Why Can't I Find a Lawyer to Take My Immigration Case for a Flat Fee?

Reasons an immigration lawyer may require you to pay on an hourly basis, and how to make the best of this arrangement.

Question

I recently had a consultation with an immigration attorney about my immigration case. He offered to take my case but said he would have to charge me by the hour instead of charging me one flat fee. I called two other immigration attorneys and they said the same thing. I thought that flat fees were the “norm” in immigration practice and less expensive than being billed by the hour? Why can’t I seem to find a lawyer to take my immigration case for a flat fee?

Answer

It's true that immigration attorneys typically use a “flat” or “fixed” fee arrangement instead of the hourly billing structure that most other types of attorneys use. In taking an immigration case for a flat fee, the attorney believes that he or she can predict how much time and resources the case will require, usually because the attorney or a colleague has done similar types of cases before

Clients usually have a more favorable view of the flat fee arrangement than the hourly fee because the flat fee enables clients to budget more accurately for the total cost of their legal issue. Clients also tend to feel that the flat fee gives them more value for their money, especially in immigration cases, which often require lengthy applications and a lot of supporting evidence.

Meanwhile, a lawyer’s hourly rate can range anywhere from $200 per hour to $500 per hour and upwards, depending on a variety of factors including the attorney’s level of experience, the complexity of the case, and the area of the country in which the attorney lives.

When an Immigration Case Necessitates an Hourly Fee Arrangement

Though the flat fee is undeniably the standard billing method used by immigration attorneys, there are some situations in which an immigration attorney may require that the client be billed hourly. Immigration attorneys are 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 how much time it will take to prepare your immigration case. However, some cases are more difficult to predict, depending on the country of origin, set of facts or factors as to how or why the person came to the United States, unusual criminal history, and so forth. If, after your initial immigration consultation, the lawyer thinks that your situation is atypical or complex, you may be asked to pay an hourly rate.
  2. Tight deadline. Some immigration applications require that you file within a certain amount of time. Unfortunately, due to cost or other hardships, immigration clients sometimes wait until the last minute before filing a necessary application. For example, asylum seekers must apply for asylum within one year of entering the United States. If you wait until one week before the one-year deadline, your immigration attorney may require that you pay by the hour instead of paying a flat fee. In this situation, your case will probably also cost more money because the attorney needs to work quickly to meet the deadline.
  3. No end in sight. If the immigration attorney believes that your immigration case will take a lot of time with no foreseeable resolution, a flat fee for legal services will likely not be available to you. Keep in mind also that an immigration lawyer will be more likely to charge an hourly rate for a deportation case, but charge a flat fee for a family immigration matter, like a green card.
  4. You have an “easy” case, or just need a series of consults. Conversely, if you have a very straightforward case, an hourly fee arrangement may 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 may 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 may wish to consider an hourly fee arrangement.

How to Keep Hourly Fee Arrangements from Skyrocketing

Oftentimes, clients do not realize that an attorney who bills by the hour will charge for every encounter you have with him or her. 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 and speak on the phone, the attorney will start the time clock on his or her billing software and you will likely be charged for that phone call, 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 if you want to keep costs from skyrocketing. 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 his or her paralegal to do it for you.

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