Learning To Be A Good Lawyer

By Michael Ayearst Ayearst

My time as a Legal Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has given me a glimpse of what it will take to be a good lawyer.  This role was similar in many ways to that of a practicing lawyer: I acted as my clients’ legal counsel, and I used my knowledge of the law, procedures and guidelines to help my clients navigate a legal system and to secure fair and correct outcomes. I was given an incredible amount of responsibility in this role and I learned a lot about essential skills that I will need to continue to work on as I move forward in my legal career. Here are three major lessons that I learned about what it takes to be a good lawyer.

1.  Be organized!

With well over 15 clients at any given time, while also juggling side projects, walk-in clients, daily emergency situations and a growing waiting list for legal services, one of the most important things I could be was organized.  Legal officers have to manage their own case load, and this means dozens of competing deadlines.  Missing these deadlines has serious repercussions on the wellbeing of my clients and so missing anything is simply not an option.  Clients look to you to be a stable and reliable resource for them in the middle of often chaotic situations.  Disorganization affects clients.  For example things like overbooking, rushing an interview, not being prepared and not following up all gives the impression that you don’t really know what you are doing and this can justifiably make a client wary of you and your services.  Also, it helps to prevent the panic of waking up in the middle of the night worried that you missed an important deadline or detail. I think that while all lawyers have to juggle competing priorities and responsibility, good lawyers make sure to do so as efficiently as possible.  There are many ways to accomplish this, but all require strong organizational skills and diligence.

2. Always be improving upon your knowledge and command of your area of law.

It has been very interesting for me to see the level of expertise that I will need to have to be a good lawyer.  The main purpose of my role at JRS was to help our asylum-seeking clients be recognized as refugees as per the 1951 Refugee Convention. I did this by providing advice and constructing legal arguments and submissions on my clients’ behalves. To do this well I needed to know everything I could about international and domestic refugee law, legal procedures and country of origin information to build each case. There is no way around this. When I was assigned a case but didn’t have experience with that type of persecution or a particular profile, I spent a lot of time preparing by doing research and reviewing leading cases in this area. Casework requires significant choices to be made and careful consideration of case details when choosing the direction of your argument.  A good lawyer will be able to quickly identify the major legal issues within a given context and the craft solutions best suited to this situation.

I was fortunate to work under the supervision of an excellent lawyer whose dedication and years of experience made him an invaluable resource on any refugee law related question that I had. He knew it all: He always delivered an instant response to any of my questions, including formulated arguments, reviews of key decisions and verbatim quotes of key passages.  While there is no substitute for experience, being prepared and knowledgeable is essential for being a competent and good lawyer. This experience allowed me to gain an appreciation for the level of mastery that I will need to be a good lawyer and I will always work towards this.

3.  Interpersonal skills are crucial.  Be forthright, truthful and transparent.

My clients were often extremely vulnerable and my job required that I gather extensive details from them about very traumatic experiences and their ongoing daily issues.  I found that strong interpersonal skills were essential for me to do this work well.  I had to listen closely to my clients, work to establish strong working relationships with each one, act as an educator on the laws affecting their lives and wellbeing, and provide them with emotional support.

I found that the key to doing all of these things well was to always be forthright and transparent with my clients. Being forthright is challenging in many cases because it forces you into very difficult conversations. In my role, these conversations included having to tell a client that I didn’t believe their story, that I haven’t worked on a certain case due to time and resource constraints, that I didn’t know how a mother would feed her children, or that some clients had a no chance of being recognized as a refugee at all.  However, being forthright, truthful and transparent during these conversations went a long way to helping my clients to trust that I was always providing them with my honest legal opinion and best work, and in doing so this helped many of my clients disclose sensitive yet essential information to support their cases. By far the most enjoyable part of my internship was developing strong working relationships with clients.  I really appreciated that as a lawyer clients trusted me with the intimate details of their life and with the outcome of their case, and in return I tried to always be transparent and forthright with them. Transparency requires that you explain to clients the ‘why’ of what you are doing during the various elements of your service.  This takes a lot of time.  But I found that it really helps clients to trust you and to be empowered in their legal process.  It also improves your ability to gather targeted information from your clients that you need for effective casework, while also allowing your clients a chance to learn about their case throughout the process of your working together.


The Refugee Experience in Bangkok

It sucks to be a refugee. And it really sucks to be a refugee in Bangkok.

This summer I am working in Bangkok as a Legal Officer with Jesuit Refugee Service, providing legal representation for asylum seekers and refugees. The huge demand for legal services has our team working as long and hard as we can to serve the backlog of hundreds of people on the growing waiting list.

Each sheet is a asylum seeker waiting for service.

I worked in a very similar role in Cairo with AMERA in 2012. These roles have allowed me to develop an intimate understanding of refugees’ lived experiences in urban settings. Refugees who have fled persecution still face discrimination and struggle to survive in their host countries. I have found that this struggle is shaped by five key factors:

– Domestic legal regimes;
– The regional UNHCR office;
– Support from family, community and diaspora;
– Local attitudes towards refugees; and
– Local civil society.

In this post I’ll talk about the importance of domestic legal frameworks and the UNHCR office, and how these shape the refugee experience.

JRS waiting room area.

The most determinative factor is the host country’s legal refugee regime. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines what a refugee is, their rights, and the obligations that states have to refugees. Thailand is not a signatory to the Convention and so the government does not recognize refugees and considers them to be illegal migrants. While refugees are still able to seek legal refugee status from the UNHCR, obtaining this status does not prevent them from being imprisoned or refouled. Every time refugees leave their homes in Bangkok, even to access legal services, they risk being arrested by police and thrown into Bangkok’s hellish immigration detention centre (IDC) for an indefinite period of time. The fear of the IDC and refoulement is always present among my clients, and these are very real possibilities for all of them. Many of my clients and JRS staff members have family in the IDC, and many have been forcibly returned to their countries to face further persecution. There is no recourse for us to pursue in these cases where refugees’ most basic rights are threatened.

One of the many lizards who hang out on JRS grounds.

The second factor influencing the refugee experience is the local UNHCR office. In many countries in the Global South refugees depend on the UNHCR to enforce international refugee law because many host countries lack domestic legal refugee regimes. The UNHCR’s role in these settings is very important, and they often face serious dilemmas fulfilling this role. As Thailand is not a signatory to the Convention, the UNHCR has no legal basis to support refugees in Thailand. The UNHCR is constantly worried about being kicked out of Thailand and so they walk a fine line between meeting their mandate and giving into Thai government pressure. This impacts refugees’ rights in a number of ways. For example, the UNHCR does not accept refugee status applications from specific groups from neighbouring countries, such as the Hmong from Laos, in an effort to appease the Thai government. As a result, members of these groups, who would normally be considered legitimate refugees under international law, are not protected by the UNHCR because their ethnic group has been blacklisted. The UNHCR also faces budgetary constraints. This results in the rights of refugees being significantly compromised. For example, the needs of unaccompanied children are normally treated with high priority. Unfortunately, in Bangkok there are only two interns at the UNHCR managing all of these cases and they can’t keep up. As a result, more than 100 children who are without guardians are in Bangkok and we have no knowledge of their living conditions unless they come to JRS for support. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and arrest. I have 4 of these children as clients and they are very hungry, living in unstable housing situations and are in poor health. There are almost no resources available to these children, aside from legal and pathetic financial assistance.

JRS offices.














Budgetary constraints further impact refugees’ right to a fair legal process. There are not enough resources to meet the growing needs of the refugee status determination (RSD) system in Bangkok. Vulnerable asylum seekers often have to wait over two years for a brief three-hour interview with the UNHCR that determines whether they will be recognized as a refugee and granted legal status. Legal aid is not allowed to accompany refugees to RSD hearings, nor are transcripts of interviews made available. This is particularly unfair to refugees hoping to appeal a rejection. The UNHCR in Thailand often provides generic and unspecified reasons for rejection and because we were not at the interview and do not have access to transcripts, we can’t provide thorough representation on appeal. That appeal can then be rejected with no explanation leaving the refugee fully in the dark.

Our office is right next to Victory Monument, which has been a centre for protest throughout the current military coup.

It really sucks to be a refugee in Bangkok. Most refugees are hungry, sick, scared and are without secure housing. They cannot rely on their most basic legal rights as a tool to improve their outcomes. It’s a situation that has left me feeling demoralized and impotent. But I have been able to seek some solace in small individual wins against a backdrop of massive systemic failure. In my next post I’ll have a chance to talk about how the remaining factors contribute to the refugee experience. Unfortunately, community support, Thai society and civil society can either perpetuate or only partially alleviate the injustices that refugees face here.

 By McLean Ayearst

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