Written by attorney Kevin Lawrence Dixler

Immigration 101: Flat Fees versus Capped Fees. What are the Concerns and Differences?

All clients want to limit legal fees. Most reasonable attorneys want to avoid being surprised by unexpected situations not caused by reasonable immigration practice. What should a client do? What can the attorney do?

First, a potential client should think before shopping around for the attorney who 'offers to charge' the lowest flat fee. Once an attorney is paid, a client is hooked and can become easily disatisfied with the time spent and the care undertaken. To experienced attorneys, clients who insist on a flat fee may have something to hide.

Second, avoid hiring the first attorney who guarantees an approved application and when. Immigration attorneys don't make decisions, USCIS Examiners make them. Better attorney use care in asking all questions that reveal answers that may result in USCIS confusion or denial. An attorney cannot anticipate the effect of understaffing or insufficient examiner training. Some matters are complicated and unresolved based upon our laws. Our Government is questionably funded, because Americans don't likepaying taxes, challenging Congress, or relying upon too many Government Services. Those underfunded services, like immigration benefits, must be delayed or denied at times due to the law.

Third, tell the truth. Any decision to hide facts can result in a delay or denial. If you fear any fact, then tell your attorney. It may not be a problem, but withholding fears can cause unneeded complications and frustration. Withholding facts may also result in permanent deportation.

Some attorneys believe that a flat fee arrangement and/or free consultations are the best for both attorneys and clients. I disagree. It may arguably show also greed or incompetence. Some clients just won't like some attorneys or follow their advice.

Attorney client relationships should begin with trust through comprehensive appointments or teleconferences. The attorney should be candid and show patience. A client should prepare in advance. Bring all of your documents, whether criminal and/or immigration related.

Ask all your questions at the appointment. Expect and get the best answers possible. If you expect reasonably complete answers, then the attorney may spend more time to explain. Attorneys usually agree to apply an appointment fee to the fee charged should a client decide to retain them. It is common for immigration attorneys who practice only immigration law to charge for appointments.

Attorneys may recommend against filing. Attorneys may find flaws that can result in complications that applicants don't want to experience at this time in their lives. A decision not to file an application may be best. An attorney who must earn a fee by filing an application or doing additional research may prove to be biased or more expensive. A free consultation may be less than a bargain.

A capped fee arrangement states a minimum as well as a maximum fee. It explains when an attorney or client may end the relationship. If an attorney charge additional fees, then this often proves to be requested, as needed. This makes worries about runaway fees questionable. Agreements that require reasonable accounting for time help clients. Often, the fee cap is discussed and negotiated, but the agreement can end when the cap is reached, where attorney and client wants to budget. An attorney should earn enough money to pay for salary, not just their expenses.

In capped fee agreements, the attorney often ends up charging the initial or anticipated fee in spite of the fee cap. However, this depends upon unanticipated client needs, as well. Sometimes, due to unexpected emergencies, clients want more assistance. Some clients need more counseling than others. A capped fee agreement allows an attorney to charge more to meet more clients' expectations. It may also encourage an attorney to continue working in awkward situations wih client consent and appreciation.

A capped fee agreement also allows an attorney to charge additional reasonable fee when things go wrong, not avoid the client, or be pressured to pay more money based upon an "unusual circumstances clause." This clause often allows an attorney to quit or charge more than the flat fee. So, are capped fee agreements that different from a flat fee agreements? Is a capped fee agreement more realistic given the uncertainties of unexpected delays at USCIS or client emergencies?

Attorneys want to be careful with their time. If an attorney can charge less, then they know clients are more satisfied, but at what cost? This is a balancing act. An attorney knows that if too little time is spent, then this can further delay matters, upset clients, and result in dissatisfaction. Attorneys charging less often are newer to the practice, fear their creditors, spend less time to prepare, and/or have too many clients. These practitioners often have less time to complete the work and meet the standard of care expected by most clients unfamiliar with immigration attorneys.

If both an attorney and client find that they cannot find a way to trust each other, then why sign any agreement; whether a capped or flat fee agreement? Why even hire an attorney?

For any written agreement to work, both the attorney and client must appreciate the immigration process, so that they understand their obligations. Look for a reasonably written agreement that anticipates all possible concerns, even unlikely outcomes. This should encourage respect between both attorneys and clients.

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