Easy Ideas for a Better Immigration Law Practice (maybe…)
Law is a very time consuming profession, especially for Immigration Lawyers. The simplest legal task takes hours. Most law practice is broken into two areas: the administrative work (billing, rent, parking, staff, etc); and legal work. The legal work is unpredictable because every client and every case is different. A lawyer must be flexible and allow lots of time for it. But the administrative work is predictable and repetitious and should be done quickly and mechanically, almost without thinking.
Oddly, many lawyers get this backward. Every time they figure their fee hours, or pay a bill, it's a new adventure. And when legal work is before them, perhaps a brief or a memo requiring an ultra-precise issue statement and careful organization; they copy an old, tired boilerplate sample and change the names and dates.
Some of this is due to incompetence, but some is due to not keeping the mechanical aspects of law practice as straightforward and mindless as possible. It's similar to the decision making process. Decisions that are easy and cheap to change should be made quickly - mindlessly. Decisions having vast financial and career implications should be made slowly and very carefully. Plenty of lawyers mix this up too: a critical appellate brief gets neglected while they endlessly decide between a white or red cell-phone case. (An old friend of mine would take an hour to decide what to wear to go jogging, but decided whom to marry in about five minutes. It didn't end well.).
I try to be a rigorous time manager; but I still waste a lot of time. We all do. As attorneys we all too often needlessly scramble around like jackrabbits. Here are some ideas I've found helpful on keeping the mechanical tasks mechanical to free up time for the time consuming legal work. Remember these are just my ideas. They work for me. If they don't work for you, discard them. I'm only an expert in my own opinion.
You can waste a lot of time just trying to find something in a folder. You should be able to find anything in about 30 seconds.
If you work in a larger firm, or have monstrous files, try a file record: a form that you can punch into the file (it stays on top), or staple to the inside flap. Every piece of paper that goes into the file gets logged into the record, in order, by date. A space to the right indicates if a document has been taken out, and by whom. You can make up your own form, vertical or horizontal, with a word processing program in a few minutes. Column headings could be: "date"; "document"; "removed by", "date"; "replaced by"; "date".
If you're a solo practitioner, or have smaller files, you can design a file system to save time. I use heavy, off-white manila folders with two prong fasteners inside. Objective client documents go on the right, my personal correspondence to the client or on the client's behalf, goes on the left. As long as either side stays below about 2 centimeters (3/4 inch) I can usually find anything quickly.
I write the client name and "A" number on the tab at the edge of the file. Then I can easily indicate to an EOIR clerk or deportation officer in a crowded lobby who my client is. Nothing is more uncomfortable than having to awkwardly fumble through the briefcase for the file, then shuffle through the file to find the number with other people waiting behind you.
Keeping track of hours can be a hassle. I write the hours spent on the case, lightly, in pencil, on the outside of the client file in ten-minute increments. Even with a lot of hours, you can make about three or four columns if you write neatly. Like this:
7:20 - 7:50
9:10 - 9:50 __________
When you get to the bottom of a column, total the hours.
Because this is so quick and easy, you'll always log the hours. I later transfer the hours to the invoices. If I'm working for a flat fee, I use the hour-records to show the client how long the case is taking if he thinks I'm charging too much (I know that never happens to you). If your firm uses a computer program to track hours, it's easy to type the numbers in at day's end.
If you can't write on the file cover, keep a sheet of index-weight (card stock) 8-1/2 x 11 inch paper loose in the file, and write the hours on it. Keep it loose, not punched in, so it's always easy to grab and write on. Better yet it'll fall into your lap.
Simpler is almost always better. Technology can waste a lot of our time. Writing your hours like this is faster than taking your iPhone out of your pocket. Calendar File
I don't like keeping an electronic calendar. Too many things can go wrong, and even if everything is backed up, it's complicated and time consuming to recover it. Yes, I'm a bit of a dinosaur…
I print out 90 and 30 day calendar pages from a website, enough for the coming year. I punch them at the top and put them in the same type folder I use for clients (or just use a plain file and staple the pages in). The 90-day calendar goes on the left side, the 30-day on the right, January on top. With one glance I can see what's scheduled for the next three months, and the specific appointments for the next month. If you write in a personal shorthand format, you'll easily have enough space.
The calendar folder is thin and compact. It takes up no room. I keep it in an outside briefcase flap. Then, even on a rush hour subway, I can easily pull it out and write or check something. When a page is finished, I take it out and file it in another folder in my filing cabinet, labeled "Calendar pages, 2012."
If you need more space to write daily notes, or prefer a week-at-a-glance format, or need the next year (good for scheduling non-detained merits hearings), supplement the calendar folder with another book. Is this counterproductive? - no. The folder system is good for about 90% of my needs and takes up no room. It adds no bulk even if I supplement it.
Another idea: I write all of my current client's names or initials, lightly and in pencil, on the calendar file cover. Below the name is a note referencing where their case stands. Write small. Example:
Waiting - BIA brf sch __________
Letter - USCIS __________
Hearing 3/26, Def Asy __________
With each development in the client's case, erase and update your jottings. It takes seconds. Then with one glimpse you can either set your mind at ease or realize you need do something. And it's always in front of you, so it's harder to forget the tiny little details that can nag us all the time. Did you ever jolt yourself awake at two am wondering if you'd checked something with an EOIR clerk, or filed a fee waiver? This eliminates that.
Contracts are time consuming to draft, double check, and get the client to sign. Many times, especially in removal work, you don't need one. If you have a relatively simple case, let's say two initial appearances with a merits hearing then scheduled many months in the future, you can create the contract in a letter: 1) thank the client for hiring you; 2) outline the legal problem in simple plain English; 3) describe your approach to it; 4) state the fee schedule, then 5) pleasantly end the letter.
Before the merits hearing, when the real grinding begins, you can draft a proper contract if you wish, spelling out in detail what's to be done and what the additional fees are. But very often even this isn't necessary. Why?
First of all, the letter is legally binding if the client doesn't object to it "within a reasonable amount of time." For attorney services, that's about two weeks to a month. Your client doesn't need to sign it. Send it registered mail, and print the proof of receipt from the USPS website. That's plenty of proof for a collection action.
Also, and many lawyers overlook this, you can create the most bulletproof contract possible, where you outline every legal scenario imaginable, and have the client sign it in blood. But if the client doesn't earnestly trust you, you still won't get paid. At the very least you won't get paid without a fight. Yes, even with untrained alien clients, even when you're the all-knowing, all-seeing immigration law authority; if the client doesn't trust you, he won't willingly pay you, no matter how impressive your contract.
And another thing: with an overly affected contract (or a simple letter), you may win a judgment in court. That's the easy part. The difficult part is collecting. Do you think civil judges have time to ride herd on your former client so you can collect your fee? No. Sadly, most judgments never get collected unless you're willing to spend twenty dollars to get back ten. So a contract doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.
Of course, very involved work for significantly large fees requires a very detailed contract. H-1b petitions, employment-based petitions, even some family work, and other types of involved cases require formal contracts. But very often you don't need it. Better to concern yourself primarily with first building client trust, and then fees usually won't be a problem. Usually…
One more thing: brandishing a voluminous contract, full of legal terminology and conditions, at the outset of a representation tends to make a client uneasy. She's probably already living in dread of the US government - do you want her to be in dread of you too?
A daybook is a very old fashioned idea, and a very good one. It isn't a diary or a journal, although it can cross over into those areas. A daybook is a place to take notes; notes of everything you do while you're working. Keep it by your elbow at your desk, at meetings, in the law library, even in court.
Here's just a few reasons why you should keep a daybook: if you've ever written down a phone number or potential client's information on a scrap of paper and then lost it; if you've ever read a revealing case, and one week later couldn't remember the exact holding; or if you've ever taken notes for an upcoming court appearance and then lost the notes. And many more examples abound… correct?
During your daily study, review, interaction on list serves, etc; make quick notes about anything significant. Write down any phone calls that come in, and any conversations you have. Later a quick glance will refresh your memory. Why do this? What if you tell a client something, and they later deny it? - you have the record. If you're a law professor, write down what happens during office hours. If students try to deny being told about an assignment, a meeting, a make-up schedule - you have the notes. Yes, it's better for lawyers to confirm by e-mail or letter, but you might have hundreds of phone calls and conversations in one day; you can't confirm every one. But you can always take a few seconds to make a note.
If you're contemplating something, like how to proceed with a case, write it down. Here's an example of how I do it:
Client X - how to proceed, criminal charge a problem
Get the idea?
If you're making pages of handwritten note specific to a case, you can write them in the daybook, then copy and punch the daybook pages into the client file. Or you can write the notes on another pad and put that in the file, but make sure you make a daybook notation that you took the notes. Otherwise you might do it twice. Use the daybook in staff meetings too. If you're a teacher, use it to take notes in faculty meetings.
Lawyers have too many facts and details in our heads all the time that we can easily forget. But when keeping a daybook becomes a habit, much stress is eliminated. How many times have you ever asked yourself, "Did I remember to file that motion? … brief my associate? …call DHS counsel? … double check the briefing schedule? Have you ever been jolted awake at 2 am wondering these things? Of course you have. With the daybook, all the daily information is controlled. You have the options. If you try to remember it, or keep track of scraps of paper you risk missing something vitally important (which is what all the other lawyers do because all the other lawyers don't keep a daybook either).
I use inexpensive 50-sheet legal pads from a discount store. The date goes atop each page for that day. When a pad is filled up, I write the start and end dates on the first page and file the pad. When you need to check something, it's quick and easy.
You can also use a wire bound notebook, or anything else you like. I prefer the legal pads because they're cheap, lightweight, easy to store, and easy to take anywhere. Bring the daybook home with you at night. You'll have it if a client or another attorney calls. Yes, you can use an iPad or MacBook Air, just make sure you back up the files! Print the monthly entries and file them.
Start keeping a daybook. It simplifies your life and eases your mind.
Anthony Guidice practices Immigration Law in Rochester, NY. He can be reached at 585/478-0555 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Anthony Guidicepractices Immigration Law in Rochester, New York.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.