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?
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.
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:
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.