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by Jason Dzubow

The Problem With Immigration Lawyers and How to Fix It, Part 4: Attorneys

If you have been reading this series of posts, you know that so far I’ve blamed several people/organizations for the poor quality of immigration attorneys: Immigration Judges, Bar Associations, and Notarios.  I suppose some of the blame for bad attorneys might possibly… perhaps… maybe rest with the attorneys themselves (ourselves).  So what’s wrong with immigration attorneys?

We lawyers aspire to be as competent as we are good looking.

For one thing, most immigration attorneys are solo or work for small firms (I fit into this category).  Therefore, the only real barrier to entry is to pass the bar.  This is not a particularly high standard.  Other areas of law where attorneys tend to be solo or small-firm practitioners also seem to have their fair share of problems: For example, there was a spate of incidents where criminal defense attorneys fell asleep during capital murder cases.  Not that attorneys who work for large firms, large organizations or the government are necessarily better than small firm lawyers, but at least they are vetted by the employer before being hired.  In a prior post I mentioned the idea of a mandatory immigration bar association.  I believe that such an association would improve the practice of law by educating and regulating lawyers who practice before Immigration Courts and agencies.  In other words, it would fulfill some of the functions of a large employer in terms of quality control.

Another issue for immigration lawyers (which I believe is changing) is that immigration law was not considered a very prestigious practice area.  This means that top-notch attorneys and law students have generally not been attracted to this field (obviously there are many exceptions).  One reflection of this problem is the absence of academic journals related to immigration law.  When I was a law student in the 1990's, I was on the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal.  Even today, that journal bills itself as the “only student-edited law journal devoted exclusively to the study of immigration law.”  Given the growing popularity of immigration law–and the important ways it affects people’s lives–I am hopeful that the practice of immigration law will become more respected and that we will see more law school journals devoted to the subject.

A related issue is that until relatively recently, law schools offered very limited (or no) classes about immigration law.  Over the last five or 10 years, this situation has begun to change pretty dramatically.  Now, students interested in immigration law can take a number of relevant classes at most law schools.  Also, law school clinics where students represent asylum seekers and others in Immigration Court have become quite popular.  These increased educational opportunities will, I think, help improve the quality of attorneys practicing immigration law.

Finally, since many immigrant clients are unfamiliar with the American legal system, they are often poor advocates for themselves and require extra help from their attorneys.  They are also particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous lawyers.  This means that perhaps the field of immigration law attracts people who would take advantage of others.  An analogous (though largely anecdotal) situation involves a 1998 study of disbarred attorneys in Michigan.  The study (of only 16 attorneys) found that the practice area with the most disbarred attorneys was probate law.  “The combination of estate funds and often older clients apparently proved irresistible to several former attorneys,” the report speculates.  In other words, easy money and vulnerable clients attract unscrupulous lawyers.  In the immigration context, a mandatory bar association would help mitigate this problem.

I would like to conclude this series on an optimistic note.  I think immigration lawyers are getting better.  The field is becoming more prestigious and is attracting the best and brightest law school graduates.  Also, immigrants are becoming more sophisticated and better able to protect themselves.  Hopefully, all this will lead to better representation for people in Immigration Court.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: