Sometimes hiring a lawyer for your immigration case is just too expensive. Sometimes your neighbor, or cousin, or friend recommends that you hire someone who is not a lawyer. In some cases that's okay. There are many honest and hardworking paralegals around.
But how can you tell that you are hiring one of those paralegals and not someone who will cheat you? How do you know if you actually need a lawyer?
Lawyers successfully finished law school and passed a test (the bar exam) to make sure that they have the knowledge and skills needed to represent you. Lawyers are licensed by their state's bar association—the government's office that regulates lawyers. They are usually insured against malpractice, which means that if they do something wrong that hurts you, they have an insurance policy that can compensate you.
Paralegals have—in the best case, when they are worthy of the name—undergone training in legal paperwork. They know how to fill out forms and what documents are needed in order to send out a strong case. They have a certification from the school where they studied to be paralegals.
In many U.S. states, the bar association, the same office that regulates lawyers, also regulates paralegal education. Paralegals may take a national exam and may be members of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). They may also be insured against malpractice. If they do any immigration work, they need to be bonded—meaning they put some money on hold with a bonding company to compensate clients for mistakes that they may make.
People who fill out papers but did not go to school for paralegal studies and have no certification are not really paralegals, and should not call themselves by this name.
Accredited representatives are certified by the Board of Immigration Appeals to represent immigrants in court and at immigration interviews. They work for charity groups who help people for free or for a reduced fee. See the Recognition and Accreditation page of the Immigration Court (EOIR) website for a list of such organizations and their accredited representatives.
Accredited Representatives have to prove that they have the knowledge and the skills to represent clients in immigration court and that they are supervised by someone who knows immigration law well, usually an attorney.
Notaries and "immigration consultants" may or may not have any legal education. Notaries in the U.S. have a very limited area of expertise. They serve as agents of the state, usually to verify the identity of people who are signing legal documents. In other countries, notaries have to be lawyers. But not in the United States. Being a notary does NOT give anyone the knowledge or training needed to help you with a legal case. Some people who are not lawyers advertise that they are notaries, hoping to trick you into thinking that they are lawyers.
ANYONE who is not an attorney but is helping you with legal work must have a BOND to make sure that there is some money there for you in case the person you hired makes a mistake and messes up your case.
Before deciding that you cannot afford a lawyer, shop around. Some paralegals and notaries charge as much as lawyers but can do less. The most expensive attorneys are not always the best.
No matter what, make sure you're hiring someone who really has the credentials he or she advertises. Ask to see a paralegal's certification before hiring that person. Also ask to see the lawyer's bar card. Make sure that they are current. Look them up at the state bar's website to make sure that they are legitimate and that there are no complaints against them. Even though the most expensive lawyer may not be the best, going for the cheapest can end up costing you a lot more later—to fix the errors that the cheap representative made—IF they can be fixed.
Research the success rate and customer satisfaction of the people who are in your price range before making a decision.
Although accredited representatives usually charge the least, they also usually have very long waiting lists.
Lawyers and accredited representatives can go to immigration-related interviews and court hearings with you. They can make appointments with immigration officers and work on your case with them and with government attorneys without you having to be there. Lawyers generally have more knowledge and training than accredited representatives but usually charge more.
Paralegals can prepare your paperwork, but cannot go to court or immigration interviews with you. They also can't go to an immigration office to discuss your case with officers and supervisors like lawyers can. Paralegals did not go to law school and can't give you legal advice.
Notaries and "immigration consultants," if they are not also paralegals or lawyers, have no legal training to either fill out paperwork or represent you in court. If they are bonded, then at least they have some financial backup to pay you if they make mistakes on your case. Notaries and consultants cannot represent you either in court or at the immigration office.
In some situations, notaries, immigration consultants, or paralegals will tell you that if you need help in court or an immigration interview they will send "their" lawyer to meet you there. They will ask for the lawyer's payment upfront before the date of the hearing or interview. In most of these cases the lawyer who shows up, IF a lawyer actually shows up, does not know much about your case before starting to represent you in front of a judge or an officer.
It is very important that you meet with the lawyer BEFORE the hearing. A good lawyer will want to talk to you first and hear all about your case from you directly. "Blind dates" with the lawyer who holds your future in his or her hands is a bad idea.
Before agreeing to hire anyone else's lawyer, demand a face-to-face meeting, ask to see the lawyer's bar card, and check him or her out online. For the same money that you gave the notary to hire "his" attorney, you could hire your own attorney who will serve only YOUR interests.
Many of the notaries and paralegals who send "their" attorneys out with clients take some of the money that you paid for the lawyer for themselves. This is illegal and they will probably not tell you about it.
Considering how important immigration interviews and hearings are to your future in this country, it does not make any sense to hire someone to represent you who you don't know and have never talked to before. You must make sure that you only go with someone you trust and pay directly yourself.