Outside Publication

Building an Effective Immigration Pro Bono Practice

April 04, 2012

The roster of countries and social issues covered by the asylum cases handled by Morgan Lewis' Philadelphia office over the past several years reads like the international section of a newspaper: Iraqi translator facing retribution for assisting U.S. forces; Indian man beaten for suspicion of homosexual tendencies; husband and wife from western Africa tortured in prison and subjected to female genital mutilation, respectively. Each client is seeking legal status in the United States based on a set of very specific requirements set out by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Each case presents unique issues, including a need to master the current country conditions, the most recent case law on the protected group status under which the client is applying for asylum and a gentle handling of clients who have often been exposed to psychologically and physically damaging conditions in their home countries.

Even for the most experienced asylum attorneys, each case presents a daunting array of complex facts and legal issues. However, many of the attorneys taking asylum cases through Morgan Lewis' pro bono asylum practice are newcomers to asylum law, generally, and unfamiliar with their client's country of origin, specifically. Despite these challenges, our lawyers have helped more than 15 individuals gain legal status in the past few years. As discussed below, our success in these matters has been aided by the methods that our pro bono practice has developed to staff and manage these challenging cases.

Partnership with Referral Organization

Most importantly, we have developed very close partnerships with the organizations that refer these cases to us. In nearly all of our pro bono practice areas (not just asylum), Morgan Lewis designates an attorney to take ownership of the relationship with the organizations that refer pro bono cases to us. This relationship attorney is responsible for maintaining our partnership with that organization, facilitating referrals, advertising opportunities within the firm and helping find answers to substantive legal questions. In the asylum area, Morgan Lewis works most closely with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Nationalities Service Center.

These partnerships yield a number of benefits. First, they allow attorneys at the firm to "call the experts" when an attorney needs advice on a particularly thorny asylum law question. Our partner organizations have become accustomed to calls from our attorneys, looking for guidance on a particular course of action or for some specific expertise on a particular issue, claim or country.

Second, our team collaborates with these partner organizations to offer training on asylum law to attorneys both within and outside the firm who are interested in taking on a case. For a number of years, Morgan Lewis has hosted full-day trainings where our partner organizations teach other interested attorneys the basics of handling an asylum case, from filing through trial.

Third, our partner organizations screen these cases before referring them to Morgan Lewis. As part of this process, the partner organizations assess whether a case is appropriate to refer to the firm, identify particular issues expected to be prevalent in the case and provide us with a summary of the grounds for asylum. Where the case requires particular language, gender or regional knowledge needs, the organizations flag these issues for us so we can properly staff the new matters.

'Each One Teach One' Staffing

Several years ago, Morgan Lewis began a new method of staffing asylum cases relying on the "each one teach one" philosophy. While pro bono asylum cases present a great opportunity for more junior lawyers to gain valuable experience, we initially found that many wanted to take on a case but were concerned by their lack of knowledge of the specialized substance and procedure of asylum law. This challenge was particularly true for our attorneys who focus on transactional practices. For them, the prospect of appearing before immigration judges and presenting evidence on behalf of asylum clients was daunting. Moreover, those attorneys who had handled asylum cases already were sometimes hesitant to commit to taking multiple cases given their other commitments.

We addressed these challenges by staffing the asylum cases in teams of three - generally consisting of two more junior lawyers and a partner to supervise the matter. This team approach worked well, as it harnessed the knowledge of our attorneys who had experience in this area and also provided backup and a training ground for our lawyers who wanted to get involved but were initially less comfortable with the process. Moreover, this team approach to all asylum cases allowed our attorneys to rely on each other to balance out the time constraints. We also staff every team with a partner who supervises the matter. In these cases, it has generally been the more junior members of the team who are encouraged to direct the strategy and develop the primary relationship with the clients. As one associate commented, "Because the associates are empowered to run the case, we feel a great sense of responsibility."

Our lawyers who have had significant experience practicing in front of the immigration courts provide another critical role in these asylum cases: that of mock adjudicator. Whether the client is preparing for an interview in front of an asylum officer at the local USCIS office or for testimony at a full-scale immigration hearing before an immigration judge, preparing him or her for the foreign experience of advocating for their case in front of a government official is daunting. Prior to each asylum interview or immigration court hearing, teams therefore bring their clients in to our offices for a mock interview or examination.

Our lawyers who are not directly connected to the case act as asylum officers and immigration judges, questioning the client and setting a tone similar to what the client will face in a hearing or interview. These outside attorneys also help the attorney team in identifying weaknesses in the client's testimony or supporting materials that can be strengthened or explained during the client's testimony. In other words, even after a pro bono asylum attorney's case is completed, he or she contributes to other teams' cases, passing on the knowledge and experience gained through a prior representation. This internal feedback process also strengthens associates' lawyering skills even before they appear before an adjudicator. One associate who successfully advocated for asylum for an Indian client at a USCIS interview noted that the opportunity for on-your-feet experience and feedback is "particularly attractive to associates who are looking for opportunities to develop advocacy and courtroom skills."

Support for our pro bono asylum cases, however, extends far beyond the ranks of our pro bono attorneys. Morgan Lewis as an institution actively recognizes and celebrates successes in our pro bono cases as it does with traditional cases. "A victory is a victory, and that's pretty great," remarked one associate, whose successful representation of a couple from Burkina Faso earned his clients safe haven in the United States and earned the associate and his attorney teammate an office-wide pro bono award. Successes in asylum cases are regularly featured alongside other client victories in the firm's weekly newsletter. In 2011, as part of Morgan Lewis' Pro Bono and Community Service Week events, several of our asylum clients and their attorneys presented together to our attorneys, summer associates and staff about their experiences on the often-difficult road to asylum and the strong partnership that is forged between pro bono attorneys and their clients during the representation. Immediately following the presentation, we received offers of assistance from summer associates, secretaries and other attorneys - all of whom were inspired by the potential impact they could have through work on asylum cases.

These strategies, which the firm has developed and instituted, provide support for our lawyers and our partner organizations in the representation of asylum clients. But, most importantly, this structure has led to repeated successful representations for clients from around the world, many of whom now are able to remain in the United States legally and safe from harm due to the work of our attorneys and our partner organizations.

K. Catherine Roney is an associate in the firm's litigation practice and is a member of the Philadelphia office pro bono committee.

"Reprinted with permission from the March 27, 2012 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c)2012 ALM Media Properties LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved."