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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. The Art of "No"

    In the field of immigration law, if you're a reasonably-priced attorney in private practice, or if you work for a non-profit, you probably do a volume business. You have to, to make a living. And if you hope to get your work done, maintain a social/family life, stay healthy, and keep your sanity, there is one word that you need to keep handy at all times. As you might have surmised from the title of this piece, that word is "No".
    If only saying "no" to clients was as easy as just saying no to drugs
    "Can I ask one quick question about my brother-in-law's visa?"

    - No.


    "My friend's lawyer said I can expedite my case if you just call the Asylum Office and ask them. Can you call them today?"


    - No.


    "I don't have an appointment, but I stopped by to talk to you about my case. It will only take a few minutes. Can I see you?"


    - No.


    "You already completed and filed my asylum application, but I've decided I want to leave the country and withdraw my case. Can I have a refund?"


    - No.


    As the asylum backlog has turned into an unpleasant version of the Never Ending Story (without a cute little boy named Bastian to save us), client demands have proliferated. This is not the clients' fault. It makes sense that they should turn to their attorneys with all their immigration questions (and their family member's immigration questions) (and their friends' immigration questions). While it's certainly understandable, it puts the attorney in a difficult position.


    In the good ol' days, before the backlog, most asylum cases lasted less than six month. Even the slow cases were usually resolved in a year or so. But now, it takes years just to get an interview; never mind the delays post-interview. This means that the number of "active" asylum cases has increased. In my office, for example, I always had one large filing cabinet, where I kept my cases. Now I have three, and I might need to get a fourth soon (if you have one to sell, let me know). I've gone from maybe 60 or 70 active asylum cases to over 300.


    With more numerous and longer-lasting cases, we lawyers have to spend much more time responding to our clients' queries. Most of my clients are not particularly high-maintenance people, but even if they call once a month, and it takes me five minutes per call, that's 1,500 minutes--or 25 hours--per month. That's time I can't spend working on other client matters, meeting deadlines or taking my traditional three-martini lunch. Indeed, if I was less protective of my time, I could spend all day addressing client questions, and no work would ever get done.


    One way to turn these long-term cases in the lawyer's favor is to bill the client for the lawyer's time. That way, every five minute call translates into income. Many attorneys do that, but I suspect few lawyers specializing in asylum bill their clients this way, and it's not how I do things. I hate keeping track of such little periods of time, and I hate nickel-and-diming the clients. They don't much like it either.


    The alternatives are not much better. Either the lawyer can say "no" to his clients, or he can go crazy trying to answer all their questions.


    In my practice, I try to at least say "no" gracefully:


    "Can I ask one quick question about my brother-in-law's visa?"


    - I'm sorry, I can't answer questions that are not related to my clients' cases. If he wants to come in for a consultation, he is welcome.


    "My friend's lawyer said I can expedite my case if you just call the Asylum Office and ask them. Can you call them today?"


    - Actually, it does not work that way. I can email you a document explaining the expedite process.


    "I don't have an appointment, but I stopped by to talk to you about my case. It will only take a few minutes. Can I see you?"


    - Sorry, I have a deadline and I cannot meet right now. If you talk to my assistant, she can schedule an appointment for you.


    "You already completed and filed my asylum application, but I've decided I want to leave the country and withdraw my case. Can I have a refund?"


    - Hell no! Get outta here before I call ICE and have you deported!


    OK, that last one is not exactly how I would respond (and the subject of refunds is probably worth its own blog post one of these days), but you get the idea. You can say "no" and be protective of your time, at least to a large extent, while still helping your clients (though maybe on your time; not theirs).


    And obviously there are real emergencies when the client does need advice immediately, but I find that these situations are rare. Indeed, many client "emergencies" are not urgent at all--the client just wants to know the answer to a run-of-the-mill question, and she wants to know it now. I usually ask the client to email me the basic details of the emergency, so I can decide for myself how urgently I am needed.


    As with so many things in legal practice--and in life--the key here is balance. We need to be responsive to our clients, but we also need to protect our own time, so we can get our work done. Learning to say "no" is not always easy, and for me at least, it does not come naturally. But saying "no" in a respectful way is an essential skill for all immigration lawyers.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
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