Choosing an immigration attorney can be difficult. This practice area is different from most others. So are those who dedicate their time to it.
Immigration law is almost as complicated as the federal tax code. The procedures require creativity and connecting with the communities we serve often requires the mentality of an activist.
Even so, countless attorneys will advertise that they have the experience, expertise and passion to help you navigate the process. Here’s our attempt to help you weed through the advertisements and find the right attorney for you:
The True Measure of Experience: It is logical to assume that an attorney who has practiced 34 years is automatically better than one who has practiced for one year. In many cases, this may be true. Personally, some of the best attorneys I have ever known were young. Some of the worst attorneys I have ever known had practiced for decades. As with most things in life, balance is essential. Focus on the type of experience an attorney has. Has he or she successfully represented clients with your type of case before? Young attorneys may not have everything, but older attorneys may be getting burned out. When looking for an attorney, make sure the number of years he or she has practiced is not the only criteria your concerned with.
The Focus of Practice: It is difficult to juggle the practice of immigration law with other practice areas such as criminal or family law. There are just not enough hours in the day for someone to represent immigration clients, research immigration law and stay up to date with current events and still do the same in other practice areas. Choosing an attorney who focuses exclusively on immigration will increase the likelihood that you have chosen someone who knows how to handle your case.
AILA Membership: While AILA membership in and of itself does not guarantee the quality of the attorney in question, it is a strong indication he or she takes immigration law seriously. Being a member of AILA costs money and AILA provides educational and research materials to its members.
The Power of Reputation: There are a number of ways to judge an attorney’s reputation: the opinion of other immigration professionals, community opinion and friends and family members who have used the attorney before. There are a number of on-line sites, including avvo.com and lawyers.com that rate attorneys based on a variety of factors, including peer ratings and endorsements.
Communication is Key: The biggest complaint about lawyers is not losing a case or moving too slow. The biggest complaint most clients have of their attorneys is that they fail to communicate properly. When evaluating an attorney, pay attention to how they communicate. Does the attorney return your phone calls in a timely manner? Does he or she attempt to explain things in a clear and organized fashion? Does the attorney make every attempt to ensure you understand your case? You should also keep in mind that your attorney may be very busy. Calling every day and expecting a return call within a couple of hours may not be an appropriate expectation.
The Importance of Activism: Pay attention to the lawyer’s activity outside of the 8:00 – 5:00 schedule. Does the attorney participate in grass-roots immigration efforts? Does the attorney present on immigration law topics in the community or write and publish a blog or legal articles? Does the lawyer disseminate newsletters containing updates in the law? Engaging in these activities is a strong indication that the attorney in question takes the issues people face in immigration proceedings seriously, and dedicates a significant portion of his life to advancing these issues. It is also a strong indication that the attorney researches and understands the law.
Putting Pen to Paper: Is the attorney willing to put your representation agreement into writing; clarifying the goals, costs, payment plans and expectations of both the client and the attorney in the form of a representation agreement or fee arrangement letter? Does the attorney provide you with copies of any such agreements as well as important court or agency filings? Be wary of anyone who wants to avoid reducing your agreements to writing.
Credentials & Discipline: Is the attorney licensed in a state or territory of the United States? To practice immigration law, an attorney does not necessarily have to be licensed in your state of residence, but he or she does have to be licensed by a state. You can check with the state bar of the state your attorney claims to be licensed in to verify this. You can also check to make sure an attorney has a clean disciplinary record.
What’s in the Cost? Cheaper is not always better. That being said, expensive is not always better either. Look for something in between. Also, make sure a prospective attorney is up front about his or her fees. If he or she is unwilling or reluctant to enter into a fee arrangement letter, that should be a red flag.
Language, Ethnicity & National Origin: The ability of an attorney to speak your native language is completely irrelevant to their ability to understand and articulate immigration laws. Even so, it may play a role in his or her ability to effectively understand, know and represent you. Do not allow an attorney’s language background to be the only factor you consider when looking for immigration assistance, but if this is important to you, do not let anyone tell you it should not be.
Location, Location, Location: Any attorney licensed in any state of the United States is allowed to represent you before any U.S. immigration tribunal or agency. In that sense, it does not really matter if you hire someone locally or in another state. I myself have represented individuals who I have never met in person. That being said, if I were in the position of having to pay someone thousands of dollars to help me in a difficult legal situation, I would want to see their face at least one time. Most metropolitan areas in the U.S. have excellent immigration attorneys living and working in or nearby them.
Personality: Ultimately, any successful attorney-client relationship is going to come down to compatibility just like any other relationship. Do you feel comfortable around your attorney? Does your attorney effectively communicate with you? Does he or she listen to you? Does he or she strive to understand where you are coming from? If not, it may be time to look elsewhere.