Given the current administration’s tightening and unrelenting enforcement of an already wildly complicated immigration system, it is essential to have excellent legal help on your side to successfully navigate the process toward finding immigration relief, permanent residence, and ultimately citizenship in the United States. The question becomes, HOW do you find a great immigration lawyer to resolve my immigration problem? Here are nine questions to ask to help you locate the best immigration lawyer for you.
- Is the Attorney a Member of AILA? Perhaps the most important thing you need to be aware of when looking for a qualified, competent, and experienced immigration attorney is how long that attorney has been practicing immigration law. The issue in our US system of attorneys is that in most states, there is no exam to be an immigration lawyer (some states do have this, so look for “certified” or “specialist” lawyers in states like North Carolina, Texas, and California, among others). That means anyone can say in a newspaper ad or a TV commercial, or online, that they are an “expert” in immigration. You can take a look behind the curtain, so to speak, of that claim, and here is how. Go to https://www.ailalawyer.com and search for the attorneys’ name you are planning on hiring. If that attorney is not a member of the only organization that assists immigration lawyers in staying current in an ever changing field, run away. Fast!
- Where is the Attorney Licensed? You also need to be sure that your attorney is actually licensed in the state of the attorney’s principal office. If the attorney’s office is in Georgia, you want to be sure the attorney is licensed by the State Bar of Georgia? Why? Although some attorneys not licensed in the state they practice law claim that immigration law is federal law, and thus that they can practice it anywhere in the US and do not have to be licensed in the state in which they reside, the reality is knowing WHERE you attorney is licensed protects YOU, the consumer of legal services, such that if there is a problem with your attorney, you can go to the State Bar of that state, and they can help you resolve your complaint or problems. You can also check upfront and see whether that lawyer has ever been disciplined for prior misconduct. Nothing is worse than choosing a lawyer, having the representation go wrong, and then not having any recourse against that attorney. Another reason you want a lawyer licensed in the state they practice is that immigration law today is so much more than federal law. There are issues of state criminal law, state employment law, state domestic relations law, and other areas that impact an immigration case, and you want your lawyer to be cognizant of these areas to be able recognize any issues that might arise and be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.
- Is the Lawyer a “Jack of All Trades?” Be very careful of the lawyer who practices in multiple areas of law, in addition immigration. It is very difficult to be an expert or specialist in a dozen different things. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is what you want to avoid in someone representing you in the ever changing area of immigration law. Immigration law is so much more than filling out forms and mailing them in. Especially under this administration which threatens deportation proceedings with any rejected application. So, if you see a newspaper ad, or radio or television advertisement, or even a website, touting a single attorney as being able to handle your personal injury, criminal, workers compensation, bankruptcy, AND your immigration matters, run away.
- How Much Immigration Experience Does the Lawyer Have? The experience of an attorney matters a great deal in handling your immigration case. Would you go to the surgeon for brain surgery who has never operated on a brain before? Of course not. You need to verify the experience your attorney has in immigration law, and you can do this by asking that attorney how many years they have practiced only immigration law, generally how many cases of your particular type they have handled, and what they generally see as a successful case. Be wary of immigration lawyers who say they never lose a case, that simply is not true in today’s world, because USCIS and the Courts deny good cases all the time, frequently for a bad reason, and not because the attorney has done anything wrong. But experienced attorneys will be able to tell you what helps cases get approved and what hurts cases. You also need to be sure that if they are an immigration attorney, they have done YOUR time type of case before. Many immigration attorneys sub-specialize in only a specific area of immigration law.
- How Big is the Firm? Many people like the idea of having a solo lawyer working on their case, with no assistance from other attorneys or paralegals. If that is you, great. But, you have to understand what you are getting into when you choose an attorney with no other support. If that attorney takes on too many cases, goes on vacation, gets ill, or has issues with this practice, something or someone is going to suffer and perhaps your case will not be monitored or handled in a way you might not like. Who is mentoring or assisting that attorney? If the attorney needs an answer to their question, who do they easily ask? How do they learn new things (without “practicing” on you)? For that reason, most people look to hire law firms with multiple attorneys and support staff. One thing about immigration law that I have learned over thirty years of doing this work is that no one does it by themselves. We all need help to stay on top of the law, cases, and client communications. When you hire a small or large firm, generally, you are hiring a team of people, a lawyer, an associate, a paralegal, and even assistants so that you always have someone to communicate with and get answers to your questions. Look for an experienced immigration firm to help you achieve your goals. And look for the one that responds when YOU need a question answered, not when they feel like answering it.
- What About Online Reviews? While many attorneys hate them, the reality is that online reviews are very helpful to consumers, so long as you understand a few caveats. One, who posts online reviews? Generally people who are very happy or very upset with the service they receive. Look at the reviewers other reviews on that service. If they only ever give bad reviews, take what they say with a grain of salt. Two, lawyers do “game” they system by pushing as many positive reviews as they can. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is fact of how reviews systems work. Also “general” reviews, either positive or negative, are not very helpful, while specific reviews, especially by someone who identifies themselves in the review (not anonymous), can be very helpful in making your decisions about that attorney. You can check out what others who have worked with the law firm you are considering at www.facebook.com, www.avvo.com, www.google.com/maps, www.yelp.com, www.martinedale.com, and many other sites.
- Can I Rely on What Experience My Family/ Friend/Boss Had? This is a great question. The answer is, it depends. There is that old saying, even blind squirrels find nuts. And the standard disclaimer is that “past experience is no guarantee of future success.” But, if the experience your loved one or referral source had was positive, and you can corroborate it with the other items on this list, and after a consultation you believe you match well with that attorney, then by all means rely on it, but do not use it as the only reason to hire an attorney. There is a reason it is number 7!
- Does the Attorney Have a Website? This one is a simple one. Does the attorney have a website? If not, run away. Its 2018, what attorney does not have a website? The cost to set one up and run it is small in terms of time and cost. Not having an active website is a sign of a lack of seriousness of the practice. However, just having a website is not enough. You also want to see if the website is up to date. Is the last posting in their blog from 2010? Is the last review on their site from 2012? Do the pictures look old and dated? Is the information so general and non-specific, that the website appears to have been set up by a bot? All these signs of neglect are signals of how that attorney runs their practice. The website is a reflection of the firm. Also what content is on the website? Does the attorney’s website have an electronic case management system that allows you to access your files and case 24/7? Was the website designed to just rank high in a Google search engine? Or is the attorney providing you usable information about the area of law you are interested in. If it is the latter, then you need to talk to that attorney and see if they are the right fit for you. In a related questions, look at your attorneys email. Is it Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo account? Again, this goes to an attorney’s credibility. Does the attorney really trust the services and information provided to you to public sources like this?
- How Does the Attorney do Consultations? Most experienced immigration attorneys do not do “free” consultations. Like everything else in life, nothing is truly free. Unlike personal injury lawyers, who frequently do free consultations looking for that one giant case that will pay all their bills, immigration attorneys are handling a larger number of cases for relatively low fees. As a result, when an immigration attorney is meeting with a person for “free” that generally means they are not working on a case for a paying client, thus costing them income. Also, generally speaking, attorneys who give “free” consultations simply build the cost of that consultation into their overall fee, meaning that there is no real “free” consultations. What most immigration lawyers do today is charge a reasonable consultation fee, at a rate commensurate with their level of experience, and then apply the cost of that consultation into the payments on your case. This approach works well for the vast majority of attorneys and clients. So, be careful of “free” because it rarely works out well!