Written by attorney Eric Elliot Ludin

What fee arrangement is best for an immigration matter?

“A lawyer's time and advice are his stock in trade"

Abraham Lincoln

When you walk into a retail store, you select the item you want to purchase, check the price and take it to the register. You know what you will pay and what you will receive in return for your money. But, this simple concept of basis commerce rarely occurs when you hire a lawyer. Why is that?

A lawyer exchanges his time and advice for money. But, it is unusual for a lawyer to know how much time he will be exchanging prior to accepting you as a client. This makes it extremely difficult for you to have any idea how to budget your legal expenses if you do not know what they will total until after the services are rendered.

Contingent fee

When an attorney agrees to represent you on a matter in litigation they can sometimes represent you on a contingent fee basis, where they are paid a fee as a percentage of the recovery. This is usually appropriate in personal injury matters or other cases where the attorney is representing you for the purpose of seeking a financial award on your behalf. However, this could not be used in divorce cases, criminal cases, defense cases or any other matter that does not involve recovery of money such as an immigration case.

Hourly fee

Attorneys will often represent you on an hourly basis. This means that you pay a fee for every hour (or fraction thereof) that the lawyer works on your case. Normally, the fee includes not only time spent speaking with you, but also time answering phone calls and e-mails related to your case, time spent researching legal matters, preparing documents, and attending every meeting or hearing including travel time. Lawyers often charge not only for their time, but also the time of their paralegals, associate attorneys and other staff. Although a lawyer can make a prediction as to what the fees might be based on his experience and the amount of work he thinks might need to be devoted to your case, he or she is often wrong.

A lawyer rarely has complete control over how much time they devote to a case. They get unsolicited calls and can be inundated with discovery requests, motions and hearings set by opposing counsel with no choice but to respond to them. Sometimes a case that seems simple in the beginning becomes far more complex later on.

Therefore, although you are getting work done in exchange for the fee you pay, you can rarely anticipate in advance what you will be paying. When you combine this with the fact that lawyers cannot guarantee an outcome, you take a huge risk when you retain counsel on an hourly basis. Even though you may receive terrific legal representation, you may be frustrated that the fees were higher than anticipated or the result did not justify the fees paid.

Flat Fee

A flat fee means that a lawyer agrees to handle a legal matter for a set amount, often paid in advance. This benefits the client in that you can budget what you will spend and not be shocked with a bill that was more than anticipated. But, there is still risk to both the client and the lawyer. If the matter is resolved quickly, you may look back and realize that you could have saved money had you paid the lawyer hourly. If the lawyer underestimated the amount of time he would need to devote to the case, he or she may find that they would have been paid much more had they charged hourly.

Immigration cases are very well suited to the flat fee. The process for handling your case is often determined by government procedures. The lawyer can anticipate in advance how many hearings or meetings they need to attend and what documents need to be filed. Often cases have special complications which the lawyer can anticipate and charge a higher fee for the extra work required. This fee arrangement is a win/win for the lawyer and the client and helps avoid sticker shock and frustration.

At Tucker & Ludin, we normally represent our immigration clients on a flat fee basis. We are not the least expensive immigration lawyers (or the most), but that is for a good reason. We devote a lot of our time to your case. When you select a lawyer, instead of choosing the least expensive, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Do I want a lawyer that has the experience and knowledge to know how to represent me in a way that will have the best chance to get the result I hope to achieve?

2) Do I want a lawyer that will communicate with me regularly and respond to my calls and e-mails?

3) Do I want a lawyer that understands my needs and empathies with my situation and will work with me as a member of my “team"?

You should consider these and other facts when selecting a lawyer. You certainly do not want to be “pound wise and penny foolish" and pick the wrong lawyer for you in order to save a few dollars.

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