Are you uncomfortable handling your immigration case on your own? Do you have a complex immigration history in the United States? Have you been charged with or convicted of a crime or offense more serious than a speeding ticket? Or has someone recommended you seek out a lawyer to help with your immigration case? These are among the many reasons you might benefit from hiring a lawyer to help you navigate the sometimes counterintuitive U.S. immigration system.
At the outset, it's important to be aware that an immigration lawyer can help you organize and present your case but will not have any control over the U.S. government official's decision over whether to approve or deny what you're seeking. Simply having an immigration lawyer will not affect how the government views your case. An experienced lawyer will prepare your case carefully to give it the best chance for approval, but the lawyer cannot guarantee the outcome. Only a government official can decide whether to approve or deny your case, and lawyers can't pressure them or engage in any back-door dealings.
Here are some guidelines to help you find a good immigration lawyer.
The best place to start your search for a good immigration lawyer is to ask for a referral from someone you know and trust. If you currently have a lawyer for other matters, that lawyer likely has a network of fellow lawyers, and can help you find one for your immigration case.
If you do not have a lawyer, or if your lawyer cannot help in finding one with immigration expertise, ask friends, family, or coworkers if they know an immigration lawyer. Getting a referral often is helpful, because it can provide additional information about another person's experience with the lawyer and what you might expect if you end up hiring that lawyer.
Many lawyers join bar associations as a way to network with other lawyers, gain access to continuing education and practice resources, and obtain new clients. Bar associations may be at the local, state, or national level. Local and state bar associations might be voluntary or mandatory for lawyers practicing in that area. Most, if not all, national bar associations are focused on a particular practice area. For immigration, the most well-known is the American Immigration Lawyers Association, often referred to as AILA.
Many bar associations have referral services to help you find a lawyer for your case. While state and local referral services might have only "immigration" as a matching category, a specialty bar association such as AILA often has subcategories to help you narrow your search.
For example, you might need help with international adoption, employment sponsorship for a work visa, political asylum, or another area. The more specific bar association's referral service could save you some time in finding the particular expertise you need.
If you can't find an immigration lawyer through your referral network or bar association efforts referrals, there always is the internet.
An online search can be helpful even if you already have an immigration lawyer in mind. You can look at the lawyer's profile to make sure the lawyer handles your type of case. If you need help with a work visa, for example, but the lawyer's profile is devoted to asylum cases, that lawyer might not be for you.
You also could search online to check on the lawyer's license to verify that it's still valid and to make sure the lawyer has never been disciplined for professional misconduct. Each state's supreme court typically makes that information available on a public website. While thankfully uncommon, immigration lawyers from time to time do get called before the court to respond to either a legitimate complaint by a current or former client, or perhaps by a former client with an axe to grind over an unfavorable outcome that was beyond the lawyer's control.
In either case, if you discover any type of discipline, you'll want to dig a little further and ask the lawyer about it.
When searching for an immigration lawyer, you might come across a "consultant," notary, or notario who offers to help with U.S. immigration. Beware that such persons are not licensed to practice law.
In some countries, a notary or notario is someone licensed to practice law and is held in high regard. In the United States, however the function of a notary primarily is to witness someone signing a legal document. Unscrupulous actors prey on the public's misunderstanding of the difference between a notary or notario in another country and the United States. The best thing you can do is avoid them. Also see Hiring a Paralegal or Notary for Immigration Cases: Risks Vs. Savings.
Once you have your search narrowed to one or a few immigration lawyers, the next step is to make contact. A phone call or email introduction is likely your best option. Although text messaging is ubiquitous in today's society, not all lawyers use it, and some law firms have a policy specifically prohibiting text messages with clients.
For the initial call or email, be brief and mention how you found the lawyer. For example, "My name is Jane Doe. I need help with an asylum case. Do you handle these cases?" If you're sending an email, draft your email to the specific lawyer and send it to only that lawyer. For example, "Dear Lawyer Smith: I need help with a work visa. Do you handle these cases?" Using a proper salutation and writing to only one lawyer shows that you indeed intended to write to lawyer Smith and that you are sensitive about the lawyer's time.
Although it might seem easy to send out a broadcast email to several lawyers in hopes that someone will respond, the result might not be good. Doing that or sending an email with just "Hello, I need an asylum immigration lawyer," has a variety of problems. First, if the email is not directed to anyone specific, the lawyer does not know who the actual, intended recipient was and might not respond.
Second, sending one email to several lawyers at the same time could be interpreted as someone aimlessly going about a very sensitive topic and be a flag to the lawyer as someone to avoid. Finally, for the foregoing reasons, this practice raises the question of, would you really want the lawyer who responds to that type of generic, haphazard inquiry?
Once you have established contact with an attorney who seems to be a likely prospect, arrange a short call to explain the type of case you have and ask whether the lawyer has experience in regularly handling those cases. There should not be a charge for this initial call of perhaps five or ten minutes.
If you proceed, however, there will be fees, and this initial call is the time to ask about that. Ask whether there will be an initial consultation fee.
And if you and the lawyer mutually agree to proceed, ask whether the fee will be a fixed amount or based upon the lawyer's or legal assistant's hourly rates. For a fixed fee, ask about what is included and what additional fees there could be.
You'll also want to ask about how you will pay the lawyer. Some lawyers require a "retainer," which is an amount paid at the beginning of the engagement. Others simply send an invoice each month or at the conclusion of your case. Some lawyers allow clients to pay the fees in monthly installments. These are all topics to discuss at the beginning of your case to avoid surprises later. (Also see Is It Better to Pay My Immigration Attorney a Flat Fee or Hourly?.)
Once you decide to hire the lawyer, be sure to have a written services agreement that outlines the work that the lawyer will do for you and the fees and costs that you will need to pay.
Even after you have done your research and started working with a lawyer, you could later find that the lawyer's performance is not meeting your needs or expectations. If that happens, ask to speak to the lawyer to determine if you can get your case back on track, or whether there's a valid explanation. (The lawyer could, for example, show you data on government websites showing that the delay in your case is normal, and not the lawyer's fault.)
Give the lawyer a chance to meet your needs. If the lawyer fails to do that, you might need to move on. (Also see What to Do If You Suspect Your Immigration Attorney Has Made Mistakes in Your Case.)
When choosing to take your legal work elsewhere, you'll need to review your services agreement. You'll likely need to pay for the work performed up to that time and make a request in writing to have your file returned to you or sent to your new lawyer. Also, be prepared for the new lawyer to ask why you left the last one. Lawyers who take on clients from other lawyers want to be sure they will be able to meet the client's expectations.
Finding a good immigration lawyer takes some time and effort. You can start with Nolo's lawyer directory, and be sure to see our sister site, Avvo, to find bar data and client reviews. Once you find a good one, the lawyer will take care of your case, help you devise strategies in obtaining the hoped-for immigration benefits, and keep you informed of progress. You'll be glad to have a competent advocate helping you navigate the complicated U.S. immigration system.