What to Know Before Signing a Contract With Your Immigration Lawyer

Signing a contract that reflects both of your understandings of what services the lawyer will provide and what and when you'll pay is crucial.

A good immigration lawyer will most likely ask you to sign an agreement covering his or her services and the fees you will pay. This is a way for both of you to get clear on what to expect from the other. The contract should be written in words that you can understand, not confusing legal jargon. Be sure to read it carefully, and ask the lawyer to explain anything you do not understand. Better yet, learn a bit about what to expect from this contract, by reading the below. Some normal contract clauses include:

Scope of work. This is a description of exactly what the lawyer will do for you. It is hugely important, because if something is left off the list, the lawyer will expect you to pay extra for it later. So, for example, if you were hiring a lawyer to help you fight a removal case, and the contract says, "Representation at master calendar hearing," you might have a misunderstanding happening already. The master calendar hearing is only the first one, and you'd want representation for all the future merits hearings.

Fees. The contract should specify the amount you will be expected to pay, either as a flat fee (a lump sum you pay for a stated task, such as $1,500 for an adjustment of status application; usually paid in installments, some at the beginning, and some at the end of your case) or at an hourly rate, with a payment schedule. If you hire someone at an hourly rate, you can ask to be told as soon as the hours have hit a certain limit. Never pay a big flat fee up front. Since the lawyer already has your money, he or she will have little incentive to please you. And if you don’t like the lawyer later on, chances are you won’t get any of your money back. Instead, pay for portion of the service up front, and wait until the attorney has completed work on your case to make the final payment.

Who is responsible for the costs of daily expenses. Most lawyers will ask you to cover the incidental expenses associated with the work that they do, such as phone calls, postage, and photocopying. This is fair. After all, if your case requires a one-hour phone call to the consulate in Barcelona, that call should not eat up the lawyer’s fee. Check your bills carefully, however, to be sure that the lawyer charges you the actual costs of these items. Some lawyers have been known to turn a tidy profit by charging, for example, 25 cents a page for a photocopy job that really cost only four cents a page.

Effect of nonpayment. Many lawyers will charge interest, at a percentage rate, on any amount of the bill that you fail to pay on time. This is normal and probably not worth making a big deal about. If you do, in fact, have trouble paying on time, call the lawyer and ask for more time. He or she may be willing to forget about the interest if you are clearly doing your best to get the bill paid.

Exclusion of guarantee. The lawyer may warn you that he or she can give no guarantee that your case will be successful. This may appear as if the lawyer is looking for an excuse to lose. However, it is actually a responsible way for the lawyer to warn off clients who assume they are guaranteed a win; or who later accuse the lawyer of having made such promises. USCIS or the consulate is, after all, the ultimate decision maker on your case. A lawyer can do an excellent job representing you and still not get you a visa or green card.

Effect of changes in case. Most lawyers will warn you that if there is something you do not advise them about (for example, that you are still married to another person while seeking a green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen) or a significant life change affects your case (for instance, you are convicted of selling drugs), they will charge you additional fees to cover the added work these revelations will cause. This too is normal; but to protect yourself against abuse, make very sure that the contract specifies in detail all the work that is already included. For example, a contract for a lawyer to help you with a green card application within the United States might specify that the lawyer will be responsible for “preparation of visa petition and adjustment of status packet, filing all applications with USCIS, representation at interview, and reasonable follow-up with USCIS.” If the lawyer agrees to include work on any special waivers or unusual documents, make sure these are mentioned in the contract (for example, a waiver or an extra Affidavit of Support from a joint sponsor).

Don't worry that the contract is already nicely typed up and ready to go. It can still be changed. The lawyer no doubt has a copy in his or her computer, and can adjust the wording. If that's too much trouble, one of you can handwrite changes in the margins, and both of you can sign your initials there to acknowledge that it's an agreed-upon amendment to the language of the contract.

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