always head people's hate-list for lawyers; and that's strange, because all legal problems involve people. Do you like happy clients who willingly pay you? Then it makes sense to have good manners.

Hey, What's Your Name Again?

At the root of this is that lawyers have a misplaced sense of self-importance. It starts with not listening. Most lawyers don't really listen to clients. Lots of them take turns talking with clients, but few carefully and actively listen. Most wait until a client utters anything even faintly recognizable as a Magical Legal Issue, and then they interrupt and begin their invocation. Often a lawyer doesn't even know the full extent of the problem first before the verbal flood spews forth. Sometimes lawyers do this when the client is visibly upset, or worse - crying. Don't do this. Listen first before you say anything. Make sure the client has told you everything about their case before you talk.

The client is hurting. That's why they're in your office. They want the hurt to stop. People don't go to lawyers with little problems. Clients are in emotional pain, and they want the pain to go away. Remember how you felt waiting for the bar exam results? That's how the client feels all the time. This is even more pronounced for an immigration client: they're often strangers here, very often they're not fluent in English; and the legal system seems even more mysterious and threatening. Many aliens walk around, every day, knowing that the lurking DHS forces might shatter their lives at any second. Respect that.

If the client wants to talk for a while, let them talk. If they want to cry, give them some tissues and let them cry. Better yet, go over and sit or kneel next to them while they cry. It's reassuring, and comforting. If they're initially uncomfortable, don't sit across the desk. Go sit in a chair next to them. Read their emotions, and try to understand them. Do the spoken words match the body language? Could there be something important they're not telling you? Sometimes the real answer is about five or six questions deep. Sometimes "yes" doesn't mean, "yes"; it means, "I'm too upset to tell you." If you're unsure, ask them. No client (or spouse, or child, or colleague) ever gets upset because you're sincerely trying to understand them[4]. When they've settled in, and you've established some trust with them, then you can ask them if they want to discuss legal matters. But until then, don't. First make sure the client is comfortable and at ease.

The client doesn't really care how smart you are, how many awards you have, what groups you've spoken to, or how many senators you know. The client doesn't even care about a legal solution - until they're sure you understand them.

Clients aren't paper bags full of legal issues for you to spot. Clients are living, breathing, feeling, and emotional creatures. Very often they are heartbroken as well. Keep your self-anointed legal brilliance to yourself until you're sure they've said everything they need to say. Otherwise they'll justifiably dislike you. How would you feel about a doctor who started prescribing pills before you'd even finished describing your symptoms?

Do you want to be a superstar listener? Feed it back. Tell the client you'll repeat back to her what you think she said, so that you're sure you've understood her. Then do so: clearly, point by point, in your own words. Very often you'll find that you've missed something. Even if you haven't, feeding it back will endear you to your client. Her jaw may drop to the floor. When was the last time anyone, a lawyer particularly, took great pains to understand her? Probably never.

I know a smart lawyer in New Jersey, Colleen McCarthy. She's such a good listener that it's almost disarming. When I'm telling her something, I suddenly realize that she's so intently listening to me that I'm almost self-conscious about it. I feel as though I have to say, "Okay Colleen, I'm done speaking; say something!" That's very rare for an attorney. I marvel at her. I'm sure she's the same way with her clients, and I'm sure that's a primary reason for her success.

Be like Colleen McCarthy - listen to people closely. Watch their body language and listen to them. Make sure the words match the demeanor. Get everything. Listen.

Teach Your Child (Or Lawyer) To Wait For A Pause In The Conversation

Here's another way to get clients - or anyone - to dislike you: interrupt them. Want to arouse resentment in someone, even another attorney? Interrupt them.

I telephoned an attorney here in Rochester recently about some post-conviction relief a client needed. It was almost an athletic event trying to get my words out before he would interrupt me. You've been through this. Finding yourself rushing your sentences so you can convey a complete thought before the other fellow starts talking. It's like the other person's mouth is a twitching racehorse in the starting gate. My conversation with The Interrupter was unpleasant and difficult for me, and I'm a fellow attorney! I'm used to it. I can't imagine how this fellow can keep clients if he interrupts them like that.

Here's a good tip. Pause a moment before replying to someone. That way you'll make sure they've finished speaking. Try it - silently count to three before you start talking. If you don't try it, you're a dope. It could be costing you money. Do you think I'll give any referrals to The Interrupter?

Good salespeople know how irritated prospects get when they're interrupted in mid-sentence, and avoid doing so at all costs. Lawyers, unlike good salespeople, think they're irreplaceable; and that no matter how churlishly they act, people just have to accept it. Some lawyers never stop to think about how inconsiderate it is to interrupt people and that's a big mistake. The Client is the ultimate boss. He can fire you at any time simply by finding another attorney who is polite and considerate. You're a fool if you lose clients through thoughtless behavior. So be considerate. Don't interrupt.

Stupidity: The Deliberate Cultivation Of Ignorance

You can still be a boor without interrupting people. How about not giving someone your full attention? Treating them like they're less important than a housefly flitting across your desk. I know another attorney (I seem to know lots of these guys) who is very skilled at making people feel incidental. When you're talking to him, he perpetually seems to be doing something else. If you're in his office he checks his e-mail and taps on computer keys - while you're speaking to him. If you call him, he immediately puts you on the speakerphone, so that it sounds like he's talking to you from a megaphone across the street. And while he does this you can hear papers shuffling and more keyboard tapping in the background.

Don't do this either. I shouldn't even have to write this. When someone's in your office, give them your full attention, even if it's only the cleaning lady. Turn your computer screen off. That'll remove any temptation to look at it. And don't use the speakerphone for a conversation. Speakerphones are for waiting on hold, not for talking to people. If you must do something else while you're on the telephone, use a headset. Better yet don't do anything else. If you do, chances are very good that you might miss something, and it may be something critical.

And never take telephone calls when you're with a client. Don't even take a quick glance at your cell phone. It's rude and inconsiderate. How would you feel if your doctor was watching television while he was examining you?

In law school we develop habits of trying to cram as many things as possible into every millisecond of our available time. That's what leads to all these bad habits. And clients dislike it intensely.

So be considerate and polite: give other people your full attention; listen to them actively, not casually; be eager to understand other people and make them feel valuable. Don't be a self-involved boor; everyone else is at least as important as you are.

Inebriated With The Exuberance Of Your Own Verbosity…

Here's another beautiful habit. Along with poor listening, interrupting, and not giving people your full attention, attorneys seems to think it's their divine right to lecture people; even other lawyers. It's a terrible practice destined to cost you money and make you unpopular. Do this and you'll brighten any room - by leaving it.

Most clients couldn't care less about the "why"; all they want is the "what." That is, what the law means to their case. Tell them that. And tell them in language they can understand. Don't lecture them. If they want legal clarification or elaboration, then go into more detail. But make sure they ask you. Lawyers sometimes think that whatever they say sounds like music, so they give you a four-hour Wagner opera rather than a short, catchy jingle. Keep it simple; keep it brief.

And always speak in plain English, completely devoid of legalese. Avoid all Latin phrases and legal buzzwords. Talking like that actually diminishes your standing. You might think it makes you sound like an experienced, battle-tested lawyer; actually it gives the impression that you don't know what you're talking about but that you're desperate to sound like you do. The client (or boss, or prosecutor, or judge) might think you talk like that because you aren't a very good lawyer. Remember this great advice from Brian Garner: "Good legal writing is hardly more than literary English applied to the subject of law[5]." The same applies to the way we talk. Speak plainly, so that any fourth grader can understand you (and then most law professors can too… maybe).

And please, have respect for other attorneys. Give them credit for having half a brain. If you're discussing a case, don't lecture a fellow attorney. Most of them already know what you're talking about anyway, and if they don't know, you won't impress them by being an unflagging windbag. I see it often: an immigration lawyer, speaking to a non-immigration lawyer, launches into a ten minute speech outlining the difference between deportability and inadmissibility, or the difference between H-1b and EB status. No one cares. No one is impressed. When you do it, you seemingly paint the other lawyer as a dummy. Keep your mouth shut.

(I know you don't mean to belittle another attorney. I know that. It's irrelevant. The point is that it's thoughtless and ill advised to lecture people. Do you think you'll get a referral from the tax lawyer you've just spent 10 minutes lecturing?).

Being A Woman - Supremely Difficult; Mostly Because They Must Deal With Men

Women have a superior ability for lawyering. They're naturally good at critical people skills: listening, empathizing, reading body language; and feeling, sensing someone's sincerity. Yet somehow an idea has gotten around, perpetrated by law schools, that female lawyers need to act more like men: tough, insensitive, rude, and haughty. Phyllis Epstein elaborates,

My dear friend Dee was criticized by her employer for her pleasant demeanor and ready laugh. Her outgoing, easy persona conflicted with the toughness of spirit her employer felt was required of a lawyer. Her employer believed that toughness had to be worn at all times on the outside, like a navy blue suit[6].

Where this nonsense originated, I can't say. It isn't true. Unequivocally, it isn't true. Women certainly know how to be strong, whether to a spouse, a child, to a fellow attorney, or a jury. Men may be a little more thoughtless than women, and more often run their mouths off without thinking; but they certainly aren't any tougher. Being male guarantees nothing, certainly not good lawyering. Lots of male attorneys are terrible litigators, for example. And "being tough" is really a last resort, like scolding. It cleaves away hard-earned good will very quickly. It's an emergency measure. You don't operate on the heart with a power saw.

Female attorneys - intuitively and without thinking - are wonderfully competent because good lawyering is wholly dependent on people skills. Women can read emotions better than men can, they fully trust their intuition; and women naturally are more considerate and polite than men are. People have an easier time trusting women.

Where does all this nonsense originate about how a female attorney should behave: don't smile, don't wear nail polish, dress like a soviet commissar, and be aggressive (whatever that means). This is complete and utter foolishness. What's behind all this - suggesting than women to act like men? It's bad advice. It doesn't make women attorneys more effective; it just makes clients and other people uncomfortable and angry. Certainly it doesn't come off as "powerful." When a woman tries to act like a man, it looks phony and forced. Sorry, it does. It makes people wary and suspicious. There's no reason to do it.

Here's what's powerful: giving a client such full attention that within five minutes they trust you, or being able to read a person so well that you know immediately when they're lying. What's powerful is achieving such a deep trust that someone will unflinchingly follow you into Hades. Women can intuitively do that more easily than men can. Why would anyone want to change it? Frowning and using clipped speech and being abrupt isn't powerful. It's bad manners, and it's also bad for business. Who'd want to pay someone to be rude to them?

So if you're a female attorney, forget all the law school twaddle, and the tough acting, fast-talking, domineering, power-woman nonsense. All that does is make you less effective. The greatest skill any attorney can have is being able to build trust, and that happens when lawyers listen well and sincerely try to understand people. Boorish, inconsiderate behavior isn't the least bit powerful. It's just bad manners, and all it does is piss people off. Men seem to be naturally good at that. If you're a woman, it's best not to copy it.

A Little Neglect Breeds Great Mischief

Don't neglect clients. Neglecting anyone - a spouse, children, friends, and clients - tells them that they're unimportant to you. Remember that your client's problems are big problems. Even if you're working ten hours a day on their case, if you don't keep in touch with them, they'll resent it. They'll think you're ignoring them. The problem is very common,

The second most common complaint against attorneys is neglect. Either the lawyers fails to return telephone calls, fails to meet deadlines, ignores your letters, repeatedly forgets critical facts of your case or passes you on to a clerk or paralegal each time you call or visit the office[7].

How do you feel when a Home Depot clerk ignores you when you're looking for a twenty-cent faucet seal or a bolt? Irritated? Imagine how a well-paying client feels when you don't contact them for two months?

With any case, notify the client whenever something happens. If a court clerks alerts you to something, or if you discover a relevant ICE or USCIS memo, or if a new idea occurs to you about the case, tell the client.

Even when nothing is happening, keep in touch with clients. A hand written note every few weeks is enough to ease someone's mind a bit. And don't be e-mail happy either. E-mail is quick and easy, and too often indelicate and sloppy. Clients know that. Writing a letter or jotting a quick note shows that you took the time, and that you care. I know your time is valuable, but clients are more valuable. Let them know you regard them as important. Don't neglect them.

The Honorable Brian Sullivan taught me, many years ago, that the highest compliment an attorney can receive is to be called a good lawyer. One of my highest goals, for years, was to have Sullivan one day call me that. So even if you have a lousy case, with terrible facts; and even if you lose the case, your client may still regard you as "a good lawyer" if you take proper care with them. Stay in touch; make sure they know you care. Don't neglect them.

Love And Compassion Are Necessities, Not Luxuries

There is much I haven't mentioned. Return phone calls and all other inquiries promptly - immediately if possible. If you don't, you tell people they're unimportant. How do you like it when you leave messages and no one calls you back? Also, don't argue small matters. If something is of trivial importance, then just let it go. Allowing people to like or love you may consist of little more than biting your tongue about a half dozen times a day.

And always be patient with everyone: clients, first year associates, interns, paralegals, and secretaries. Don't bark at them, but help them. Be agreeable. Smile at people, and help fortify their spirits. Strive to make people eager to be around you because you're so nurturing, pleasant, and encouraging. Do this not only because it pays well, but also because it's proper, it's right. Why else are we doing all this, working so hard and for so many hours? So that people will detest us, and scatter when they see us coming? Remember the Creature.

There is an old story about God and the devil discussing repairs on the pearly gates. God wants the devil to pay half because the devil's tenants continually damage the gates trying to get into heaven. The devil refuses to pay anything. God says, "I'll sue you." The devil says, "Where will you find a lawyer?"

Hopefully, God can hire you.


1Skid Marks, Common Jokes About Lawyers, Shelter Publications, Inc, PO Box 279, Bolinas, Ca, 94924 (1988).
2 Id.
3 Id.
4 See Habit five in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey, Free Press, November, 2004.
5The Elements of Legal Style, Garner, Oxford University Press, NY, NY, 10016, 2002.
6Women-at-Law, Epstein, American Bar Association, Chicage, Il, 2004.
7Using A Lawyer, Ostberg, Halt; Random House, NY, NY, 1985.

About The Author

Anthony Guidice practices Immigration Law in Rochester, New York. Reach him at or at 585/478-0555.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.