Capability and Usefullness - Part Two


February 28, 2014

Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men's stupidity, but your talent to their reason.
Ayn Rand

Hopefully on your deathbed, you’ll regret not having helped enough people…. Because you certainly won’t regret that you didn’t collect more fees or speak at more dinners.

Attorney, Anonymous

William Smith-O’Brien was my first attorney. I was a young man, just married, and he handled the real estate closing on our first house. A little later, when I was a naïve businessman, he painstakingly spent hours going over office leases and contracts with me, point-by-point and section-by-section. I’ll never forget him -in that big leather chair, leaning back sideways, glasses at the tip of his nose, and flipping through the pages. He was a gentle grandfatherly type, but he was also tough as nails – a real, old-fashioned Irish lawyer. I witnessed him upbraiding my realtor before the closing. The realtor turned white.

O’Brien’s father was an Irish lawyer in the “old days” when there was a large, working class Irish community in Rochester. O’Brien’s father took it upon himself to be the “protector” of that community; he saw it as his solemn duty. Of course O’Brien Sr. had quite a successful practice too, but he staunchly helped anyone who needed him without regard to fees. He taught his son William this same creed. I remember Bill’s story of his father phoning and telling him to get over to so-and-so’s house because the grandfather had died: “Just sit with the body ‘till morning so the cat doesn’t take a bite out of its face.” “I did that quite a few times,” Bill said. “We’d usually have a few whiskeys because there’d be nothing else to do all night. That’s really where the idea of an Irish wake comes from.”

I never forgot O’Brien. He never taught me anything directly. I learned by watching him. He’s always been my model for the primary lawyering fundamentals: be a professional, care for other people, and do what you must regardless of any other consideration. Always? Always. He’d chuckle, “It’s your duty, you have no choice.”

Respect for the Profession

Do people see a self-respecting profession when they see you? I shouldn’t have to write something this obvious, but if you dress like a tramp you don’t show much respect for the profession. Back when I was much younger, casual dress for men was a sport jacket, khakis, and a necktie. Suits were dress wear. Today, dressing casually means not going about naked. Dress wear today– I guess - means wearing actual clothing in public instead of pajamas, underwear, or gym clothes.

I had a lunch meeting with a few other attorneys one day. I was the only one with a tie on, much less a jacket. One of them had an open shirt and khakis; the other wore a T-shirt and blue jeans. Blue jeans promised to call me back regarding some matter we’d discussed. He never did. I wasn’t surprised.

Clothing identifies you and what you believe. That’s a fact. If you go to the office on a Saturday and have a tie on, that sends a message that you’re serious. If you wear a polo shirt and blue jeans on casual Fridays, that send a message that you’re less than serious. (I know it’s allowed, that’s irrelevant.) This isn’t even my opinion. Show an objective observer photographs of two lawyers, one with a jacket and tie on, the other wearing a polo shirt and blue jeans. Then ask them which is the more successful lawyer. And how successful do you feel in a T-shirt and blue jeans? (Wearing a suit without a tie looks terrible too, as does wearing a backpack.)

Dressing properly shows that you have a respect for the profession. Many outstanding attorneys have gone before us, outstanding people that shaped the society and the law into something quite a bit better. It’s disrespectful to them to wear T-shirts and blue jeans. Besides, do you want a potential client or employer seeing you dressed like a hobo, and thinking, “That guy’s a lawyer? He sure doesn’t look like one.” There’s a reason the best law firms require dark suits and white shirts for the men, and conservative dresses and suits for the women (no bright colors, no slacks). Why do you think that is? (“Best” means “respected and ethical,” not “most profitable.”)

And not only dress defines what kind of lawyer you are, so does your personal comportment. No one has much respect for bad manners, or poor English, or profanity either. If you eat a hamburger like you’re a lion tearing apart an antelope carcass, it reflects badly on you. So does pickling your brain with liquor and acting like a fool. You’re not Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer.

Everyone has a mobile phone. Mobile phones have cameras and can even record videos today. Within seconds any single brainless act of yours can be on the Internet. What if an employer, potential employer, client, opponent, or judge sees you on Facebook grasping a Jack Daniels bottle and wearing an obscene T-shirt? Unlikely? That’s the first thing I check when someone asks me about a position.

Excellence - Not “Winning”

If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today.

As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent work.

Thomas J. Watson

Horseback riding is a fascinating sport. Sometimes you enter a class with a stellar horse that has a perfect warm up and then can’t make it around the course. Sometimes a horse refuses every jump in warm ups but then rides the course perfectly. And sometimes, terribly mediocre horses ride like champions. But the rider’s goal is always the same: to get the most out of the particular horse you’re riding; not to “win.” Some horses just can’t win the blue ribbon. They’re either too “green,” too quirky, or the others are just better. Riders know this going in, so the object is always the same: get the most out of the particular horse you’re riding. (To do the very best possible job as a rider.)

John Wooden used to say that a basketball team shouldn’t focus on winning because sometimes you can’t win. The other team is just better. The object is to play the very best you can. He was disappointed with a victory achieved through a halfhearted effort, and he was very satisfied with losses when everyone played their best. John Wooden was unique; far too unique, sadly.

The same applies to lawyers. Winning? That’s a shortsighted concept.

I was surprised when Judge Sullivan told me that some cases are just unwinnable. Sometimes a lawyer can’t win no matter how good she is. The facts just weigh too heavily against the client. Sullivan also said that some cases are also “unlose-able”: “…like this case we just watched. That prosecutor thinks he did a great job with a second-degree conviction. But he could’ve gotten a first degree conviction if he’d been smarter.”

What about you? Say a client is in detention with an aggravated felony charge. His panic-stricken wife or girlfriend retains you to get him out. The facts aren’t good. And you may not be able to “win.” Well, what can you do? Not take the case? That’s probably not the best idea because lot of sleazy immigration lawyers will lead her down the garden path and then pocket thousands of dollars knowing damn well there’s no relief available. Better an ethical lawyer take the case rather than a skunk. That is, if you’re ethical.

Here’s what you can do: you can be an excellent lawyer. You can have the client come in and talk to you. And let her talk. Don’t demonstrate what a superior smart punk you are. Don’t interrupt her to explain what an aggravated felony is, or what inadmissible and deportable mean, or quote her TRAC statistics. Let her talk. Sit there and listen. If she wants to cry, give her tissues and let her cry; better yet sit next to her with the tissue box on your lap. It’s always very comforting when lawyers sit quietly and listen, and especially so for clients in desperate trouble. Nothing is more inconsiderate and insulting than not giving clients your full attention. Don’t take any bloody notes either. Have them repeat it a second time if you need to take notes. (Note taking is overrated and too often a cop out. Most of the time you don’t need to do it.)

Second, don’t promise anything and don’t build any false hopes until you see the charging documents (the NTA or the I-213). I charge a minimal fee to get all the facts and assess them: visit the alien, study the documents, note the charges, hear the history; and then later write a memo for the client (in plain English). After the client knows all the legal ramifications and possibilities, then they can choose what to do. Sometimes lawyers are retained simply because a client feels safe with them and trusts them; legal razzle-dazzle is secondary.

Of course you don’t mislead a vulnerable client just to get your dirty mitts on their money. It’s astounding how often this happens, and it’s disgraceful. And you don’t charge a full fee before seeing any charging papers or before speaking to the alien. And don’t mention things like Cancellation of Removal, or Inadmissibility Waivers until you’ve seen all the charges. You might be sowing seeds of eventual heartache. How would you like it if a veterinarian told you your golden retriever would be fine, and then two hours later tell you she died during her surgery? You wouldn’t like it.

And remember that good lawyers often win marginal cases and that poor indifferent ones lose good cases. Regardless of what you’re making in fees, you can’t really ever do anything less than the absolute best you’re capable of. Imagine losing a case because you didn’t spend an extra two hours. What kind of lawyer does a subpar job because the client can’t afford the full fee? (Good gracious I hope you know what kind.) Clients always get your best: “…it’s your duty, you have no choice.”

I took a case once for a Jamaican client. Let’s call him Spencer. He was an LPR with a police record a mile long. He committed nothing particularly serious. His removable offense was “loitering with intent to distribute,” believe it or not. Spencer had a very long history of drug and alcohol abuse. His brain was pickled; he couldn’t coherently speak two consecutive sentences. I didn’t want to take his case, but I did. I got him Cancellation of Removal after which he took off to Florida still owing me $2,300 in fees. That didn’t surprise me. I’ve never tried to collect it or find him. I used to work with homeless people, people like Spencer. That’s why I took the case: because I honestly thought no one else could help him. I’ve never told anyone that because it sounds insufferably self-important. But I felt it was my duty. O’Brien would’ve laughed and said, “Well, you’ll make it up on the next one.”

Conclusion: Be an Attorney for the Right Reasons

Why do we do this difficult job that takes so many hours? So people can cheer if we’re with a busload of lawyers driving over a cliff? No, we do it because we must be useful. People put their lives in our hands, and we have to take care of them. That’s the only reason. We must see every client as a vehicle for service.

Usefulness is nothing but service. The worst motive for being an attorney is money. That motive guarantees you’ll be a lousy attorney. How about the “having a good job” motive? That’s weak too. The only reason to be an attorney is to serve others, whether it’s bringing over 300 new Indian IT specialists for Intel or Apple, or getting Spencer relief from deportation. Can you make a million dollars if you’re an attorney? Sure, just give a million dollars worth of service.

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.