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How to Select an Immigration Attorney

How to Choose a Good Immigration Attorney

Immigrating to the US or Canada can be tricky.  So is trying to resolve a criminal record issue that will prevent you from visiting either country.  Hiring an immigration attorney to help you with these issues increases the chance that your application will be accepted. You do not get a lot of “do-overs” in this area, so using an attorney can bring you the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are taking the right steps. However, there are many lawyers and consultants offering immigration services and the costs are significant.  How do you pick the best immigration attorney?

  • Look for expertise; Look out for scams
  • Make good use of the attorney consultation
  • Avoid the Temptation to Bargain Hunt

What You Should Not Do:

Do not use a lawyer you already use for something else.  It is highly unlikely they have more than a basic understanding of what it takes to help you with U.S. and Canadian immigration issues. Although they may be a competent attorney, they are unlikely to be an expert on the very complex issues around immigration or entering the U.S. or Canada with a criminal record.

Look Out for Scams. Do not hire an unlicensed “consultant”. Despite attempts by the U.S. and Canadian governments to crack down on immigration attorney fraud and incompetence, many immigration consultants continue to bill themselves as “experts”, without any real experience. Don’t fall for that friend-of-friend, church member, or cousin’s colleague who seems too eager to help. There are many examples of fraud by unethical consultants who promise clients success, but lack the expertise, education, and strategy to give effective legal advice. With an accredited and reliable attorney, you will avoid scams that could cost you hundreds of dollars, hours of time and potentially your ability to immigrate.

Don’t fall for false guarantees: If an attorney offers you a guarantee of success in your application, strike them off your list! A good immigration attorney should ensure that a perfect application is submitted, but they should never guarantee success. You cannot trust any lawyer who claims that your application will 100% be accepted. Find a professional who is honest about your chances of success, provides accurate advice, and can discuss their experience with cases similar to your own.

Look for Attorney Expertise

There is no single attorney who can “do it all”. Avoid lawyers who claim expertise in many areas of law.  A generalist is likely to lack the depth of knowledge necessary for your situation and may provide outdated advice.

Immigration law is complex and the laws for the U.S. and Canada are different. There are many details that can derail your application to immigrate.  In addition, these laws change regularly.  Find a true expert who is highly experienced and on top of all changes. A lawyer’s credentials and experience should be evident from a quick online search. You can search the local Bar Association website to confirm the individual you want to hire is licensed to practice law.

Likewise, submitting an application to enter either the U.S. or Canada with a criminal record requires special knowledge.  This type of work is typically done by an immigration attorney as a subset of a broader immigration practice.  Whoever you pick, make sure they have extensive experience in Temporary Residency Permits, Waiver applications, and  other U.S. and Canadian processes used to enter those countries with a criminal record.

Most people will begin their search for an immigration attorney by doing an internet search. A useful search might look something like: “US (or Canadian) immigration attorney.”  You should realize that Canadian attorneys are more likely to know Canadian immigration law, while American attorneys will know U.S. law.  As a result, you may need to work with someone who is located in the country you are trying to enter.

Once you have a list of possible law firms, search their website for details on their services.  Read any FAQ’s. If the type of assistance you require is not listed, be cautious, as they may try to convince you to hire them without having the expertise to deal with your situation. Following an attorney’s social media – such as their Twitter, blog, or LinkedIn page – will also help you become familiar with their accomplishments and knowledge on current immigration issues.  Be wary of lawyers who don’t have a website or online presence. Unwillingness to learn modern online tools could indicate unwillingness to learn new immigration laws. The last thing you want is a lawyer who is not up-to-date on the legislation.

Before you agree to visit / phone call with an attorney, make sure they are a member in good standing with the Bar Association where they practice and that they have ever had any disciplinary action taken against them. Attorney disciplinary records are available to the public and can be found at the local Bar website. Be very wary of hiring an attorney with any history of malpractice.

Make Good Use of the Attorney Consultation

The secret to finding a good attorney is in the questions you ask before you hire one.

Use consultations to find the best lawyer for your situation. Limit your search to firms that provide a free consultation to explore your options.  Consultations should help you decide whether to trust the attorney and if they have the right experience for your case. If you do not get the feeling that the firm offering the consultation is interested in your case, you should look elsewhere.

It is important to be well prepared for the consultation so you get the most out of the meeting.  

  • If possible, meet with the attorney in person.  This is the best way to gauge how well you will be able to work together.  Be concerned if the lawyer is local, but will only speak on the phone. However, it may not always be possible to meet in person if there are no attorneys in your area that have the expertise you need. Many specialty immigration law firms handle clients from around the world.
  • Have a computer or pen and paper available during the consultation so you can take notes. It is likely you will receive a lot of information, and, if you meet with several attorneys, it will be very difficult to look back and  remember what each attorney recommended.
  • Be prepared to discuss all of the facts in your situation. Outline everything that you think is relevant, and then some.  Bring all relevant documents to the meeting.  Most importantly, be honest. You do not want to surprise your attorney with a fact that may harm your case after they have filed your paperwork.  If you are going to disclose sensitive information, confirm with the attorney that your communication is “privileged”.  Typically, if you are talking to an attorney face to face, even before they have decided whether to take your case, you should enjoy attorney-client privilege. This means that nothing you say could ever be used against you.

Here are some of the questions you should ask your potential attorney:

  • “Do you belong to any bar associations or other professional organizations? If so, which?”
  • “How long have you been practicing immigration law?”
  • “How many immigration clients do you represent a year?” “Do you take other types of cases?” “What percentage of your caseload is devoted to situations such as mine?”
  • “How many applications like mine have you filed?”  By now you have already checked the attorney’s website or you may know about him from your friend or colleague. Discuss the firm’s success rate for similar cases.
  • “Who else may work on my case?” You are not just hiring an attorney.  In fact, much of the work will probably be done by paralegals and other staff.  Interview the law firm. Ask who else will work on your case.
  • ”What challenges do you see in my case?” The lawyer should be able to explain the challenges they see and how those may affect the results of your application.
  • “How will you keep me informed about my case?” Will I receive regular status updates? How often? What will they include?
  • “Whom do I call with questions?” “How quickly can I expect a response?” “How do you prefer to be contacted?” You must feel comfortable with the attorney’s commitment to communicate with you.
  • “What is an approximate timeline for my type of case?”.
  • “Are you covered by a legal malpractice insurance policy?” They better have one. Malpractice insurance is just as much insurance for you as it is for your lawyer.
  • “Have you ever been disciplined by the Bar?”  You do not want a lawyer with a long disciplinary rap sheet and you deserve to know if your lawyer has been disciplined in the past.
  • “What will be the final outcome of my case?”  This is a trick question.  A good attorney will not promise you a specific result because it is impossible to predict whether your application will be approved. They can only promise to do their best. If you get a “guarantee” – run.

You should leave the consultation with a clear idea of what the attorney’s strategy will be for your application.

Don’t Bargain Hunt For an Attorney

Attorneys can be expensive.  Hiring a good immigration attorney will cost hundreds – and possibly – thousands of dollars.  Do not avoid talking about money.  It is important.  Make sure you trust the attorney and are clear about the fees before signing any agreements.

Some law firms charge by the hour so it can be difficult to know how much you will pay in the end. Your other option would be to use a firm that charges fixed fees for your type of case. This will ensure that you will never be confronted with surprise costs down the road, especially if your application turns out to be more complicated or time-consuming than expected.

  • Fees, whether fixed or hourly, should be identified in advance and clearly described in a written contract.
  • Get an estimate in writing.  Although you may face additional fees if something unexpected comes up, the attorney should be able to give you a good estimate of what your total costs will be.
  • Make sure you clearly understand what is included in fees you are being quoted.  Question the firm about any additional costs you will be responsible for that are not included in the attorney’s agreement.
  • Negotiate your fees.  Although you may not get a break in your costs, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
  • Ask what forms of payment the firm accepts.
  • Find out if the attorney offers a payment plan. This can make paying your attorney’s fees much more manageable.

This is not the time to bargain hunt. The stakes are simply too high for you and your loved ones to risk a rejected application due to low-quality legal services. While some attorneys advertise low fees as their main selling feature – you should be looking for someone with experience dealing with your type of case. Lawyers who are only focused on low cost are often inexperienced or overloaded with cases which can result in them mishandling your application.

Making your Selection and Hiring an Attorney

If you meet with only one attorney, they are clearly qualified, and you liked working with them, then lucky you – your search is over.  However, if you meet with several attorneys and you don’t have a clear choice then here are some guidelines to help make your final selection.

  • Which one offered advice you found most helpful?
  • Whose legal fees were reasonable? Fees will vary by location, how busy the firm is, and many other factors.  After speaking with several attorneys, you should get a good idea of what a fair price is for the service you need.
  • Which attorney were you most comfortable with?
  • Which attorney was best able to discuss the information regarding your case in a manner that was easy for you to understand?
  • Which lawyer spoke most confidently about your situation? An attorney that seems unsure, or does not have clear responses to your questions, may not have as much experience as they say they do.
  • You should only pick someone you trust.  It is difficult to know how trustworthy a person is after just one meeting. Client testimonials may help in this regard; however, beware of Yelp reviews or other online reviews by disgruntled clients as they may not be happy with the outcome of their case despite the attorney’s fair representation.

If you need more even information to make a choice between lawyers then ask for references. A good attorney should have clients willing to give you a testimonial of how they handled a case like yours. Be very leery if they will not offer you any references.  Here are some questions you can ask the attorney’s references:

  • What was it like working with the attorney?
  • What were the attorney’s strengths? What were their weaknesses?
  • Do you believe your attorney fought hard for you?
  • Would you hire this attorney again?

After Selecting an Attorney – Communication is Key

Once you have made your selection it is important to build a relationship with your attorney to establish trust and ensure your application is completed correctly. Make sure to find a firm that gives quick feedback and replies to phone calls and emails in a timely manner. A good lawyer will clearly explain the process, listen to you, respond promptly, and won’t take advantage of your stress or fear to persuade you to make quick decisions on difficult matters.  Remember that communication is a two way street – you are responsible for being active throughout the process and understanding the steps involved. Be honest about your concerns and provide all details pertinent to your case.

The right immigration lawyer can make all the difference for you and your family when trying to immigrate to the U.S. or Canada.  Likewise, you want an experienced person handling your request to enter the country for a visit despite having a criminal record.  Take the time to select a good attorney so you do not regret it later.