While most types of attorneys bill their clients by the hour, which is known as the "hourly fee," immigration attorneys typically use an alternative fee structure called the "flat" or "fixed" fee. This means that the client pays one set fee, either up front or in installments, for the scope of work the immigration attorney agrees to provide.
When setting a flat fee for your immigration case, the attorney essentially estimates how much time and effort it will take to do the work. This estimate is based on the amount of time it took to complete numerous past cases that were similar to yours. However, if your case presents an unusual set of facts or appears to be complex, a flat fee arrangement might not be made available to you.
The hourly fee is the most common attorney billing structure among attorneys of varying practice areas. Typically, an attorney will charge clients between $200/hour to $500/hour or more. The attorney's hourly rate depends upon various factors, such as the number of years' experience the attorney has, the location where the attorney is based (and how expensive it is to rent an office and otherwise do business there), and the complexity or expected duration of the case.
Fees can rack up quickly for clients who are billed by the hour. You likely will be billed for every interaction you have with your attorney, whether by phone, email, or in person. This is in addition to the time the attorney spends researching, writing, and otherwise working on your case.
Clients sometimes feel dissatisfied with the hourly billing structure because it is difficult if not impossible to know in advance the total cost of the representation, which makes budgeting a challenge.
The flat fee allows you to budget for the cost of legal representation while also allowing more payment options. During your initial consultation with an immigration attorney, you can ask for the attorney's price list, which will show you the flat cost associated with the service the attorney intends to provide to you. (Also see How Expensive Is an Immigration Lawyer?.)
For example, the attorney's flat fee for a green card case based on marriage where the spouse already resides in the United States might be $4,500. If the cost is too high for you, you can shop around for a more affordable attorney, or make plans to wait to file for the green card until you have enough money saved. You might also ask the attorney whether you can pay via credit card, or whether you can break up the cost by paying an initial fee of $2,000 and a second payment of $2,500 when the attorney is ready to file the green card application.
Clients often to prefer the flat fee over the hourly fee because there is one simple cost associated with the legal representation. Clients also tend to feel as though they get more for their money in a fixed fee arrangement. However, there are situations in which an hourly fee arrangement for an immigration case could be a better option.
Though the flat fee is typically a more desirable fee arrangement in immigration cases, there are situations when being billed by the hour could save you money. Perhaps the best example is if you are able to competently complete the immigration application form on your own (pro se) and merely need an attorney to provide you with some guidance.
For example: Let's say are a U.S. citizen who married an immigrant. You would like to apply for a green card for your spouse. You speak and write English fluently and you have a good understanding of the green card application. You are able to fill it out on your own and your spouse already organized all her immigration paperwork, including birth and marriage records and other evidence. However, you would like an immigration attorney to make sure that your application is complete and that you haven't overlooked any trouble spots in your case. You would also like to meet with an attorney so you and your spouse can be prepared for the green card interview.
While an immigration attorney might charge $4,500 for a full green card case, the attorney might charge an hourly fee of $300. To look over your paperwork and give you information about the green card interview process may only take a few hours of the attorney's time. In this situation, or one like it, an hourly fee arrangement could be more cost effective.
An immigration lawyer is more likely to offer a flat fee arrangement for a family immigration case than for a criminal immigration case involving court appearances, like a deportation case. However, some immigration attorneys advertise that they always offer a flat fee for services, regardless of the type of immigration case.
Keep in mind, though, that if your case is unique, complex, or if there is no end in sight regarding the scope of your immigration case, you likely will have to pay by the hour.