By Nicole Pasho, J.D. Class of 2023
Any immigration lawyer needs to understand the Immigration and Nationality Act, relevant policy memoranda, and case law in the lawyer’s jurisdiction to be successful. But even more important to a lawyer’s practice is a skill that has nothing to do with legal authorities: client counseling.
Client counseling skills are rarely, if ever, directly taught by law schools, though they are highly consequential to the client’s case outcome.1 Building a rapport with the client is crucial for obtaining information about the case and productively counseling the client.2 A lawyer needs to connect with the client to have any chance at meaningful representation.3
Starting with the very first meeting, the client should be able to trust his attorney’s advice and decision-making, and believe that it is all in his best interests. When asked questions about his situation, the client should not feel that he is undergoing an interrogation or cross-examination by his own attorney as the attorney slowly pieces together his story. This is especially important in the immigration law context, as clients come to attorneys with sensitive personal information, and often a certain distrust for authority.4 And if the attorney hasn’t established a trusting relationship with her client—one in which the client trusts that she is asking questions for a necessary, and ultimately beneficial, purpose—then the client may not feel comfortable telling the attorney the truth.
What are the best ways I have learned to establish trust and a rapport with a client? I start by focusing on the five basic skills below.
Listen. It sounds simple, but active listening is the first step to establishing trust with a client. As an advocate, the attorney is the one person—if no one else—who should hear the client’s story and validate them. Listening is not just about finding the key facts that will have legal implications for the client’s case, but acknowledging the client’s past and present feelings about those events. I have learned that it is important to ask questions to gather information, but I should be careful with how and when I ask those questions. Finally, it is important to not make assumptions about the client based on stereotypes—allow the client to tell their own story.5
Be trauma informed. The client will likely have faced unimaginable difficulties in their journey to the United States. Therefore, client interviews frequently involve discussing sensitive and emotional subjects. I have learned that it is important to acknowledge this, and to express empathy and compassion for the client’s situation. I recognize that the trauma may cause the client to forget details, and I do what I can to help revive the client’s memory without sounding accusatory. By designing trauma-informed interviews, the client may begin to trust me with their sensitive information.
Use plain language. I have found it important to communicate with clients using language that they will understand. Legal jargon creates unnecessary barriers between the client and the advocate. I have discovered that the importance of using plain language is heightened when dealing with clients in the immigration context, which often involves language barriers. Even with an interpreter, cultural barriers may cause communication problems and prevent information from being received the way I intended. I have learned the importance of being intentional in my communications.
Recognize that the client is the expert in her own life. I have learned to keep in mind that the client is often in the best position for fact-gathering for her case. She will know what information she has available, or who to contact from her home country for information from back home. As an advocate, I rely on my clients to access information that I would not be able to get on my own. This underscores that the trusting relationship between attorney and client goes both ways—the client needs to trust the attorney to provide essential legal advice, and the attorney needs to trust that the client knows her own story, and where to best find certain information.
Establish client goals. Allow the client to take the lead in determining the priorities for her legal case. I have found it important to realize that factors specific to the client’s situation will influence the client’s immigration choices. I have learned that the client will ultimately make decisions based on her particular life circumstances. The client’s choices may go against my advice as her advocate, but it may make the most sense for her personal situation. Once the client has made her decision, I aim for her to feel that I am on her side in pursuing her chosen goals.
Applying the skills outlined above will positively transform the attorney-client relationship. These skills need to be applied consistently to create a trusting relationship. Once that happens, I have found that the representation becomes more effective, and I am better able to advocate for and serve my clients.
 Jean R. Sternlight & Jennifer Robbennolt, Good Lawyers Should Be Good Psychologists: Insights for Interviewing and Counseling Clients, 23 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol. 437, 437-40 (2008).
 Id. at 442.
 See Kristin B. Gerdy, The Heart of Lawyering: Clients, Empathy, and Compassion, 3 Rel. Convict. 189, 189-90 (2013).
 For example, see the Immigration Clinic’s blog posts on notario fraud: https://wmimmigrationclinicblog.com/2021/08/30/learning-about-notario-fraud-as-a-naturalized-citizen/; https://wmimmigrationclinicblog.com/2021/01/22/prevent-notario-fraud-in-our-community/.
 Sternlight & Robbennolt, supra note 1, at 457-61.