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Q&A With Fried Frank's Karen Grisez

April 22, 2015 (4 min read)

"Karen T. Grisez is public service counsel in Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP's Washington, D.C., office. She manages the office’s pro bono program and provides supervision and direct representation to pro bono clients in immigration cases, as well as in traditional poverty law areas, including Social Security disability, veterans benefits, family law and housing. She has extensive litigation experience in federal courts, before the U.S. Department of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals and in immigration courts around the country.

Grisez is a frequent speaker and trainer on legal topics relating primarily to asylum and other forms of immigration relief and has testified twice before Congress on immigration-related topics.

Grisez is a member of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and is a special adviser to the ABA's Commission on Immigration. She is also on the board of directors of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, is a member of the board of trustees of the Center for Migration Studies, is on the board of directors of the Washington Council of Lawyers and is a trustee of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Q: What is the most challenging case you have worked on and what made it challenging?

A: Out of all the cases I've handled, one particular asylum case stands out. The case was challenging for many related reasons; the biggest ones were that: (a) the prosecution of the client's deportation proceedings were being directed at a high level within the government rather than at the local district office level; (b) the client's home country and country of feared persecution is a close ally of the U.S., so that foreign policy considerations were involved; (c) although the need for the client's protection due to the risk of persecution if deported was basically uncontroverted, the government twice appealed the immigration judge's grant of asylum and only accepted the third immigration judge grant as final; and (d) my client tended to view the case as about the political and human rights issues confronting his ethnic group as a whole rather than a trial about the risk of persecution to him individually and the weighing of discretionary factors personal to him.

The case went on for several years, had two full trials, two BIA appeals and another immigration judge hearing for the final decision. There were about nine full hearing days of testimony in the courtroom and telephonically, some in different countries, about 78 or so affidavits and hundreds of exhibits. It was also held in a city geographically far from my home office, requiring travel over the years.

Q: What aspects of your practice area are in need of reform and why?

A: The biggest change I think needs to be made is access to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings for indigent and incompetent persons, including children. Right now, there is a "privilege" — but not a right — to be represented in these adversarial proceedings. Conducting hearings where the outcome may be deportation, called "all that makes life worth living" by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a system where children and mentally disabled persons are forced to represent themselves simply isn't consistent with this country's understanding of due process. It isn't the best the U.S. can do.

Q: What is an important issue relevant to your practice area and why?

A: An important issue relevant to my practice is understanding by the general public of what goes on in the immigration court process, or even the rudiments of immigration law. Without that, and without adequate resources for the immigration agencies who adjudicate applications, we will continue to have misunderstandings, backlogs, mistakes and unauthorized practice of law by notarios.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney in your field who has impressed you and explain why.

A: One lawyer outside my firm who has impressed me tremendously is Meredith Linsky. I first met Meredith when I served on the ABA Commission on Immigration more than 10 years ago. Meredith was then the director of ProBAR, an ABA direct representation project serving detained immigrants right at the border in South Texas. Meredith asked commission members to come to Texas and bring volunteer lawyers. Fried Frank undertook a summer associate project that went on for years, where we would take a team of summer associates with a senior supervising attorney to prepare and try cases from start to finish within a two-week period.

Meredith welcomed us, inspired us and taught us the technicalities of the law and intricacies of local procedures when those two were quite different. She never tired of explaining to us that "it's the valley!" I admire Meredith for her leadership, her practicality, her tireless advocacy for her clients, but also her ability to accept the occasional defeat. She understood that you can't win every case, but tried to do so everyday without ever losing her zest for life and ability to nurture herself by dancing. She now continues her work as director of the ABA Commission on Immigration in Washington, D.C.

Q: What is a mistake you made early in your career and what did you learn from it?

A: In my first circuit appellate argument, I thought I was going to the higher court to correct an error of law made by the lower court below. I assumed the appeals court had a basic understanding of immigration law, so I focused my argument on the very narrow point at issue in the case. The panel's very first question to me revealed a basic misunderstanding of the way asylum fit into the larger immigration system overall and forced me to spend most of my argument time straightening out that misperception. I learned what can happen when you assume!" - Law360, Apr. 21, 2015.