The Perks of Knowing Nothing

When it comes to my personal contribution to the immigration department at the law firm I’m working at this summer, I tend to frame my contributions as “what I could take off their hands.” This was because I didn’t believe there was anything I could do that they couldn’t also do, and better—after all, they’ve been doing this for a lot longer than me, and I haven’t even been to law school. I have close to zero formal law education, so I really wasn’t expecting to be able to do provide anything that the lawyers couldn’t already do better than me.

I was very lucky to get an opportunity that would prove that thinking to be wrong. It came in the form of a consulting case, not a case that the law firm was technically working on. My boss, an expert in immigration law, often advises the Maryland public defenders office and other criminal lawyers about the intersection between criminal law and immigration law (aptly termed, “crimmigration”). In this case, my boss was asked by the public defenders office to write essentially a first draft of a motion to the court for an appeal, on behalf of an immigrant that had been ruled removed by an immigration judge already.

The process for me started not with the case, but with background reading. My boss asked me to compile a list of rights that a respondent (immigrant) has in immigration proceedings. This assignment took me a little under a week. It required reading Supreme Court cases, Ninth and Fourth Circuit cases, and Board of Immigration Appeals cases—and any other cases that seemed relevant. I also was given a 1000+ page book of title 8 of the code of federal regulations to back up the case law with statutes.

When I had finally finished making the list, I went back to my boss’s office to present it to him. He barely glanced at it before he handed me the public defenders case file: a binder with more than 400 pages of case material inside. He said great, now look through the case here and listen to the recording, and tell me if you think there are any violations of the immigrant’s rights that could be grounds for appeal which I haven’t yet found.

I headed back to my desk with the new assignment and a list of violations my boss had already flagged. I was pretty proud of my deep dive into case law on the previous assignment, and it had taught me so much more about immigration law throughout the process. But this is where my aforementioned mentality came in—how could I, an undergraduate student who’d been working in immigration law for a month at most, find any violations that my boss, an expert in the field, had missed?

As it turns out, I can contribute something new to the immigration department. All the cases I had read were still pretty fresh in my head. My boss had already flagged all the obvious violations, and a few of the more nuanced ones. But as I was listening to the recording of the original case, there was a section that struck me as wrong, although at the start I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I started going through my notes from the list of rights of the respondent, and tracing back my steps for finding precedential case law for each right. I found a case in the 9th circuit, Jacinto v. INS, which ruled that an immigrant must be able to give full and affirmative testimony on their own behalf. I wrote up an argument for why the respondent in the public defenders case didn’t have that right and backed up the facts with the case law I had researched. I presented it to my boss, and my argument made it into the memorandum for the public defender’s office largely unchanged.

While the majority of my job could be done better, and faster, by a more experienced paralegal or an attorney, I have learned that I can provide personal contributions to my boss and the immigration department. My lack of experience and lack of education in this case actually gave me a unique perspective, because I had to do so much of my own research to be able to contribute to this case at all. My hard work making a list of rights for the respondent—something my boss wouldn’t have had to do because he knew so many of the rights off the top of his head—paid off, because I found a somewhat obscure right buried in a ninth circuit case that turned out to be helpful and relevant to the public defenders case. My fresh perspective and commitment to doing as much research as I could to learn led to a great opportunity to show that I can provide unique personal contributions to the law firm.

2 thoughts on “The Perks of Knowing Nothing

  • July 11, 2019 at 10:53 am
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    Wow, how exciting! This is really significant and you should be really proud. I completely understand why, going into the experience, you thought your contributions might be limited. But I ALWAYS think fresh eyes and new perspectives, even if they are less well automatically versed in the topic at hand, can make significant contributions. Sometimes when you’re in it all the time, you get down in the weeds and don’t find the obscure irregularities, etc. Would you mind if I shared this with my colleague who does communications and social media for Jepson? She wants to highlight some interns and I think a snapshot from this reflection would be great.

    • July 21, 2019 at 9:49 pm
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      Thank you! I was so happy to have been able to contribute to that case, and I’m pleased to be able to share my contributions with the Jepson community. Of course you can share this with your colleague, thank you so much for reaching out to me!

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