The Problem With Immigration Lawyers and How to Fix It, Part 2: Bar Associations

by Jason Dzubow on January 5, 2012

This is part two in a series of posts about the poor quality of immigration lawyers.  A recent survey of judges’ opinions found that 33% of immigrants had “inadequate” counsel and 14% had “grossly inadequate” counsel.  I previous wrote about how Immigration Judges could improve the situation by reporting incompetent and dishonest attorneys.  Indeed, according to Justice Department rules, IJs are required to report such attorneys.

Most bar complaints end up here (but at least they recycle).

Of course, reporting incompetent attorneys accomplishes little unless the disciplinary authorities–i.e., the state bar associations–actually impose sanctions where such punishment is appropriate.  Although a large number of practitioners have been disciplined, given the current state of affairs, the bar associations are not doing enough to protect immigrants.  Here are some thoughts on what bar associations could do to improve the situation:

– Bar associations should reach out to immigrant communities to help inform aliens about their right to competent counsel.  This means providing information–including information about how to report dishonest attorneys–to various immigrant advocacy groups and encouraging those groups to translate and disseminate the information.

– Given that immigrants are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous lawyers, bar associations should pay close attention to complaints filed in immigration cases.  My sense is that the bar associations tend to protect lawyers, and that it is not easy to get disbarred (I hope I am not jinxing myself!).  Bar associations need to take complaints seriously and, in the case of vulnerable populations (minors, immigrants, etc.), need to thoroughly investigate allegations of bad conduct.

– Another issue is that certain bars–most notably New York and California–allow people with a foreign law degree to sit for the bar after they receive an LLM.  The requirements for admission to LLM programs are much less rigorous than for admission to JD programs, and thus graduates of these programs are not as familiar with the U.S. legal system as people who receive a JD degree at an accredited law school.  New York, at least, has taken some modest steps to improve this situation.

– A final–and more sweeping–idea is to create a separate immigration bar association and require membership in order to practice before all immigration agencies.  Volunteer immigration lawyers, who are knowledgeable about immigration law and who speak different languages, could serve on the disciplinary committee.  This way, aliens could file complaints directly to the immigration bar association, and those complaints would be reviewed by people familiar with the system and who (probably) speak the alien’s native language.  Also, an immigration bar association could require legal education and ethics training.

I don’t think we’ll see a mandatory immigration bar association any time soon, but I believe such an association would improve the quality of immigration attorneys.  For now, we will have to rely on state bar associations–however imperfect–to protect immigrants.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Preeti June 26, 2013 at 1:25 am

You can’t take guarantee that if the lawyer is certified then he must be an expert. Generally most of the attorneys give fake hope even they know they’re gonna lose the case. So we should choose our attorney wisely.


Jason Dzubow June 26, 2013 at 9:53 am

You are correct – I wrote a posting once with some suggestions for hiring a competent lawyer:


Cyrus D. Mehta January 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Your inference about lawyers with LL.M degrees being somewhat less proficient than lawyers with JD degrees is off the mark and also discriminatory towards foreign lawyers who qualify for admission to a state bar on the same footing as lawyers with JD degrees. LL.M programs are usually offered at top rated “accredited” US law schools such as Harvard and Columbia, which are competitive and have rigorous selection standards. Such lawyers have been selected after demonstrating accomplishments in their own law degree programs and as practicing lawyers. Ultimately, it is legal aptitude and one’s commitment towards maintaining high ethical standards that matters, and not the law degree. Some of AILA’s finest lawyers have LL.M degrees, and such lawyers also excel in other areas of law.

There are other ways to enhance the quality of lawyers practicing in the immigration courts, some of which you have mentioned, but casting groundless aspersions on lawyers with LL.M degrees, which even the Cardozo report has not made, is irresponsible and is clearly not one of the solutions.


Jason Dzubow January 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Thank you for the comment. I must admit that I was on the fence about whether to list that as one of the possible solutions to improving the quality of immigration lawyers. Obviously, there are many excellent foreign-trained attorneys who receive an LLM in the U.S. and then pass the bar. However, given that there is little quality control over attorneys by the bar associations, my suggestion was based on the idea that more training for attorneys before they take the bar exam would help improve overall quality. That said, a better solution would be for the bar associations to more effectively protect immigrants from predatory and incompetent attorneys (regardless of whether those attorneys have LLMs or JDs).


Rob Gard January 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm


If Immigration Judges and ICE Attorneys were included under the purview of such an immigration bar association, I might be able to support such a proposition.


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