All Clients Are Created Equal
The ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 states all attorneys should “aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.” As a result, many immigration attorneys carry a diverse caseload of pro bono, low bono, and full fee-paying clients. But it is easy, when the work world gets intense, to prioritize your existing paying clients over nonpaying clients. You shouldn’t. No matter how much the client has or hasn’t paid, we must remember our moral and ethical obligation to provide pro bono clients with the same level of representation as paying clients. When pro bono clients feel they aren’t provided the same level of care as a full-paying client, there can be serious consequences for an attorney.
First, a lawyer’s reputation is paramount. If a pro bono client compares their representation to their attorney’s positive online reviews and suspects or is told their case isn’t as important, word can spread quickly among fellow attorneys and community members, resulting in negative consequences for an attorney’s business. Colleagues and local nonprofits may be less likely to refer cases and potential paying clients may be less likely to approach the attorney to work with them.
Second, it’s imperative that attorneys understand that they can face disciplinary action for failing to provide competent representation to a client. If a pro bono client doesn’t hear from their attorney in a timely manner, feels their representation has been poorly handled, or the attorney or staff shares that the client’s case is less important since it is pro bono, the client may file a bar complaint, resulting in an inquiry into your practices.
While many pro bono clients are grateful for any help and don’t often complain, that shouldn’t be the bar by which we measure ourselves. Ensure that all clients have a positive experience and are treated with the same competence, diligence, and care by attorneys and staff as paying customers. As outlined in ABA Model Rule 5.2 and 5.3, ensure that all attorneys and staff in your firm are supervised and conduct themselves in accordance with ethics rules. Keep this in mind as you interact with your clients!
For more information on the intersection of ethics and immigration law, visit the AILA Ethics Compendium.