Friday, August 2, 2013

How To Sleep At Night if You're an Attorney

I've been an attorney now for 6 years. The first couple of years were pretty rough, and I gather that's par for the course. But I have gradually learned that the key to minimizing the stress of my job lies in recognizing and operating within the parameters of my role. I imagine this is true for many professionals, but I can speak only from my own experiences. My role, as I view it, is twofold: I am a counselor and an advocate.

As a counselor, my only job is to advise my clients. Advising clients is nothing more than researching all of the possible options available to the client and telling him what consequences could flow from following each course of action. Sometimes there are only a couple of options and the results are pretty straightforward, but other times the possibilities branch out in all directions. The most important thing to keep in mind in advising clients is that the decision as to which course of action to follow always belongs to the client. It is never my choice. I provide information and convey the level of risk involved. That is all. Some clients ask me what I would do if I were in their shoes, and with some disclaimer as to the fact that I am not, in fact, able to stand entirely in their shoes, I have no problem stating what I would do and explaining why I would do it. This is sometimes helpful to the client. But unlike George Bush, I am not the Decider. Recognizing that fact takes an enormous burden off of my shoulders. As long as I have provided the client with accurate information, I have done my job. Whatever consequences flow from the client's choices are the client's to bear.

I should note that the only course of action I will not follow on behalf of a client is anything that is illegal. I will advise those clients who propose such courses of action as to all of the penalties that can flow from that action, but if, after hearing those penalties, they still wish to engage in illegal behavior, I tell them that I cannot represent them. Engaging in illegal behavior, like making decisions for the client, is something outside the scope of my role and I just won't do it.

As an advocate, I represent my client in whatever course of action he or she has chosen, before the government. In my practice, I do not do so in a court of law, but to administrative agencies within the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security. For the most part, my cases are presented in writing with no in-person appearance. However, I do represent people in person before Customs at the border. I credit that representation with my ability to understand how adjudicators think, and it has deeply informed the way that I prepare cases that I mail in as well. Not only will I not submit a case that offends logic, I also won't present anything that won't pass the sniff test of a seasoned government official.

Often the cases I present are so clearly approvable that there is virtually no chance of denial. Other times, there is a great deal of discretion involved on the part of the adjudicating officer. And I do have clients who choose to present cases that I have advised them may be approved but are unlikely to be approved. Those cases are actually a little bit stressful for me, and that is because it is a judgment call on my part as to whether I want to take a case like that. If there is a very low chance of approval, I often just turn the case down because it's not worth having to deal with the client, who will be very high maintenance and won't want to pay his bill. But sometimes there are cases which I believe really should be approved under the law and yet probably won't be because of current government attitudes or adjudication trends. I think those cases are worth fighting for, if the client is aware of the risk involved and chooses to pursue the case anyway. I like to push the boundaries of current government opinion when it is wrong.

My role as an advocate, then, is somewhat less clearly defined, and situational, than my role as an advisor. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that once I have chosen to represent a client and the client has chosen a course of action, my job is to advocate zealously for that course of action. I push to the side all of the what-ifs and possible pitfalls associated with the strategy and put together a solid case. I try to present each one as if it is unimpeachably logical. But once I present it, I have done everything I can and the final decision rests with the government. If a case is denied, I can choose to appeal it. But once I hand that case over, it is again out of my hands and I really don't think about it until I get a decision.

There are limits to what any of us can do. It is sometimes tempting to over-estimate the power that you have over others, but it is an illusion to think that we truly have control over what anyone else chooses. And ultimately, if someone gives you that kind of control, it's a mistake on their part that will harm you both. Everyone makes their own choices. The best we can do is to inform people's decision making process. Recognizing the limitations of our roles is a way of letting go of things that were never in our control to begin with. I love my clients but I don't carry their problems home with me at the end of the day, and I don't pin my happiness to things I can't control. I am happy when I have advised and advocated well.

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