How Expensive Is an Immigration Lawyer?

Get an idea of how much you'll need to invest in high-quality legal services for a visa, green card, removal, or other immigration matter.

By , J.D.

Immigration lawyers are not, in general, the most highly paid of legal professionals. In the case of those primarily serving family- and asylum-based applicants rather than business clients, they know that their clients often have difficulty obtaining the right to work in the United States and adjust their fees accordingly. This article will acquaint you with the basic fee structure of typical immigration attorneys. Keep in mind, however, that all attorneys' fees depend in part on factors like where they're practicing, what type of case it is (immigration law has many subspecialties), how much experience they have, and how high the demand is for their services.

Flat Fee or Hourly Fee for Immigration Legal Services?

A tradition has developed in which many immigration attorneys charge flat fees for many standard services such as a family green card petition or an application for naturalized U.S. citizenship, rather than an hourly rate. This might include "add-ons," for example preparing a waiver of inadmissibility to accompany the application, also at a standard rate.

With a flat fee, even if the lawyer has to spend unexpected hours trying to convince U.S. immigration authorities that you really did send the entire application and nothing is missing, or to clear up some other issue central to your case, you won't pay extra for it.

Not surprisingly, clients usually have a more favorable view of the flat fee arrangement than the hourly fee, because a flat fee enables them to budget more accurately for the total cost of handling their legal issue. Clients also tend to feel that the flat fee gives them more value for their money, since immigration cases often require lengthy applications, assembling a lot of supporting evidence, and performing ongoing monitoring tasks in the face of U.S. government delays and even mix-ups.

But not all immigration services can be easily standardized. Immigration attorneys are, for example, likely to insist on billing you on an hourly basis, as opposed to a single flat fee, in the following situations:

  1. An unusual case or set of facts. In most cases, immigration attorneys can accurately estimate approximately how much time it will take to prepare an immigration case. However, some cases are inherently more difficult to predict, depending on the client's country of origin, the facts or factors as to how or why the person came to the United States, any unusual criminal history, and so forth. If, after your initial immigration consultation, the lawyer thinks that your situation is atypical or complex, you might be asked to pay an hourly rate.
  2. Tight deadline. Some immigration applications require that you submit your application to the U.S. government within a certain amount of time (set by law). Unfortunately, due to cost or other barriers, immigration clients sometimes wait until the last minute before feeling ready to file a necessary application. For example, asylum seekers are expected to apply for asylum within one year of entering the United States, but might not even learn that within their first year of getting adjusted. If you wait until one week before the one-year deadline, or worse yet, want to request an exception and file an application after the deadline, your immigration attorney might require that you pay by the hour instead of a flat fee. After all, the attorney likely needs to work quickly to meet the deadline, or might have to draft extra argument to present to U.S. immigration authorities to explain a missed deadline or similar issue.
  3. No end in sight. If the immigration attorney believes that your immigration case will take a lot of time with no foreseeable resolution, perhaps because your personal situation is in flux (for example, the intending immigrant and petitioning U.S. citizen spouse are trying to decide whether to divorce) a flat fee for legal services will likely not be made available to you.
  4. You have an "easy" case, or just need a series of consults. If you have a very straightforward case, or simply need a quick consultation on a defined matter, an hourly fee arrangement could benefit you in terms of overall cost. For example, if you have already completed most of the work on your own (pro se) in a competent manner and simply need an immigration attorney to look over your work or organize your documents, an hourly rate might be a more appropriate and more affordable billing option. Likewise, if you plan to file your immigration application yourself, or if you do not need an attorney to accompany you to your immigration interview, you might wish to consider an hourly fee arrangement.
  5. You have a complex case, which is tough for the attorney to predict how many hours to allot toward. For a complex case in removal (deportation) proceedings, for example, which might take multiple hearings or require a number of witnesses, it is less likely the lawyer will willingly charge a flat fee.

Also realize that, even with a flat-fee arrangement, the lawyer will probably include a clause in the agreement for services saying that if a surprise comes up, such as the client having a criminal record that they failed to mention, and which then requires further research and follow-up, the client will have to pay extra. This would most often be at an hourly rate.

Will You Have to Pay a Consultation Fee to an Immigration Lawyer?

At the stage when you are still interviewing lawyers in order to choose one, and figuring out whether you have a case worth pursuing, you will likely schedule initial consultations with one or more lawyers. Most will charge an initial consultation fee of anywhere from $100 to $400.

A few good lawyers provide free consultations. But many have found that they can't afford to spend a lot of their time this way. The reason is that many immigrants turn out to have no visa or remedy available to them, which means the lawyer gets no work after the initial consultation.

Be ready to pay a reasonable fee for your initial legal consultation, but do not sign any contracts for further services until you feel sure that you've found the right attorney. This usually requires consulting with at least two or three first. Some lawyers will give you a credit for the amount of the consultation fee if you later decide to hire them for your case.

What Are Immigration Attorneys' Typical Rates?

For green card applications or other immigration services, the fees tend to vary by region of the United States. But at least you can compare prices within your area. In Northern California, for example, the range for a basic fiancé visa is typically between $750 and $2,000 (not including the adjustment of status application afterwards), and a marriage-based green card application runs from around $1,000 to $5,000, plus added fees of lesser amounts for any children being included in the application.

If you are in removal (deportation) proceedings in immigration court and it's a reasonably straightforward case, the lawyer could charge you a flat fee according to what will likely need to be done: bond hearings, negotiating with the government lawyer, appearing with you in court, filing motions, filing different applications for relief from removal, and so forth. The total fee in a simple case could be as low as $1,500, or in a complex case can climb higher than $15,000. If you need to appeal your case, expect to pay even more.

If the lawyer quotes an hourly rate instead, expect to pay between $150 and $600 per hour.

Lawyers who work for larger law firms might charge more than lawyers who work on their own or with a smaller firm. Big law firms have "overhead" expenses they need to recover, and the cost gets passed on to clients. On the other hand, larger law firms tend to hire competent lawyers who have the support and resources of the firm at their disposal, so you will receive good, fast service in most cases.

There are many excellent immigration lawyers who do not work for big law firms. Some have become so well-established that they can charge higher rates. Immigration law is a field where experience counts—this field is so complicated that it takes years to understand the ins and outs. Then again, the lawyers who charge the highest rates aren't always the best ones.

If you find an immigration lawyer who charges less than the norm, it doesn't necessarily mean the lawyer is lower quality. Some lawyers might be keeping their overhead low and passing on the savings to you, still making their name in the business (they're okay to use for a simple case), or philosophically opposed to charging high fees.

How Do I Keep Hourly Fees From Skyrocketing?

Oftentimes, clients do not realize that attorneys who bills by the hour will charge for every encounter you have with them. This is in addition to the time the attorney spends working on your actual case. Sometimes clients expect to receive weekly, or even daily, updates on the status of their case.

Keep in mind that if your attorney spends ten minutes composing an email to you to give you an update on your case, you will likely receive a bill for the time it took to write the email. In addition, when you call your attorney to talk, the attorney will start the time clock on the billing software and you will likely be charged, even if it is just a five-minute conversation. For example, if your attorney's hourly rate is $400/hour, a five-minute phone call will cost you $33. Therefore, it is best to use good judgment and respect your attorney's time.

If your attorney bills you by the hour for your immigration case, it is essential to keep your documents organized before handing them over. You do not need a law degree or knowledge about immigration law to keep organized records. This will save time for the attorney, thereby saving you money. If you have the time, you might offer to obtain missing documents, such as a foreign birth or death record, instead of asking the immigration attorney or the office paralegal to do it for you.

Is Hiring a Non-Lawyer to Handle an Immigration Matter a Good Way to Save Money?

Someone who charges a surprisingly low fee for immigration legal services might not be the real deal. Always check the supposed lawyer's state bar membership to make sure they're active members and haven't been disciplined or disbarred.

Don't, under any circumstance, hire a "notario," "consultant," or other pretender, unless it's a qualified paralegal who is working under an attorney's supervision.

What If You Really Can't Afford an Immigration Attorney?

If the lawyers' fees are beyond your ability to pay, but you still need legal help, you have a number of options. One is to ask the lawyer to split the work with you. Using this arrangement, the lawyer would handle discrete tasks only, at the hourly rate: perhaps consult with you about the issue causing you difficulty, review a document, or attend an interview. You would handle the follow-up or rote work, such as filling out the application forms and translating or writing documents, statements, letters, and more.

Be warned, however: While many lawyers can be hired to give you advice on an hourly basis, most will not want to get into a mixed arrangement unless they are sure they won't have to clean up anything you might do wrong. For example, a lawyer might not agree to represent you in a USCIS interview if the lawyer wasn't hired to review your forms and documents before you submitted them to USCIS.

Another option is to look for a nonprofit organization that helps people with immigration cases. A few provide free services, while most charge reduced rates.

But don't get your hopes up too high. The U.S. government refuses to give any grant funding to nonprofit organizations that provide services to undocumented immigrants, which means that most nonprofits depend on private sources of income, and are perpetually low on funds. However much they might wish they could help, many nonprofits have long backlogs of cases and might not be able to accept your case at all; or will accept it but charge you an amount that's not much less than an attorney in private practice would.

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