Important things to take into account when looking for an immigration lawyer.
Do you need a lawyer?
Most of the time, YES! Immigration law, particularly American immigration law is one of the most politically divisive areas of the legal system and it is therefore not surprising that it has grown incredibly dense and is constantly changing.
The US immigration system is administered by multiple government agnecies. While web sites and concerted efforts by these agencies to provide better information to the public are starting to bear fruit, it could be a grave mistake to rely on government agencies for legal advice relating to immigrating the US. Why? Consider the following:
They have no responsibility or liability for information they provide. They are enforcement agencies and the mindset at the agencies is often to keep out as many people as possible. Information officers are frequently not adequately trained in immigration law and do not keep up with the latest developments. Individual case situations differ dramatically and agencies do not have the resources to help each one.
What about people that call themselves "immigration consultants"?
In most states, people who work as immigration consultants are violating the law by practicing law without a license. Because these individuals are operating illegally, their work is not regulated and you do not have the same recourse available to go after someone who is dishonest or incompetent.
USCIS does not recognize immigration consultants and will not allow them to intervene on your behalf should a problem arise in your case.
Many immigration consultants insist that they are merely assisting people in completing forms. But even the USCIS has warned the public that the process of applying for a visa or citizenship is more than just form-filling. There are regulations behind most of the questions asked on USCIS forms and questions that may seem straightforward are actually designed to elicit information relating to a complicated matter of law.
AILA member -- Is the lawyer a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association? AILA is probably the immigration lawyer's best resource for up-to-date information. While being an AILA member is not a sure sign of qualify, it may indicate that the lawyer is keeping up with this rapidly changing field of law.
Disciplinary actions -- Has the attorney ever been disciplined by the Board of Professional Responsibility of the state bar? This is an obvious sign of problems. There are also people who falsely claim to be licensed attorneys. The local bar is also the place to check that the attorney is licensed and in good standing.
Community reputation -- Has the lawyer established a good name for himself or herself in the community? If your attorney has a sterling community reputation, chances are it was earned through hard work.
Immigration exclusive practice
Many lawyers list immigration law as one of a variety of types of matters they handle. It is tough enough for a full-time immigration lawyer to keep abreast of all of the developments in the practice area. It is nearly impossible to be a top notch immigration lawyer while trying to balance being an expert in many other practice areas as well. While someone can be a good immigration lawyer and also be very competent in another practice area, watch out for lawyers where immigration is one practice area on a laundry list of claimed specialties.
Years in practice -- Much of immigration law is unwritten and the longer one is in practice, the better one's instincts become. But the opposite can be true as well. Lawyers who have been practicing for years may become lazy about staying up to date on the latest changes. Some of the worst lawyers practicing immigration law in this country are the ones who have been around the longest. So try and strike a balance.
Is your lawyer taking on so much work that there is no way cases can properly be handled? Too many lawyers don't know when to draw the line and either say no to taking on additional work or to make the decision to take on more attorneys and staff.
Lawyer-Paralegal ratio -- One of the ways immigration practices are attempting to keep costs down is to hire paralegals and legal assistants to do much of the work that immigration lawyers used to do on their own. In some markets, this may be the only way to keep costs low enough for people to afford to hire a lawyer. But you should know what you are paying for. Some of the most expensive immigration firms still staff with extremely high ratios of paralegals -- sometimes as high as ten paralegals per attorney. A more modest ratio of one to two paralegals per attorney may mean that the firm is not too overloaded with work and it may mean that the attorney you thought you were hiring actually knows what is happening on your case.
The number one complaint against lawyers in this country is not poor work quality. It is failing to communicate with their clients. You are paying a lot of money to hire a lawyer and it is your right to expect to be kept informed of developments and have your calls and emails returned in a timely manner. On the other hand, there is still such a thing as excess and calling your lawyer everyday to find out what is happening on your case is not necessarily fair either.
Use of technology -- Technology has revolutionized the practice of immigration law probably as much as any other area in the legal profession. Does your attorney use email? Does the attorney have the latest research and case management software? Does the attorney provide electronic newsletters and email alerts to inform clients of breaking news. Does the firm have an extranet that allows you to log in to a private and secure web site to see what is happening on your case?
Lawyers who write frequently about their practice area tend to keep themselves better informed about their area of law. The ability to get published also may indicate that the lawyer's expertise is respected.
Promising too much -- There are actually immigration lawyers out there who swear they have never lost a case even after a lengthy career. Be nervous about lawyers who promise success. A lawyer who honestly presents the risks is worth a lot more. Likewise, be very weary of attorneys who claim to have special influence with the government. Also beware of lawyers who speak too negatively of the competition. If the lawyer is worthy, they can stand on their own record rather than tearing down the record of competitors.