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How To Hire An Immigration Lawyer

by Everett P. Anderson

US immigration laws are technical and often hostile. Tangled in these laws, many foreign clients are desperate to find a good immigration attorney. This is especially true in complex deportation cases. Attitudes towards lawyers -- and attorney-client relationships -- may be very different in the client's home-country culture.

In the United States, State Bar Associations are charged with protecting the public from incompetent or unethical lawyers. But clients with genuine grievances have already been hurt by bad representation. It remains the client's responsibility to find and hire immigration counsel. This spells both opportunity and danger.

The opportunity lies in finding a qualified lawyer and negotiating your fee. The internet makes both tasks easier. And because immigration law is federal, the right lawyer for your case may be across town, across state or across the country.

The danger lies in choosing a lawyer who will not get results! Remember:

1. A "bargain" fee is no bargain if the outcome is unhappy.

2. Don't confuse lawyer advertising with lawyer competence. The best advertising is another satisfied immigration client.

3. Beware of lawyers who confidently predict a good result just to get your business. Immigration clients need straight talk -- not false promises. For complex cases, this takes time. There is no substitute for a full client interview and case evaluation. Sometimes, this requires further legal research. Capable lawyers are always willing to provide a full analysis of the case's strengths and weaknesses. The process itself is the best way to observe the lawyer's analytical skills and assess the reasonableness of the proposed fee.

Full case assessments usually involve a consultation fee. Clients are reluctant to pay such fees to more than one lawyer. Fortunately, there is an easier and cost-free way to narrow your choice of immigration counsel.

Just ask tough questions about the lawyer and his or her practice! Good lawyers and their staff are not afraid to answer such questions. Clients should not be afraid to ask them.

1. Is the lawyer Board-Certified? Not all states offer board certification. Ask the lawyer to explain the process and its importance for you as a prospective client.

2. What is the lawyer's Martindale-Hubbell rating -- Av, Bv, or Cv? Ask the attorney what these ratings mean.

3. Is the lawyer a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association? How long?

4. Have clients filed any complaints -- especially recent complaints -- against the lawyer with the State Bar Association, in any local court, or with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) of the U.S. Department of Justice?

5. Does the lawyer carry malpractice insurance, and have any claims been filed against or settled with the insurance carrier?

6. What investments has the lawyer made in staff and immigration technology? Ask how long the senior paralegals have been employed at the firm. Longterm, skilled and happy staff are a good sign that the lawyer treats both employees and clients well. Forms-preparation software and case management systems say much about the lawyer's attention to detail and ability to access your case information after you pay the retainer fee.

7. Does the lawyer provide the client with an attorney-client contract before any retainer is paid?

8. What lawyer services are included in the contract and lawyer fees and what services are not included?  For example:

  • Does the fee include lawyer travel to a CIS office or immigration court?
  • Is lawyer travel to the local CIS office really necessary in your case? In most routine administrative cases, document and client preparation are more important than lawyer travel to and presence at a CIS interview. See Green Card Interview Tips at this website. Discuss and negotiate this with your lawyer before signing a contract or paying a retainer fee.
  • Government filing fees are a client responsibility in almost every attorney-client contract. But are current filing fees fully disclosed in the contract so that you can budget accordingly?

9. For every client, the most important questions in hiring any lawyer are, "Does the lawyer answer phone calls, promptly provide copies of documents, charge reasonable fees, and get good results?"

Lawyers can and should discuss their phone and document-copy policies. Their contracts should fully disclose their fee and cost structures. But confidentiality and ethics rules place past results off-limits. State bar rules rightly prohibit lawyers from providing testimonials or advertising past results, because they are "inherently misleading to a person untrained in the law. Potential clients are likely to infer from the testimonial that the lawyer will reach similar results in future cases."

So where can a foreign client get good information about a lawyer's reputation and track record? The best source is always other immigrants. Check with religious organizations, universities or ethnic societies within your community.

The answers to these questions are important. They will help you eliminate unsuitable lawyers. They will also help you compare the credentials of qualified attorneys, understand what you are paying for, and negotiate your fee from a position of knowledge and strength.

About The Author

Everett P. Anderson has practice immigration law in Tallahassee since 1985. His website is at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.