What kind of work goes into an asylum case?
Molly: As pro bono attorneys, we started by receiving a case packet from Human Rights First. We then met with our clients to learn about their experiences, usually with the assistance of an interpreter. We also communicated with witnesses to prepare affidavits in support of the application, drafted our client’s declaration, gathered documentary evidence and country reports, spoke with experts to understand the political environment of the countries from which our clients had fled, and drafted a legal brief for the court. In one case, the torture our client suffered resulted in scarring that became powerful evidence; so we also worked with a doctor, Dr. Dan Winetsky, a volunteer member of the Asylum Network with Physicians for Human Rights, who generously volunteered his time to provide a physical and mental evaluation that we submitted to the court. Finally, we represented our clients in front of the immigration judge at both the master calendar hearing and the individual merits hearing. At the individual hearing, we delivered opening and closing statements and did a direct and re-direct examination. We also had the opportunity to call for telephonic testimony of experts or other witnesses. Overall the process allows for a great amount of client interaction and courtroom presentation.
What type of support did Human Rights First offer to you during the case?
Molly: Human Rights First vets the cases and the clients, and then send that information on to the law firms. They provide the background information on the client, country, and judge that the case is in front of. They look for interpreters and make some of the strategy decisions on how to present the case and provide us with assistance on that. They offer training on representing asylum seekers, which we attended, and they are available throughout that case to support the attorneys.
Noah: Human Rights First also helped to gather a lot of the documents that we needed initially to establish the client’s identity, which is a big part of what can make these cases very difficult. They are able to collect and provide us with a lot of the documents that are helpful to proving the merits of the case.
Molly: If we needed support, we had a point person, who is also an attorney, who was in direct contact with us. We would reach out to her with any legal or preparation questions, especially questions involving the judge or particular strategy decisions. She was very responsive and very helpful to our preparation and success in the cases, especially when we took the first case.
What advice do you have for attorneys considering pro bono involvement?
Noah: Asylum work is some of the most important pro bono work you can do. If you are trying to get more pro bono hours, certainly consider asylum work. Research shows that asylum seekers represented by counsel are up to three times more likely to be granted asylum than pro se applicants. There is no right to appointed counsel in immigration court like in certain other areas. So the terrible reality is that many bona fide refugees are returned to dangerous places because they don’t have a lawyer to navigate them through the complexities of their case. Asylum seekers are some of the most deserving of pro bono assistance, they are such a vulnerable population. Especially for young litigation associates, there is so much you can learn that will help you become a better attorney: fact gathering, learning new law, and learning about new areas of the world. You are also learning some specific skills that are going to help in every type of case: you are learning from and working with experts, drafting the briefs, and basically representing someone at a mini trial, so you are doing openings, closings, and directs/crosses. I can’t think of a better way for litigation associates to spend their time than through doing this type of pro bono work.
Angela: I’m in the investment management group, so for people like me, in more of a corporate practice, it’s a great opportunity to broaden your legal skills. Without taking these cases pro bono, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to do opening statement and closing or do any trial work. I was able to really branch out in my legal skills, not to mention how extremely fulfilling it was to help someone who was really in need.
Molly: I would add that you should find an area that you are passionate about. Some of these cases take a lot of time and may take hours out of the day, but if you feel passionate about it, it’s very easy to find the time to do this important work. We are very lucky that we are at a firm that’s so supportive. I would recommend that you try to make connections with those areas you are interested in and convince those at your firm that you would like to take those cases.
Noah: This work is also extremely collaborative. There are so many people that you need to work with. We couldn’t have been successful without all of the others who helped with the case: interpreters, volunteers that collaborated, specifically Dr. Robert J. Barnett of Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University who volunteered time to help as an expert on the case. There are so many people that go into a representation like this: Human Rights First, attorneys and social workers, it’s not just administrative. It’s great to see people that have a different knowledge base come together and collaborate on a case and have such a successful outcome and we really encourage other attorneys to go out and do pro bono work.
Congratulations to the attorneys from Seward & Kissel, LLP for your successful pro bono representation and many thanks for your hard work and encouraging words for others who are interested in pro bono work. In 2016, Czarny, Kammien, and Urbano each received Human Rights First’s Pro Bono Star award, given annually to attorneys who demonstrate extraordinary commitment to clients seeking immigration protection. They received the honor in connection with their work in securing asylum for their Eritrean client pro bono in 2016.
About Seward & Kissel LLP
Seward & Kissel LLP is a leading U.S. law firm with an international reputation for excellence, which primarily handles corporate and litigation work for clients seeking legal expertise in the financial services, corporate finance, and capital markets areas. The firm’s Pro Bono Initiative empowers attorneys to give back to their community by providing needed advice and counsel to those who would otherwise lack representation. Attorneys work with individuals and organizations on a broad spectrum of matters, including immigration, civil rights, domestic violence, urban poverty, and employment discrimination.