The Legal Advocate

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Immigration Law: It Takes Effort to Be a Good Advocate

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written by NITA Guest Blogger and Faculty Erica Schommer

Immigration law is complex and removal defense cases are often difficult on both lawyers and our clients. The stakes are high—in some cases life or death—and in most cases, losing means at the very least separation from family, community, employment, and many other ties to the U.S. There is nothing quite like the jubilation of winning a removal case, but the flip side is devastating for our clients and for us as attorneys. So what can you do to improve the odds for your clients? Put some effort into your courtroom advocacy.

In the simplest terms, your job in immigration court is that of an advocate, “a person who assists, defends, pleads, or prosecutes for another.” Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) available at Westlaw BLACKS. However, since immigration court is administrative and has more relaxed rules of evidence, attorneys often underestimate the importance of trial advocacy. We are comfortable presenting entire cases in writing to USCIS or other agencies and focus on the minutia of the forms and supporting documents. Many attorneys consider the individual hearing to be the easy part and don’t approach is for what it is – a trial at which your client needs a zealous advocate.

One thing that I emphasize with my students is the importance of narrating your client’s story in a well-organized, logical way. This can be extremely difficult when you often have less than four hours to put on your entire case. For asylum cases, it is particularly challenging when clients have been persecuted by different parties for different reasons at different times in their lives. Part of your job as a good advocate is to figure out how to tell a complex story in a way that makes it easy for the judge and government counsel to follow. The next time you are preparing for trial, try to do the following:

  • Have a theory of the case and make sure that your client understands the theory of the case and key elements you need to prove in order to win;
  • Think strategically about the order of your witnesses and if you decide not to call your client first, be prepare to defend that decision to the judge if you get push back;
  • Present adverse information early on and take control of that narrative rather than leave it to opposing counsel;
  • Organize the presentation of evidence to end on a high note;
  • Highlight crucial documentary evidence for the IJ during direct examination when the witness references something that is addressed in that evidence;
  • Role play with your client and witnesses so they know what to expect on cross examination; and
  • Prepare a written closing argument that highlights how you met your burden of proof and points the judge to particularly helpful cases.

Although there is no magic formula to win every case, training that includes simulations provides an excellent opportunity to get individualized feedback about how to become a better advocate in the courtroom.
As a clinical professor, I know the importance of teaching advocacy skills to law students who are preparing for their first court appearances. I was recently reminded of the importance of trial advocacy skills for all practitioners. Last month our clinic co-hosted a free training through EOIR’s Model Hearing Program, designed for volunteer pro bono attorneys. A wide range of practitioners attended, from law students to attorneys who have been licensed for over twenty years. The Immigration Judge who participated offered individualized feedback, which practicing lawyers rarely get, to each and every participant on his or her performance during the mock hearing. My take away was that all attorneys, regardless of years of practice, can always learn new techniques and improve our advocacy skills.

Different NGOs work with EOIR to sponsor Model Hearing Program trainings throughout the country. Those trainings always include mock hearings before an Immigration Judge and often have participation from a representative from DHS’s Office of Chief Counsel. NITA also offers advocacy courses specifically tailored for immigration court, which include substantive, individualized feedback to improve your skills as an advocate in the courtroom. With the stakes as high as they are, we owe it to our clients to embrace the role of zealous advocates in the courtroom and put at least as much effort into trial preparation as we do into our briefs and evidentiary submissions. The skills and confidence you will gain with pay off for both you and your clients.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

NITA’s Goals are to:

  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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