What Absolute Assurances are there that a Flat Fee is All that a Client Will Pay an Attorney?
None! An immigration attorney cannot tell you with absolute assurance the exact attorney fees 'without taking the risk' of eventually appearing like a liar, incompetent, less than professional, or financial frustrated. Usually, an attorney fee is reasonable as long as the client is reasonable. Often, the retainer fee is all that is required. The advertised flat fee Attorney will attach warnings like 'for simple cases, only.' Some simple immigration cases simply prove time consuming. There is also the infamous "unusual circumstances" clause. An unwritten agreement can also create conflicts. Buyer Beware.
Does the Unusual Circumstances Clause Effectively Eliminate the Immigration Flat Fee?
Yes. The unusual circumstances clause is a feature of many flat fee agreements. This clause can effectively eliminate a true flat fee agreement. The clause may allow an attorney to withdraw from a case, when it gets too complicated, a client lies, the USCIS messes up, or clients take up too much of the firm's time. How does a client know? You have to trust your attorney or find another one in those situations.
An attorney may confirm expenses. A fee quote 'may' prove elusive after you commit to them. The frustration of working for too many under-paying clients can impact law firms. Attorneys should have clients that they can trust, as well.
When an immigration file is lost or delayed by USCIS, then it is 'not' the Attorney's fault. Your case should 'not' become the sole responsibility of an associate or paralegal once the case is delayed. Efforts can be made. This is where flat fee agreements may conflict with ethically considerate practices by attorneys
What is a fee ceiling?
A fee ceiling is an effort by the attorney to establish a point where representation may effectively end until a new agreement is reached. Often, a fee ceiling is never reached. Some clients make excessive contact with an attorney. This can result in poor relations. Some attorneys may continue to represent a client in spite of undisclosed facts or a change in the law. Usually, an attorney anticipates a reasonable overall fee for visa processing when they identify a retainer.
Sometimes, an unresolved 'USCIS name check' can delay the interview for a year. USCIS can delay or demand additional documents, so clients may need the attorney to take additional action. The fee ceiling substitutes for the unusual circumstances clause. It provides a fee anticipated in 'more unusual cases,' but not the most unusual cases.
At that point, clients consider filing a Federal lawsuit to order a decision (approval or denial) where USCIS delay seems utterly reckless or willful and wanton.
Shouldn't my First Appointment Be a Free Consultation?
It depends upon what you want from an experienced immigration attorney. In Immigration law, it has been the custom to charge for the first appointment or teleconference. Many clients want to know why they may not qualify for permanent resident status; clients want to know why the case may be complicated. Clients want to know what USCIS mistakes may be made.
This takes time to explain. An attorneys stock and trade is the value of his or her advice and time. Don't be surprised if you are asked to pay for an appointment. Some attorneys may spend over an hour in the office.
In addition, most attorney will apply the appointment fee to the fee that they will charge. In quite a few situations, clients may decide not to take any further action. This is true even if a client is married to a U.S. Citizen or one is simply filing for naturalization. The laws are complicated. Attorneys should not get their clients deported for the sake of an attorneys fee.