Immigration law book with judges gavel.

Introduction

Navigating the US immigration landscape has never been easy, with its maze-like complexity and its ever-changing policies and regulations. Since 2016, however, the landscape is starting to look more like a minefield than a maze. When trying to make your way across today’s immigration battlefield, who will you choose to handle your case?

Sometimes the best way to find the right answer is to ask the right question. Would you choose an advocate who just graduated from law school to lead the charge for you? Do you want someone who is laser-beamed on your wallet? Or do you want someone who selected immigration, among many other more lucrative fields of law, because he is passionate about helping people who wish to immigrate to the United States?

Woman holding American flag on light background

What exactly does it mean to say that someone is an “immigration lawyer”?

The field of immigration includes many imposters — “consultants,” “notarios” and others who offer legal advice and fill out forms for people without fully understanding the legal complexities involved in answering even a single innocent-sounding question. What you need is a licensed lawyer who has passed the bar exam and has been admitted to the bar association of at least one US jurisdiction.

Since federal law governs immigration, it doesn’t matter which jurisdiction your immigration lawyer is licensed to practice in, as long as it is US state or possession, territory, commonwealth, or the District of Columbia. As long as the attorney holds a license in one of these jurisdictions, it doesn’t matter exactly where. If you live in California, for example, and your attorney is licensed to practice in Idaho, for example, the fact that he is not licensed to practice in California won’t matter.

Of course, saying that someone is an immigration attorney is a lot like saying they are a physician — just as some physicians are a lot better than others, some attorneys are a lot better than others. You should also pay attention to specific areas of practice. Is the experience of the attorney limited to employment visas, for example, family-based petitions, deportations/removals, or some other area? It matters.

A lawyer in his office with a document with the text lawsuit written in it

What does an immigration lawyer do?

Following is a very general outline of what a good immigration lawyer can do for you:

  • He can help you understand the nature of the benefit you are seeking. You might find, for example, that the benefit you are seeking comes with hidden liabilities. You might even change your mind and try a different option after your immigration attorney clarifies the pros and cons of various immigration benefits for you.
  • He can analyze the details of your case to spot risks and issues that you might have missed. You might, for example, be in danger of being declared a “public charge” without even realizing it.
  • He can develop strategies to mitigate risks that you might face — being forced to return home while waiting for your application to be adjudicated, for example.
  • He can help you to make crucial decisions by providing relevant legal advice. Should you get married overseas and wait for your spouse to be issued a US visa, for example — or should you sponsor your spouse for a fiance visa, get married in the US, and have your spouse seek permanent residence in the US? Decisions like these entail very different risks, and you must get them right.
  • Collect the appropriate documents and prepare them in a manner that is likely to be acceptable to the authorities — finding a suitable translation agency to translate your birth certificate, for example.
  • Help you respond appropriately to Requests for Evidence, which are requests for additional documentation and information that you may receive after you file your application. Failure to reply with an appropriate and timely response could ruin your chances of securing the benefit you are seeking.
  • Help you prepare for your visa interview. Considerable coaching may be required for this so that you do not become flustered during the interview and answer in a manner that raises unjustified suspicions. Your attorney can help you become familiar with what to expect.
  • A thousand other potential services that are too numerous to mention here.
A gavel and cash on a table.

How much does an immigration lawyer charge?

Immigration attorneys offer a variety of fee structures, including:

  • Hourly rates. Most immigration attorneys charge between $100 and $700 per hour for their services. Hourly rates are most common when the attorney represents the client during immigration law court proceedings — removal proceedings, for example. The reason for this is that the total cost in terms of the attorney’s time is at its most unpredictable when clients have to deal with proceedings in court.
  • Flat fee: Many immigration attorneys offer a flat fee for various services. An attorney is most likely to offer a flat fee when the benefit is well-defined, and it is relatively easy to predict the amount of time required. The attorney may charge a flat fee of $2,000 to $10,000 for certain types of visa applications, such as family-based visa applications.
  • Under these circumstances, the fee is typically non-refundable — you are paying the attorney to submit a robust application on your behalf, not for a guarantee that your application will be approved. The fee will be the same regardless of the outcome of your application.
  • Initial consultation: Immigration attorneys differ on their approach to consultations. Some offer free consultations by telephone, while others charge a nominal amount ($50 to $100 on average) regardless of whether the consultation takes place by phone or whether it occurs in the attorney’s office.
  • Another factor you must consider is the opportunity cost of not hiring an immigration attorney. If the attorney you are considering is competent, failure to hire him could increase the chance that you will not receive the immigration benefit you desire.

Remember, you don’t always get what you pay for when it comes to immigration lawyers — some of the most reasonably priced attorneys can be among the best, while some of the most expensive can be among the worst. Thoroughly investigate any attorney you are considering retaining, and let price constitute only one factor that you consider.

Red flags fluttering in the wind.

Red flags

Unless you know what to look for, there may be immense hidden costs in hiring the wrong attorney. Below are some red flags to watch for:

  • Does the attorney carry legal malpractice insurance? Typically, states do not require attorneys to carry legal malpractice insurance — in fact, only Oregon requires all of its attorneys to carry this type of insurance. Carrying malpractice insurance may cause the attorney to raise his rates to pay monthly premiums, but it also protects you if he makes a mistake.
  • Does his fee agreement look intelligible? Read it carefully, and have another attorney review it if necessary, to avoid nasty surprises down the road. Be particularly attentive to any discrepancies between what the attorney tells you in person, and what you read in his engagement agreement. In the event of a discrepancy, the terms of the engagement agreement are likely to prevail.
  • Is the attorney promising too much? Any attorney who purports to offer a guarantee of success is someone you should reject. Responsible attorneys don’t deal in certainties — only probabilities.
Passport, American flag and visa application form on table. Immigration to USA

Do I need an immigration attorney?

Attorneys cost money, and not everyone can afford to pay one. You are not required by law to be represented by an attorney for any immigration matter, even a deportation hearing. You are legally entitled to handle every aspect of your case yourself.

Nevertheless, retaining a qualified attorney is likely to vastly improve your odds of obtaining the immigration benefit you seek. Immigration law is deceptively complex, and critical issues often surface in places that someone untrained in the field (even an attorney trained in another area of law) would never suspect.

Asian dad and daughter holding amercian passports with pride.

When you don’t need an immigration attorney

There are few factors which, when taken together, might lead you to conclude that you either don’t need an attorney at all or require something less than full representation. Some of these factors are listed below:

  • you speak and read English fluently;
  • the legal research you need to perform is not overwhelming (in other words, you won’t have to become an expert to maximize your chances of qualifying for the immigration benefit you are seeking);
  • you appear to be eligible for the benefit you are seeking;
  • you have no criminal record and no record of problems with US immigration authorities (visa overstays, removal proceedings, etc.); and
    the stakes are low (you are seeking employment authorization for your spouse to make a little extra money, for example)

Even if several of these factors apply, however, the problem is that you may need an attorney to examine your case to tell you whether or not you need his services — perhaps it is not as straightforward as it appears. Never forget that there are few if any situations in which retaining an immigration attorney won’t at least improve your odds of obtaining the benefit you seek.

Man chooses and takes in the hand an lawyer in shirt and red tie

How do I choose a good immigration attorney?

Now that you understand what immigration lawyers do, how much services cost, and what you should expect of a good immigration lawyer, it is time to discuss just how you should go about choosing the right attorney for you.

Word of mouth

Generally speaking, the best way to find the right attorney for you is through word-of-mouth advertising. If any of your friends or relatives have used an immigration attorney before, speak to them. Their personal experience with a particular attorney can tell you more about the attorney’s quality than anything in the mass media is likely to.

Recognition by clients and peers

It is the job of specific organizations to rate attorneys on their competence. Some of these rating services rely primarily on assessing the attorney’s reputation among his peers, while others rely more heavily on client reviews. Pay attention to both types of ratings, because they both matter.

Following is a list of some of the most prominent lawyer rating services along with a description of how they can help you narrow your search for immigration lawyers to a shortlist:

  • Avvo: Avvo gives each lawyer a numerical score on a scale of 1 to 10 based on the information in that lawyer’s profile.
  • Super Lawyers: The Super Lawyers designation depends on peer reviews and independent research by the organization.
  • Martindale-Hubbell: The Martindale-Hubbell is probably the world’s most prestigious legal rating service. The top rating is AV, which signifies both competence and ethics, as assessed by peers and clients.
  • Best Lawyers in America: The Best Lawyers in American publishes a rating system based purely on peer reviews.
3D illustration of pawns over black background with three of them in the center of a target .

Narrowing It Down to a Shortlist

Narrowing down your selections to a shortlist might require that you meet personally with the lawyer. Some lawyers will charge you for a consultation, while others won’t. Even if you have to pay, however, it is better to pay a little to find out you don’t trust the attorney than to pay him a lot to prove that your initial mistrust of him was fully justified. Below are some of the issues you are going to need to address:

  • Are the law office’s legal fees and various costs transparent and reasonable?
  • What is your gut feeling? Is the attorney looking out for you, or himself?
  • Would you enjoy working with the immigration lawyers in this firm? Did you make a human connection? This intangible factor is more important than you might think.
  • Is your attorney able to “think outside the box” when it comes to an immigration law issue, or does his mind work in a straight line?
  • Who will do the work on your case — partner, a junior associate, or even a paralegal?
  • Do the immigration lawyers in the firm you are considering care about your predicament? Caring is an essential intangible factor in determining the quality of a law firm.

Remember that now is no time to skimp on cost, at least if the immigration benefit you seek is important to you. If you needed neurosurgery to remove a brain tumor, you wouldn’t choose a brain surgeon based solely on price. Likewise, don’t make the same mistake when choosing an immigration attorney to help you obtain green cards for you and your family.

Businessman gestures perfect sign in the office

Portrait of the ideal immigration attorney

The following checklist is a fictional construct — no single attorney meets all of them. Nevertheless, they should help you formulate a general idea of what qualities are most important in an attorney so that you can make sure that the attorney you select is the right one for you.

  • He is a member of AILA, the American Immigration Lawyers Association. AILA membership is a bare minimum qualification necessary to keep up with rapid changes in immigration law. Although membership in AILA does not guarantee the quality of an immigration lawyer, you should be suspicious if your candidate attorney is NOT an AILA member. Failure to join AILA could indicate that the attorney only dabbles in immigration law while his real practice lies in a completely different field of law.
  • He works on a flat fee basis for well-defined projects such as visa applications, and his prices are reasonable. Too low of a price might mean the lawyer is unaware of the complexities of the case.
  • He has been named a Super Lawyer at least once, and preferably on multiple occasions.
  • He is a member of the Best Lawyers in America.
  • He is a member in good standing of his state bar association, and he has never been disciplined by the bar or been the subject of a client complaint.
  • He enjoys a good reputation in his local community.
  • A friend or associate of yours has recommended the lawyer or his law firm.
  • He or his law firm can provide multiple client references.
  • He focuses his practice on the area you are concerned with — employment-based immigration, for example, as opposed to removal/deportation proceedings.
  • Immigration law is his primary or only area of practice. Ignore “jack of all trades” law firms who practice immigration law on the side.
  • He enjoys the benefit of extensive experience: The more years of practice the attorney has, the better. Experience is especially important in immigration law, where most immigration law and policy is unwritten.
  • His law firm has a low paralegal/attorney ratio: One or two paralegals per attorney is ideal. Law firms that employ ten or more paralegals per attorney should raise your suspicions — who will be working on your case anyway? Make sure your case will not be delegated entirely to paralegals.
  • He is not overburdened with work already. Overwork is a particular problem with sole practitioners and law offices with only two or three attorneys.
  • He returns your emails and calls promptly and communicates clearly. Lack of communication is the number one complaint of clients against their attorneys (and not just immigration attorneys either).
  • He has published frequently and extensively on immigration law, preferably with prestigious publications. An extensive publication history indicates that your attorney’s expertise is widely respected.
  • His promotional materials provide actionable information instead of pure advertising copy or hype. Check out the recent posts on his blog, because this factor can tell you a lot about the attorney’s competence and character. If his written promotional materials leave a bad taste in your mouth, how will immigration authorities view an application he submits on your behalf that is attempting to promote your eligibility for an immigration benefit?
  • His engagement letter is easy to read and understand because it is free of fine print and legal jargon. Avoid law offices that offer one-sided agreements that offer their clients virtually nothing. Don’t treat the engagement letter as an afterthought, because it could end up meaning everything. Make sure that you fully understand it before you sign it.
  • He is a native speaker of your language. Sharing your native language is not a necessity, however, and overemphasizing linguistic and cultural affinity could leave you with a terrible attorney who just happens to share your native language. Many immigration law offices rely almost entirely on this one factor to attract clients. All other things being equal, however, the better you can communicate, the better your chances of success will be.
  • He and the other attorneys in his law office observe the highest ethical standards, by reputation and by your personal experience with him. Remember, an attorney who would be willing to cheat someone else (US immigration authorities, for example) on your behalf is also likely to be ready to cheat you on his behalf. Remember also that a dishonest attorney could get you indefinitely excluded from the United States.
Lawyers office concept. Law symbols composition. Richard Herman

About Richard Herman

Richard Herman has been practicing law for more than a quarter of a century now. He has helped over 20,000 clients make their dreams come true, and the world has noticed. Anyone can write advertising copy. Not just anyone, however, has received the independent acclaim of both clients and peers that Richard Herman has:

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