The Most Important Words in Every Lawyer’s Vocabulary: I Don’t Know

by Jason Dzubow on July 16, 2013

Recently, I worked on a couple cases where my clients got bad advice, which got them into trouble.

The first case involved a woman with an otherwise strong asylum claim. As a young girl, she and her family were refugees in Iran. Someone in her community advised her it would be better not to tell the U.S. government (or her attorney) that she had been in Iran. The community adviser thought it would harm my client’s chances for relief if she revealed that she spent time in Iran. The client took this advice and did not tell the U.S. government (or me) that she lived in Iran for a few years. The problem, of course, was that the U.S. government–and the Asylum Officer who interviewed her–knew that she had been in Iran. Nevertheless, she denied having been there. After the interview, she told me that she had, in fact, been in Iran, and we submitted a letter to the Asylum Office explaining what happened. She may still get asylum, but her lie damaged her credibility, which could easily result in a denial. We shall see.

If you don't know what you're talking about: Stifle, would-ya?

If you don’t know what you’re talking about: Stifle, would-ya?

The second case involved a woman who had been in the United States for more than one year. She was still in lawful status when conditions in her country changed causing her to fear return. About eight months after the changed circumstances, she went to a reputable non-profit organization to ask about asylum. She did not speak to an attorney, but was advised by a paralegal (or maybe a secretary) that she was ineligible for asylum since she missed the one year filing deadline. In fact, the client met two exceptions to the one-year filing deadline: First, changed circumstances, since country conditions changed, giving rise to her fear of persecution, and second, extraordinary circumstances given that she was still in lawful status when she went to the non-profit seeking advice about asylum. I recently litigated this case and the Immigration Judge granted asylum, but it was a close call. Had the client filed for asylum in a more timely manner, it would have been a much cleaner case.

In both cases, the advisers were (probably) well meaning, but in each case, they gave advice that greatly reduced the client’s chances for success. So my question is, when people don’t know what their talking about, why do they feel compelled to open their mouths and release some sort of useless–and worse than useless–noise?

I remember a similar phenomenon from when I lived in Nicaragua (and I and other people have experienced it in different countries). I would need to find the post office, for example, and so I would ask someone on the street. The person would give an answer, like “Walk two blocks towards the lake, make a left at the church and you’ll see it on the next block.” In fact, the person had no idea where the post office was; he just didn’t want to admit that he didn’t know.

So what gives? Maybe in part, its because people like to look knowledgeable and don’t like to admit ignorance. People often think they know more than they do, or that they understand the way things work, when they don’t. This can be a particular problem in an area like immigration law, where the rules of logic and common sense often do not apply.

To quote Noah ben Shea, “To be wise, we only have to go in search of our ignorance.” Indeed, had my clients’ advisers simply stated that they did not know, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble. And so here is my advice for asylum seekers: Be careful when taking advice from friends or community members who “know how things work.” The law can be complicated and it sometimes changes. Just because your friend got asylum does not make him an expert–no two cases are the same, and what worked for one person might result in disaster for another. It feels uncomfortable and self serving for me to tell people to hire a lawyer, but time and time again, I see people whose cases (and lives) have been screwed up by bad advice. So find a reputable attorney and pay for some decent advice. In the long run, it may save you a lot of money and a lot of heartache.

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