Tag Archive for 'legal'

Notario Fraud: Common Immigration Issue

So-called “notarios” have lately earned an infamous place in the public spotlight.

“Notario” is a term used in Latin American to denote a legal official. The term also sounds similar to English word “notary,” who likewise is NOT a lawyer, but can certify documents, take depositions, and do some other quasi-legal work.

Neither Spanish “notario” nor the English “notary” denotes an attorney. However, recently arrived immigrants tend to confuse both for lawyers, legal advisers, or attorneys specializing in immigration. Confusion is exacerbated by what essentially amounts to immigration fraud by crooks, who advertise as “notarios,” or notaries who misrepresent themselves as having all the powers of an attorney. This situation is commonly known as notario fraud.

notario fraud Immigration Law

A newly arrived immigrant relying on help from a “notario” sets himself up for big trouble: loss of savings, denial of immigration status, and deportation. Unfortunately, before becoming fully established in the US, a newly arrived immigrant oftentimes becomes an easy and defenseless prey to unscrupulous con artists.

A legal professional may be engaging in notario fraud if he or she:

  • Charges unusually high fees for standard immigration paperwork.
  • Claims to have s special relationship with authorities.
  • Selling an otherwise free documents, such as immigration forms available online.
  • Filing asylum applications while your case does not qualify for asylum.
  • Guaranteeing receipt of permanent resident or citizenship status.
  • Working from a shady business on “referral only” basis.

Before going to a notario, think twice. Even better, do not even consider substituting a notarios’ services for advice from a qualified immigration attorney.

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Waking to the Realties of the DREAM Act

I was volunteering at a non-profit legal office in San Francisco when I heard chanting outside my window. The chanting was quite loud, so I poked my head out the window to see what the noise was about. The office was on the twelfth floor, so I could not see the people very well. I did see lots of orange and red though, and I could make out a few signs. The rally in San Francisco, like rallies in other cities across the country that day, was about immigration reform.

Congress has debated for the past four year a bill first introduced in 2001: the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. The bill has not passed Congress, although states like California have passed their own version. President Obama, impatient with the democratic process, announced in 2012 pass the dream act nowthat his administration would be stopping deportations as though the DREAM act were already law. The President’s program is called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program.

Ignoring the oddity of a President enforcing a law which doesn’t even exist yet, the 2009 version of the DREAM Act would allow illegal aliens to remain in the country if they meet the following criteria: 1) proof of arrival in the country before sixteen years of age, 2) proof of residency for the last five years, 3) criminal background checks and proof of registration with the Selective Service, 4) be between the ages of twelve and thirty-five, 5) graduated from an American high school, hold a GED, or be admitted into a state university, 6) and have good moral character, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security.

The goal of the law is admirable, although there are a couple of issues which must be addressed if our immigration laws are to make any sense. First, children between twelve and seventeen need a legal guardian. Unless the parents are legal citizens, the federal government would either have to permit the parents to remain as well, or deport the parents. Neither solution is acceptable: the intent of the bill is that it is for minors only, but it seems cruel to take a child’s parents away and to leave the children in a foreign land.

DREAM Act proponents claim that allowing illegal immigrants who are minors to stay in the country will benefit the American economy. Legal immigrants have to pay taxes, so allowing these minors to stay legally would add billions to government coffers, in addition to the billons of taxes that illegal immigrants already pay into the system.

An unexpected population spike adds problems other than taxes though. The drug cartel members are in the same age range that the DREAM Act seeks to help. The college bound minors that the bill purports to help, if allowed to stay, would not be working on farms. They would be going to American colleges and competing with American middle class students for jobs. Given that middle class students loaded with debt are already having a hard time finding work, adding a few thousand young people to the labor market all at once seems like a recipe for more social unrest.

Second, and the reason the bill has been in hiatus for so long, is that there are number of states opposing allowing illegal immigrants to stay. Arizona and Nebraska, for example, refuse to give illegal aliens drivers’ licenses despite the lawsuits the Department of Justice has thrown at them.  The perception is that the waves of immigrants are a foreign invasion who bring crime and are unwilling to conform to American culture.

Although the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) should be spending more time arresting drug dealers than parents, it is hard for me to feel too much sympathy. I come from a family of immigrants, so I understand that the United States is a nation of immigrants. My grandparents spent hundreds of dollars in the 1970s so that my mother could come to the U.S. It took almost three decades for my mother to sponsor my aunts and uncles so that they could legally reside in the United States as well.

Obviously our immigration system is flawed, to say the least, but is important to understand that the reason legal immigrants oppose illegal immigrants with such vigor is not always racism, but from a sense of fairness. By avoiding the current immigration structure, legal immigrants perceive illegal immigrants as being unfairly favored by the federal government. These illegal immigrants are favored not because who they are or what they do, but because their country of national origin is physically close to the United States. Meanwhile, immigrants from Asia, Africa and Europe have to wait in line.

This may or may not be true, but feelings give rise to political outlooks. Illegal immigration does fuel class and ethnic tensions, although not in the way that illegal immigrants think it does. As illegal immigrants march down America’s major cities, they should stop and consider how other immigrants might perceive them.

Defending the Sandy Hook Personal Injury Lawyer

One of the (many) reasons the general public distrusts lawyers is that the public believes that lawyers take advantage of tragic situations in order to make the lawyers wealthier. For example, the 2012 December 14th mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was a big disaster for all the students and teachers involved. Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including his own mother, before committing suicide. When attorney Irving Pinsky wished to represent a six-year old girl at the shooting for a claim of $100 million, Pinsky began receiving numerous letters, faxes and phone calls regarding Pinsky’s moral character.  A few of the messages even contained death threats. I do not believe that attorneys like Pinsky, and the clients they represent, deserve the scorn that members of the public throw at them.

I think some of the bad reputation acquired by attorneys comes from the perception that lawyers are taking advantage of trauma victims. Unfortunately, some of this perception is unavoidable.  People only seek legal aid when an aspect of their life becomes awful. Couples seeking a divorce go to family lawyers, people accused of a crime find a criminal defense attorney, and employees who lose their positions seek out employment lawyers to determine if their terminations were legal. The nature of the legal profession means that lawyers will show up when clients have a problem somewhere in their life.

What I find puzzling though, is that attorneys are hated for this and other professions are not. Surgeons, for instance, are only needed when someone has a complication somewhere in their body. Surgeons are not despised for healing their patients, yet attorneys are hated for representing their clients.

Sandy Hook SchoolPerhaps the cause of loathing for attorneys is the perception that lawyers make money off their clients. This does not make sense to me though. Truth is, not all lawyers make a lot of money. But even if all lawyers were rich, I do not see why that should be a sin particular to the legal profession. Legal advocacy is a job like any other, and lawyers should not be despised for doing their jobs. Surgeons are paid to work for people who are suffering, but surgeons do not receive the contempt of the community. Given that many lawyers work cases pro bono, without payment, and other lawyers work on contingency, it is arguable that a person could obtain legal services easier and cheaper than a surgery.

If money is the issue though, perhaps a possible explanation is the amount of money which could be earned. In the Sandy Hook story, $100 million was demanded. That is a lot of money for a household where the child is lucky to be alive. A few factors should be remembered though. First, the amount of money asked for must be higher than what the client expects or wants because this is the ceiling of what the defendants might have to pay. Second, given that the law requires actual injury before a party can bring a lawsuit, a good chuck of the money awarded will go towards medical expenses like therapy. Third, as mentioned above, the lawyer might get a percentage of the award (the standard is one-third, but this is negotiable).  All these factors mean that $100 million is not the amount which will actually be given.

The final point of interest is that lawyers, by advocating for their clients, must assign blame to a particular party. The actual party responsible for the Sandy Hook shooting, Adam Lanza, cannot be brought to justice. Pinsky, the attorney, was attempting to lay the blame for Lanza’s actions on the school district instead. Pinsky argued that Lanza’s actions were foreseeable given that the school lacked a safety plan for students.

The school district found the charge offensive. First, few people could have predicted a twenty-year old man would massacre an elementary school. Second, many of the teachers killed had shielded the children as the children attempted to flee. One injured teacher had pressed a door shut with her body while Lanza shot through the door. Third, Lanza had shot his way through the school’s locked doors, rendering the school’s protections worthless.

Pinsky’s claim was an understandable one though, even if the shooting is emotionally charged. Pinsky’s claim was not that the teachers and staff were uncaring or cowards. Pinsky believed the school should be accountable for the shooting because the school lacked a real response plan, making student injury from many types of disasters foreseeable.

I don’t know if this was true, but given that one of the functions of the judicial system is to uncover the truth, the idea was worth investigating. Sadly, Pinsky has since withdrawn from the case, citing contradictory evidence. I hope other lawyers are not discouraged from representing those in need by the mere notion of unpopularity.  The most crucial role that an attorney can take is to speak for those who have no voice.

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Judges Replacing Lawyers with Machines for Some Tasks

Suppose a large company, as large companies are wont to do, gets itself involved in a lawsuit, either as a plaintiff or defendant. In the early stages of the lawsuit, a process known as “discovery” usually occurs, during which the parties exchange evidence that might be relevant to the case.

In many cases, this could involve combing through millions of documents in order to fish out the small percentage that might be relevant to the case at hand. This process is informally known as “doc review,” and is often carried out by dozens of lawyers working on contract with the firm that’s handling the case. Obviously, paying dozens of attorneys $30+ per hour for weeks, or even months, will get very expensive, very fast. So, for years, large corporations and law firms have been looking for ways to automate the process.

That is no simple task, however. Reading a document, parsing the meaning of its contents, and determining whether it’s relevant to the issues at hand, are tasks that machines have historically been terrible at, and have been considered the exclusive domain of human beings. That might be changing, however.

I’ve blogged before about how recent advances in artificial intelligence had the potential to significantly change how law is practiced. Super-powerful computers, combined with software systems like “Watson” (the computer that famously won Jeopardy last year), have become much better at processing natural human language, and parsing meaning from written content.

However, this change has happened faster than I might have predicted. A judge recently signed off on allowing a party to a large lawsuit (the owner of an airplane hangar whose roof collapsed from heavy snow, destroying over a dozen private jets) to conduct the first round of document review (which mostly involved combing through millions of company emails) with a computer program.

Some estimates place the cost of manual document review at over $1 per document. When tens of millions of documents might be involved, this gets very expensive, very quickly. Having a computer conduct the first few rounds of review could conceivably make the process faster, and much cheaper. And because the discovery process makes up the bulk of the expenses associated with large scale litigation, streamlining discovery could significantly cut the costs of litigation, having a trickle-down effect of reducing the costs of legal services for everyone.

However, when using machines to take over some of the tasks previously done by human lawyers, we have to be careful. After all, computers aren’t perfect. We’ve probably all seen computers do some pretty strange things that a human would never do, all because, at the end of the day, computers are still machines: they operate under pre-determined rules, applying them with rigid, unflinching logic, without the benefit of human intuition and adaptability. So, while this makes them very well-suited for any task that involves mathematics, but they’re still playing catch-up when it comes to things that are very easy for humans.

So, if we’re going to have computers doing substantive legal work (that is, actually analyzing legal issues, no matter how simple), we need to dip our toes in slowly. For example, if we let a computer conduct a large percentage of the document review in a particular case, without human oversight, there will be no way of knowing for sure that it didn’t miss any relevant documents, or let a significant number of irrelevant documents slip through.

Given what’s at stake in huge lawsuits (often tens or hundreds of millions of dollars), you want to be confident that the discovery process is handled well. For that reason, I think it’s essential for the legal system to ease into having computers, rather than people, do any type of substantive legal work.

There is no doubt that these technologies are impressive, and they have some incredibly useful applications in the legal industry, and many other sectors – particularly medicine. It’s been suggested that this technology could be used to assist doctors in diagnosing illnesses; they could simply enter a list of symptoms, and the computer could, in a matter of minutes, scour digital archives of every medical textbook and journal available, and suggest diagnoses that a human doctor might not have thought of. Furthermore, it’s possible that these systems could detect outbreaks of infectious diseases (by analyzing the data of large numbers of patients as they come in) before a human doctor would be able to.

And, putting aside the task of reviewing documents, these systems have other promising applications for lawyers and law firms. For example, their unprecedented ability to process natural language and parse meaning from documents would make computerized legal research much more efficient. This would likely not replace the jobs of many lawyers, but it could possibly let some law offices get by with fewer assistants and paralegals, which would cut their costs significantly.

So, while this technology shows promise, using it to replace the intuition and analytical abilities of a human being (in any industry, but in the legal sector in particular) should be approached cautiously and deliberately.

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Should Practical Skills Training Be Required for a Law License?

Anyone who’s gone to law school will tell you that the vast majority of graduates leave knowing next to nothing about the actual practice of law. Successful law grads may know how to “think like lawyers,” which is important, but when it comes down to the everyday, nuts-and-bolts aspects of practicing law, they’re clueless.

This has been known for decades – law firms that hire new graduates have resigned themselves to the fact that they have to train their new lawyers in virtually every aspect of practicing law. The larger firms have structured orientation and training programs for this purpose.

Apparently, the State Bar of California has taken notice of this fact, and is looking into taking steps to change the status quo. They have formed a task force to study the pros and cons of requiring law students or new law school graduates to complete some type of internship before they are allowed to take the bar exam and become licensed attorneys. The comments on the blog post I just linked to already show that the proposal is controversial, which is understandable.

The practice of law, and legal education, are steeped in tradition. Accordingly, they’re fairly resistant to change. Also, there’s some concern that such a requirement would lead to law schools turning down a large number of applicants based on the actual or perceived preferences of employers who would offer internships, perhaps leading to discrimination based on race, gender, or, as one commentator put it, “the number of piercings” an applicant has.

However, it’s hard to argue against the proposition that the current legal education model is antiquated and inefficient. And with competition for legal jobs being incredibly fierce in today’s economy, one could argue that the current model does a disservice to new law graduates. The fact is, many of them will not find employment as lawyers, whether it’s with a law firm, in-house at a corporation, or with the government. Many consider starting their own law practices as a backup option. But, if a new lawyer doesn’t know the first thing about the practice of law, starting a solo practice is a huge risk.

And the risk is not just financial (though that’s certainly a big part of it). If a young lawyer makes a few too many rookie mistakes, their reputation in the legal community can be ruined before their career even gets off the ground. This also puts clients (i.e., the general public) at risk. Having incompetent legal representation can be ruinous for the unfortunate client – possibly costing them huge amounts of money, or even their freedom.

On balance, I think that this is a good idea in principle, even if implementing it would raise some practical issues. But once these issues are worked out, such a system would produce a more efficient and competent legal profession, and probably improve overall job satisfaction of lawyers (which most surveys suggest is extremely low, on average).

The legal profession would be more competent, for obvious reasons – law school would actually teach its graduates some of the basic skills necessary to practice law. The profession would become more efficient because employers won’t have to spend nearly as much time training new hires – allowing new attorneys to immediately get to work on client matters. This, in turn, means that law firms won’t have to spend as much money training their new associates, and some of those savings will be passed on to clients.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the internship requirement, especially if it has to be completed early in one’s legal education (the summer after the first year of law school, for instance), will give prospective lawyers a first-hand view of what the legal profession is actually like, so they can determine if it’s a career they actually want to pursue before investing too much time and money in it.

This would probably increase first-year attrition rates at most law schools, but I think it would be worth it. If new lawyers know exactly what they’re getting into, and have an early opportunity to get out if it’s not for them, those who stick it out will do so presumably because they enjoy the work. This should increase the overall rate of job satisfaction among attorneys, which would also improve their quality of life and the quality of their work product.

It would probably also lead to fewer people graduating law school each year. With the competition for legal jobs being incredibly fierce, with the supply of new lawyers vastly outstripping demand, a “residency” could prove very beneficial. Reducing the number of new lawyers who enter the marketplace each year, while simultaneously improving their competence, should eventually balance out the legal marketplace, making it less stressful on its participants, and improving the level of service to clients.

And finally, all of these benefits taken together would help improve the legal profession’s standing with the general public. After all, if legal services are more affordable, new lawyers are more competent, and clients do not have the impression that they’re paying for the training of new attorneys, they’re likely to be far more satisfied with the legal services they receive. Also, the current law school model, which is highly academic and theoretical, leads to some law school graduates entering the world with an inflated sense of their own intelligence and wisdom (to be fair, this happens with lots of college graduates, too). Treating legal education more like trade school – and law school does teach a trade, after all – would probably produce graduates who are more grounded in reality, making lawyers more likeable.

And most lawyers know that the profession could always use a bit of help in that department.

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