Presenting an asylum case to an Immigration Judge or an Asylum Officer can be tricky business. There are an infinite number of ways to tell the story: How much detail to include, what to keep out, how to deal with derogatory facts. Not surprisingly, sometimes lawyers and their clients have different ideas about how the case should look. So what happens when lawyers and clients disagree?

First, we should acknowledge that there are areas where the lawyer’s interest and the client’s interest are in harmony, and other areas where those interests diverge. For example, both the lawyer and the client want to win the case. They both would like to finish the case as quickly as possible. They both want a good relationship with the other.

There are also areas where the lawyer’s and the client’s interests differ. The lawyer often wants to do less work on the case, while the client wants the lawyer to do more work. The lawyer has to deal with many cases, but the client wants her case, and her phone calls and emails, to receive the highest priority. The lawyer has her own ideas about how the case should be presented; the client may have a different idea. For attorneys in private practice (like yours truly), the lawyer wants to charge more money; the client wants to pay less. A good (i.e., ethical) attorney generally puts his own interests behind those of his client, but only to an extent, and when discussing “lawyers vs. clients,” it is helpful to acknowledge that there are inherent tensions in the relationship.

Here, though, I am less interested in the tension related to workloads and fees, and more interested in conflicts that arise between the attorney and her client with regards to strategy—how to present the case. But that conflict does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it must be viewed in the context of all the other tensions inherent in the relationship, and—to make matters worse—it exists in the stressful environment of an asylum case, which can have life-changing implications for the client and her family. All this, we must keep in mind.

So what to do when the lawyer and the client cannot agree?

It happens to me periodically that I have a client who has his or her own idea about how a case should be presented, and that idea conflicts with what I think best. It is perhaps one of the downsides of experience, but the more cases I do, the less patience I have for clients who question my judgment. The problem with this attitude, of course, is that I am sometimes wrong, and if my experience blinds me to that fact, I am clearly disserving my client. For this reason, I try to practice humility and always carefully consider the client’s viewpoint. As the old prayer goes: "Lord, give me patience, and give it to me right now!"

Sometimes, however, the client is simply wrong about something: A "friend" told the client to hide her trip to Iran from the U.S. government; a person who is still legally married but separated wants to claim that he is single on an immigration form; someone with a criminal conviction wants to explain to the Judge that "it wasn't my fault!" In cases like these, the lawyer needs explain the problem, and usually the client understands (the U.S. government probably already knows about the trip to Iran, so trying to hide it is a mistake; even though you are separated, you need to indicate "married" unless the marriage is terminated by death or divorce; the Judge wants to hear you take responsibility for the crime, apologize, and explain how you will not repeat the same mistake).

Other situations are more subtle: The client wants to add too much irrelevant information to her asylum affidavit, for example. In a situation like this, I explain my point of view (the fact-finder will become frustrated if they get bogged down in unimportant details and it will distract from the thrust of the case) and usually the client agrees. If not, as far as I am concerned, it's the client's case and ultimately it's his decision to make. My concern is that the client's decision is made knowingly (maybe this is why lawyers are called "counselors" and not "deciders").

In cases where the client and I cannot agree, and where I think the client's decision will negatively affect the outcome of the case, I write down my position and make the client sign it. It's rare that I have to do this, but I want to have a record of what happened in case the client decides to blame me for losing the case (the technical term for this is CYA - "cover your ***"). Also, if I make the client sign such a document, it helps underscore the seriousness of the client's decision, and hopefully dissuades him from harming his case.

My feeling is that it is better to avoid a conflict with the client before it begins. So what can be done to minimize conflicts related to case presentation?

The most obvious solution is communication, and this is primarily the lawyer’s responsibility. As lawyers, we need to be transparent about what we do. If we over-sell our services, and promise the client the moon and the stars, we really can’t complain when the client expects us to deliver. It's the same with case presentation. The client needs to understand the lawyer's role, and what the lawyer can and cannot do (we can't help a client lie, for example). I find it helpful to show potential clients examples of my work, so they have an idea how their case will look at the end of the process. I also outline how we will prepare the case, what we need from the client, what my assistants will do, and what I will do. I also try to give them an idea about what we don't know--primarily, how long the case will take, given the very long backlog. To paraphrase the old ad, a well educated client is our best customer.

For many--if not most--asylum seekers, the process is stressful and scary. They are separated from loved ones and living with great uncertainty. As lawyers, we absorb some of that stress. By communicating effectively with our clients, we can reduce their stress and our own, and we maximize the chances for a successful outcome in their case.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: