Finding a lawyer who is right for your immigration case is a task to which you should devote a reasonable amount of time and effort. Start by putting together a “short list” of lawyers, whose names you have received from friends, family, or other referral sources. Then make an appointment to speak to each one.
How much a lawyer charges is bound to be a factor in whom you choose. When making an appointment for an initial consultation, ask how much the charge will be for that. Some lawyers will do this for free, but others have found that they consume a lot of time this way, because they meet so many immigrants who, unfortunately, have no options available to them and therefore can't give the lawyer any business at all.
At the appointment, find out whether the lawyer charges a flat fee or by the hour, and what the rates will be. Don't assume that the most expensive lawyer is the best one -- nor that the cheapest is the worst one. Or vice versa.
• How long do you expect my case to take, and why?
• What is the reputation of the officers at the USCIS or consular office who will handle my case?
• How many cases of this type did you handle this year? What was the usual outcome?
A good immigration lawyer needs to have a combination of personality traits. The lawyer needs to be tough enough to fight for your case -- but not so aggressive or abrasive as to alienate the very officials from whom you will need to receive services and, in some cases, sympathy and an exercise of discretion.
Also, because you may need to share some highly confidential issues with your lawyer, you’ll want to feel comfortable with his or her ability to listen, communicate, and understand what you are going through. By the time you have had the initial consultation with the attorney, you should have a good sense of this.
You will want to know that you can reach your lawyer during the months that your application winds its way through the USCIS or consular bureaucracy. A lawyer’s accessibility may be hard to judge at the beginning, but try listening to the lawyer’s receptionist as you wait in his or her office for the first time. If you get the sense that the receptionist is rude and trying to push people off or give them flimsy excuses about why the lawyer hasn’t returned their calls or won’t talk to them, don’t hire that lawyer.
Many immigration lawyers are sole practitioners and use an answering machine rather than a receptionist. In that case, you’ll have to rely on how quickly they answer your initial calls. In your first meeting, simply ask the lawyer how quickly he or she will get back to you. If the lawyer regularly breaks promises, you’ll have grounds on which to complain. Of course, you too have a responsibility not to harass your lawyer with frequent calls. The lawyer should be available for legitimate questions about your case, including inquiries about approaching deadlines.
Take a good look at any printed materials the lawyer gives you on your first visit. Are they glitzy, glossy pieces that look more like advertising than anything useful? Or are they designed to acquaint you with the process you’re getting into and the lawyer’s role in it? Think about this issue again before you sign the lawyer’s fee agreement. Being a good salesperson doesn’t necessarily make someone a good lawyer.