Capability and Usefullness – Part One

by Anthony Guidice

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
Albert Einstein

Some of the features on my Galaxy cell phone are really impressive. But a lot of them make the phone harder to use. For example, I couldn’t type in “DOJ EOIR #” in my contact database. The phone wouldn’t let me do it. I know, I know – I could probably turn off that function, and then turn it on again. But that’s a hassle. And when I plug manual headphones into it, I don’t want the phone to slide over three screens and tell me to enjoy listening to music. Then I have to slide it back to the original screen; another hassle. Designers of many of these devices confuse capability with usefulness.

The same thing applies everywhere. Law professors who imagine their job is to intimidate and confuse law students aren’t so useful, and too many of them are encouraged to do it. Transactional lawyers who plant “land mines” in contracts, making them purposefully obscure in case of future lawsuit aren’t really so useful either. They’re dishonest. Have you known any legal “scholars” who can’t explain themselves clearly? Well they’re not really legal scholars. Most illuminating legal scholars, like Denis Olsen for example, are blindingly clear when explaining something.

Good immigration lawyers – good ones – are responsible for using an enormous mass of complicated and sometimes counter-intuitive law. It changes so fast it must be checked daily. There are lots of labels and secret words in immigration law. Even considerate lawyers can become immersed in the dizzying and irritating “insider lingo” of “Captain Midnight” acronyms. I can’t bear listening to most immigration lawyers talking (acronyms are only one of the reasons).

Good immigration lawyers work very hard and for many hours sharpening and updating their skills. That goes without saying. And they’re not paid for it, and no one ever sees it. But some necessary fundamental characteristics deserve attention too. Clients won’t benefit from your vast knowledge if you irritate them like my cell phone irritates me at times. Yes? Here’s a list of some beneficial qualities to master (I’m tempted to write that only “good” lawyers should read this list, but that’s redundant. Lousy lawyers don’t read much).

Character. How many good lawyers are centered on proper principals? Answer: All of them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be good lawyers. The client interests must always come before money – let’s start with that one. Lots of despicable immigration lawyers doubletalk clients into believing anything; and they can sometimes make a quick buck. No harm done if you’re a professional snake.

Other than reviewing a complicated file, you shouldn’t charge if you can’t help someone; maybe it’s okay for a consultation that’s an hour or longer, otherwise it’s not. Yes all you have to sell is your time, but the profession isn’t a business and people don’t pay to look at us; they pay us to help them. Recently I saw this thoroughly insulting question from an immigration organization I won’t name: should you charge clients for consulting about a comprehensive immigration reform law that hasn’t passed yet? That’s an astounding question. If you don’t know the answer to that you shouldn’t be practicing law. The same organization outdid themselves shortly afterwards with this pitch: Using the Interest in Immigration Reform to Market Your Practice. Incredible.

What are we, carnival barkers? Ring the bell and win the prize? “Hurry, hurry, hurry! – How about you little lady? Put your three thousand dollars down there and see if you can avoid a notice to appear! How about you sir? Step right up! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

Ethics. Do I even need to mention this? The best and most ethical estate lawyer I know, David Ferris, works for a large Rochester NY law firm. My wife was his client. I can’t imagine any lawyer doing a better job. Ferris originally started out in a little firm with about three or four lawyers in it. Is he sternly ethical because he works at such a large prestigious firm? Or does he now work at Harter Secrest because he’s so unflinchingly ethical?

What do you think?

Security. This seems to be a chronic deficiency. Insecurity is a byword among lawyers but especially immigration lawyers. They can’t ever say, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t know but I’ll find out,” or “I was wrong.” And heaven forbid you should admit to another lawyer that you don’t know something.

It’s stupid, don’t do it for several reasons. One is, you’re not fooling anyone. If you try and bluff and bluster your way through something, even the most naive client knows it. Two, you’re not providing very good service if you’re lying, which is essentially what you’re doing. Three, it’s childish; like trying to one-up someone on the playground (I double dare you!).

Others won’t question your competency if you admit you’re wrong or admit that you don’t know something. Actually the opposite is true. “What’s right” serves the client, not “who’s right.”

Listening. Hey what’s your name again? Lawyers, and particularly immigration lawyers, love to seemingly dazzle clients with their brilliance. Clients are seemingly only a paper bag full of legal problems to harvest. As soon as the client utters something even remotely recognizable, the immigration counsel interrupts with a stunning correction: “remove not deport!” or this: “you’re husband is inadmissible, not deportable!” I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve done it myself at times.

This is stupid too because it’s bad manners. It insults the client. If you really want to help the poor person there in front of you, keep your damn mouth shut. Sit there and let them talk. Turn your computer screen off. I don’t even take notes when a client talks. If you need them to repeat something later, fine. They won’t mind. Take your notes then. Did you ever watch someone write while you were speaking? How about the doctor who’s scribbling a prescription before you’re finished telling him your symptoms? How does that feel?

The client is hurting. They’re usually consumed – day and night - by their legal problem. That’s why they’re in your office. They want the hurt to stop. That’s all they want. When you listen to them, you help them feel better. Even if the solution is relatively simple, and you know immediately what to do – shut up. Let them talk. Hopefully you don’t have to fake this. You should be sincerely interested in them. Talk to Colleen McCarthy sometime; she practices law in Somerset County, New Jersey. Observe how she listens. She listens so intently it’s disarming. (I wonder why her phone is always ringing off the hook?). Every lawyer should have this skill. You’ll have a tremendous advantage over most others if you do.

Lots of good books are available on listening skills. Steven Covey’s 7 Habits is certainly a good one.

Want to be especially good? Feed back what the client says: “Now I’m going to repeat back to you what you’ve just told me, and you tell me if I have it right.” If you’re uncertain that a client has comprehended what you’ve said, ask them (nicely): “That’s fine, Ms Client. Now tell me what I just said please; let’s make sure you’ve got it.” Most times they’ll have missed something. Try it.

Unless you’re already doing it, you should spend many hours studying how to listen to people. I don’t mean techniques, or slick ways to fake it. I mean learning to really listen.

And the same thing applies when you’re on the phone dummy.

Sincerity. How do you like it when you’re speaking with someone about a topic that’s important to you, and their words say they’re concerned but their demeanor says that they’re completely disinterested?

It’s bad enough when you’re buying a $2.00 pen in Staples, but when the stakes are higher; it’s hard to stomach. Recently someone invited me to a dinner to “network” when all he really wants is a quick buck for his organization. So imagine how it feels if you’ve been in the US for 20 years, still without permanent residency, in a whirlwind of immigration law never-never land; and your lawyer is insincere, doesn’t really care. Seems hardly tolerable, yes?

Are you sincere about your client’s welfare? Are you really? Do you return calls promptly? -- Within an hour? Do you listen patiently if they’re upset or do you still rush them? If you have paralegals, do you push clients off on them continuously? If the client needs guidance, sometimes a scolding, and for their benefit - do you do it? … Or is it easier to just get them out the door?

Lawyering is difficult work. It’s easy to get worn out and forego the hard work of being a good “counselor.” But good lawyers do it. And that’s what sincerity toward clients amounts to – proper counseling. Even when you have to tell a client something they don’t want to hear, and even if you do it forcibly, they’ll always respect you if you’re sincere. But everyone loses some regard for you every time you’re insincere.

Only The Base Level

Having these qualities won’t put you heads and shoulders above everyone else by the way. It merely grants you a ticket to get in. To be really “good” you must do all of these ordinary things extraordinarily well. Yes it’s a lot of work. That’s why most lawyers don’t do it.

And none of this is new either. These fundamentals are as old and broad as nature; knowing you need to plant a seed to grow a sunflower, or to prime a pump to get any water out of it. Einstein said this: “Without deep reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people.”

About The Author

Anthony Guidice practices Immigration Law in Rochester, New York. Reach him at

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