It’s hard to believe that I am marking my 10-year anniversary as an owner of my own law firm. It seems like so much longer.
During those years, I have represented over 750 clients, most of whom were asylum seekers. I’ve also had five offices, six partners, two employees, a few contract attorneys, and a whole heap of interns. In short, it’s been an incredible, challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, funny, and bizarre 10 years. In commemoration of this grand occasion, I thought I would list some of the more memorable moments of my career as a small-firm lawyer. So without further ado, here we are:
- Starting Out: Before starting my firm, I had to pay back my student loans. Once that was accomplished, I moved to Nicaragua, tried to learn Spanish, and then returned and rented an office below a restaurant in DuPont Circle, DC (at $375/month). I decided to use my old computer, as I didn’t have a lot of cash for a new one. Unfortunately, I had been away for a while and my anti-virus program expired. So as soon as I connected to the internet, my computer got a virus that wiped the entire system. It took over a month to get the computer up and running. An auspicious start it was.
- Rats and Flies: Since the office was under a restaurant, you can imagine there were some issues. I shared the office with a friend and fellow asylum lawyer. Once, while he was talking to a client, a rat kept running around the office. I did my best to distract the client and herd the rat out the door. The client was too polite to say anything, but I don’t think she ever came back. We also had numerous infestations of Amityville-Horror-style flies, and one time, part of the ceiling collapsed spilling some strange brown liquid onto our printer.
- My First “Real” Asylum Case: I had done bits and pieces of a few asylum cases before, but I got my first real case in 2004. It was an Ethiopian guy who entered the U.S. illegally at the Mexican border. Two attorneys had already passed on the case because they didn’t like it, so he was stuck with me. Somehow, he ended up receiving asylum, and that win led to one referral and then another. In the last 10 years, I’ve probably represented close to 200 Ethiopians seeking asylum.
- Afghan Cases: By 2006 or 2007, I had done a few Afghan cases, but it was a very small (albeit very interesting) part of my business. Then a potential client came in who had been a well-known TV star in Afghanistan. He couldn’t afford to pay my fee, and so he didn’t hire me. I thought about it for a few days and decided that I wanted to do his case–it was too interesting to pass up. So I called him and said he could pay whatever he could afford. We won the case, and that led to many more Afghan clients. They now represent the majority of my asylum clients.
- Removed from Court in a Stretcher: If you practice immigration law, you know that Immigration Courts are slow. They make geologic time seem speedy. One of my clients from Morocco was particularly eager to receive her green card so she could visit her family back home. But when she heard her court date–something like two years later–she collapsed and could not be revived (even by a DHS attorney who was a former EMT). The end result, she was removed from court on a stretcher. Happily, she was fine, and the next week, we received a notice that her case had been rescheduled for the following month. I have not advised other clients to collapse when they hear their court dates, but I have been tempted…
- My First Lozada Case: Immigration cases that have been denied due to ineffective assistance of counsel can be reopened under Matter of Lozada. Such cases generally requires a bar complaint against the ineffective attorney. Most lawyers (me included) hate this requirement. But in cases of bad misconduct, there is something satisfying about filing a complaint. The first time I filed such a complaint was against an attorney who was incompetent and dishonest. We proved using the lawyer’s own documentation that she had lied to her (now my) client and to the Immigration Court. The Virginia Bar found that she had violated the rules of professional conduct, but declined to punish her because there were “exceptional circumstances.” What were these circumstances? Turns out, she had already been suspended for three years for messing up two other people’s cases (and lives), so the Bar Association felt there was no need to punish her in my case. As I said to the Immigration Judge in our (successful) motion to reopen, the offending lawyer was saved by her own incompetence.
- The Pain of Exile: I represented an Ethiopian asylee who was in removal proceeding after committing a crime. We filed for a 209(c) waiver, which would allow him to remain in the U.S. One witness, his uncle, was a famous singer who had lived in exile since the mid-1970s. Many of his songs were about Ethiopia. We were trying to show that it was unsafe for the nephew (my client) to return to Ethiopia. I asked the uncle, what he thought of his country. “I love my country.” “Would you like to go back,” I asked. “If it was safe, I would go back tomorrow.” Somehow it struck me as profoundly sad that this man had not been back to Ethiopia in 30+ years, but he still loved and missed his country, and kept writing songs about his homeland. The nephew’s case was approved, in part on the strength of this testimony. And as far as I know, the uncle has not yet returned to Ethiopia.
- The Client Who Paid Me $1 Million: OK, this one didn’t happen yet, but here’s hoping.
- The Clients: There are too many to mention. A few I can remember are journalists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Human rights activists from Russia, DR Cong, Zimbabwe, and Iran. Police officers from Peru and Nepal. A Rwandan woman who saw her family murdered during the genocide. Interpreters for the U.S. military from Iraq and Afghanistan. A Russian politician who was stripped of his citizenship. LGBT people from Serbia, Egypt, Kenya, and especially Sudan (you know who you are). Women’s rights advocates from Afghanistan. Diplomats from Ethiopia, Iran, and Ukraine. People persecuted due to their religion from China, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, and Eritrea. Victims of gang and cartel violence in Central America. And on and on.
Finally, I should also take a moment to thank the people who have helped make this all possible: My staff, who does all the work while I sit around making witty remarks and eating bon bons, and my family, who tolerates long hours, mediocre pay, and occasional rants about the Man. Thank you.