What does it mean to be an attorney: Part II

December 17, 2009 at 9:28 am | Posted in tax law is sexy, the firm, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

As I’ve written about before, my BigLaw job consists mainly of sitting at my desk in a tall office building reading the tax code. Last week, however, I ventured down to Government Center to accompany one of my clients to an asylum interview. He was referred to the firm through an organization called Human Rights First that helps place asylum seekers with lawyers who will take their cases pro bono. My client is from Iraq, and I’ll reveal no more about him other than we had a very strong case: were he to return to Iraq, his background, profession, and secular, pro-democratic approach to government would put his life in danger.

I had no idea what an asylum case entailed before meeting my client in August. I worked with two more senior attorneys: a fifth-year litigator who had some asylum experience, and a third-year benefits lawyer who has turned herself into one of the country’s foremost experts on cases involving Iraqis applying for asylum in the U.S. As I learned from hours and hours of meetings and interviews with my client, most Iraqis were actually jubilant at the U.S. invasion in 2003 and rushed to work with and for the Americans. If you heard some of my client’s stories about life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, you’d understand why. What these initially grateful Iraqis didn’t anticipate was that extremist groups would turn on the U.S. and, consequently, on anyone seen as supportive of the U.S. Many of these people who worked for the government or U.S.-affiliated organizations have since fled Iraq, and only recently has the U.S. government (largely because of the work of the late Sen. Kennedy) made it easier for them to acquire either asylum or what is now known as a special immigrant visa. Our client could have qualified for the special immigrant visa, which is almost automatically granted to any Iraqi who worked for the government or an American company operating in Iraq, but he would have had to return to Iraq to apply from in-country. Since he has been studying in the U.S., however, he could apply for asylum from here without having to return (indeed, once you apply for asylum you cannot return. These are all the legal technicalities of which I was unaware, and which I’m sure I’m even misstating somewhat here).

Because my client now cannot return to Iraq for at least five years, he may not see his mother before she dies. His hesitancy to apply because of this fact alone was heartbreaking. Yet it underscores the real danger to his life — his mother and he both know that he has to stay here. He is extremely well educated, fluent in English, and was hyper-involved with his case. Every meeting with him left me exhausted: not only because of amount of confusing asylum law there was to ingest, but because his story was so raw, so dangerous, so unfathomable:  the constant, daily fear that Saddam would come after him, and then, once the U.S. invaded, that he would be a target for insurgents. “I just can’t live with the fear anymore,” he’d say.

The two weeks before the hearing we worked late nights. Not only did we have to prepare a detailed statement about our client’s life and the specific dangers he faced, as well as a legal brief, but we had to provide proof that the country was as dangerous to our client as we were claiming. We photocopied articles and submitted a packet to INS that must have been six inches thick.

The interview itself went better than we could have expected. The immigration officer (himself a lawyer) had recently visited Iraq and was very familiar with the security situation and with other stories similar to my client’s. I feel confident that the interviewer understood exactly what would happen to my client were he to return. I’d like to say we overprepared — but how can you overprepare for something like this? Even as I was working at 3 a.m. (literally) with a cold one Sunday morning, I didn’t mind: if I didn’t do my job, my client would be killed.

Tax law is just not as interesting. Or important. At the same time, it is more sustainable. Do real human rights lawyers burn out after case after case like this? Or do they become inured to the drama and emotion? I’ve often wondered this same thing about prosecutors, such as my mother and Henry. I know that my mother’s time in family court was emotionally draining — I’m not sure she was really able to separate herself from her victims (but should a prosecutor? Does some level of attachment make you a better attorney?).

Working on this asylum case has undoubtedly been the highlight of my legal career thus far. Which is telling in so many ways: I didn’t mind working late, late nights for two weeks in a row. Yet, after the interview, I went home early and fell into a deep, early-afternoon sleep. Without sounding cliché, the experience was entirely what I thought being a lawyer would be like — the urgency and the relevance to the real world and to someone’s actual life. I missed being home with my child, of course — at the same time, I didn’t resent not being with her. What I was doing was too necessary. All of which has led me to one grand, and somewhat tangential, conclusion: tax law is just not as interesting as my child. So now what?


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  1. Looks like you have reached a fork in the road, my friend. I will be very interested to see which path you take. I would love to say something Yoda-esque here, but I have no wisdom to offer, only empathy.

  2. Kathryn, I realized I never aksed you how this went–I was going to on Friday and you had taken a well-deserved break.

    I have often wondered the same about work as an asylum lawyer. Some poeple are able to “turn off” work better than others generally speaking, and I think only those with an exceptional ability to do so can sustain this. I think it’s a tough combination to find because to have the interest in this work requires a certain compassionate or very committned nature, which I would think would be the exact personality characteristics that would make it harder to “leave it in the office.”

  3. Wow. What an experience, and thank you for doing it. I’ve thought a lot about some of the same questions. If I am stressed to the max, don’t I want it to be because of someone’s life and not a business deal or pleasing a supervisor? It does make the late-nights more palatable, but the end result on the body — is it still the same? A good friend of mine works for the Lummi Tribe in Washington. She takes no vacations because she knows there is no one else to do her work, and some kid may be stuck in a bad home or in a very unsafe situation because of her.

  4. Pretty awesome. But I promise you, the grass is always greener. I am in the process of switching to tax because it comforts me. What you do is very very important to the clients you work for – people pay big bucks for help in tax and the consequences of doing a bad job are immense, even if it’s really not that hard to do a great job.

    At my other job in civil lit, when I did a good job, I might have been ruining both party’s lives, but that’s what our client wanted. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what they wanted, as opposed to what the partners wanted. You can never ensure that your client in human rights is a good person that you will always want to be helping or whose goals remain the same, and I think that would be equally as defeating as losing sometimes – just to be devil’s advocate.

    We’re all just hustlers. The clients, the lawyers, the judges, everyone.

  5. I am new to your blog but I love it! I’m not yet a mom (or even married for that matter) but I’m a young lawyer who lives in NYC and aspires to be a mom someday. This post about your asylum case really hit home with me because I’m an immigration attorney. It’s so great that you took on a pro bono case on such a comoplex issue (I’m befuddled every time I handle an asylum case). Thank you for sharing your insight with us. I look forward to following your journey!

    Very best, Amy

    PS I am also a HUGE Gretchen Rubin fan (I discovered Ivy League Insecurities and A Design So Fast from Gretchen’s site and they lead me to your lovely blog).

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