Introduction. Finding a competent, qualified, professional, and trustworthy immigration attorney is essential for anyone seeking assistance with immigration issues and visa processing.
With simpler cases, some people choose to file the necessary visa applications and documents personally.
However, as with tax returns, it’s sometimes helpful to have an extra set of experienced eyes to oversee the process and make sure it goes smoothly.
This is where an immigration lawyer can help. It’s possible to have the attorney handle the entire process, or the client can take on some of the required work to save money.
Guidelines for Finding a Qualified Immigration Attorney. It’s important to ensure that the immigration attorney working on your case is qualified and experienced in handling cases similar to yours. Otherwise, mistakes can be made that could delay the expedient processing of your visa request, and in some cases choosing an unethical or incompetent attorney can result in an unpleasant immigration processing experience. The guidelines below should be seriously considered when selecting an immigration attorney.
Point System and Rating Attorneys. You can use a point system on a scale from 1 to 10 to rate an attorney based on the points below (1 = positive or 0=negative). A good attorney will score between 7 to 10. A poor attorney will score 6 or below.
- Complexity. Every immigration case is different. As an example, when you get a vehicle serviced, an oil change can be done at Jiffy Lube, but more complicated work needs to be done by a dealer who specializes in your make and model of car. Inevitably, there are mechanics who will tell you they can replace a transmission in a Jaguar even though they’ve never done it before. They presume a Jaguar is the same as a Ford. The same is true with some lawyers. Because of their naiveness and lack of experience, or because they are willing to use your case as a learning experience (at your expense) they will take on a case they aren’t really qualified to handle. Once into the case, such attorneys will be unlikely to admit they’ve made a mistake and refer you to a specialist. Instead, they will bumble through your case placing a priority on profits over people.
- Conduct. Be attentive early on to the conduct of the attorney and their staff. Are their communications conducted in a professional manner? Are they aloof? Are they condescending and defensive when you ask questions? If so, you should probably find another attorney.
- Document Handling. While email is a convenient way to communicate, law firms, like healthcare providers, do not use email for communicating except occasionally for non-confidential information such as general questions and making appointments. Most attorney’s include at the bottom of their email and usually on their websites a statement informing clients that “email might be intercepted or accessed by unauthorized persons.” [source] Here’s another example from a law firm website, “Due to the non-secure nature of electronic mail transmissions, please do not send confidential information to … via electronic mail.” If your attorney does not follow their own guidelines regarding these privacy best practices, it’s an indication you need to get another attorney.
- Employee Discipline. Most attorneys require their employees to closely follow professional standards of behavior and ethics. Staff members making misrepresentations or false statements are held accountable. However, in some offices, there may be little or no effort made to ensure poor employee behavior is enforced. This may be an indication of corruption or at least a lack of professional concern among partners in the firm. If you express concerns about employee behavior or conduct, and those concerns are ignored, and you see no significant change in employee behavior or conduct over an extended period of time, the partners in the firm are probably not concerned about the issues you are raising. If partners and employees are consistently evasive and non-responsive when you express concerns, this may be an indication that the staff has been trained to avoid acknowledging any mistakes. The more skilled they are at this, the greater the likelihood that mistakes happen often.
- Experience. It’s generally believed that an attorney has considerable experience because of having practiced law for an extended period of time. However, this could simply mean that they’ve become very skilled at repeatedly doing things wrong. The more important question is what are their experiences with successfully handing cases like yours.
- Handling of Funds. Are payments promptly handled in a way that they don’t delay the case? If the firm states that they will not proceed with the case until a check clears and then to their fault does not deposit the check promptly and causing the case not go forward, this is neglect. If staff within the firm promise a check was deposited on a certain day, but then a week later they actually deposit the check, this is a misrepresentation. The date and time of a deposit can be easily verified by reviewing check images with your bank.
- Location. Many people go shopping for an attorney as if they were shopping for an auto mechanic. They check the phone book or ask a few people who they’d recommend locally to handle their case. It’s very important to get several opinions from people who actually have experience with specific attorneys. Generally speaking, unless you live in a large metropolitan area with a population of about 130,000 or larger, it’s very unlikely that there will be a local attorney who will be your best choice as an immigration lawyer. It’s not uncommon for people to work with attorneys in another city or another state. There are sometimes smaller unique communities with immigration lawyers who specialize in certain kinds of immigration cases. However such attorneys will likely be too specialized and myopic in their expertise to help in your case unless your case closely resembles the other cases they handle.
- Responsiveness. Competent attorneys are usually prompt and comprehensive in their communications. Incompetent attorneys are often evasive or don’t respond at all, especially if the client is addressing concerns about how a case is being handled. In such cases, inexperienced or less qualified attorneys will be afraid to address or correct mistakes they have made for fear of a lawsuit. If you start noticing that your attorney is making mistakes with your case that a layperson could easily identify, then that’s a strong indication you need to switch attorneys, especially if your attorney doesn’t respond to your expressed concerns.
- Reviews. It’s common to considering reviews for products and companies when making purchase decisions. However, with something as serious as choosing an attorney, it’s best to spend some time doing some deeper research and asking around before making a commitment. An incompetent attorney may be very skilled at never acknowledging any mistakes in writing. As a result, the will be very difficult to file a complaint against that attorney, since the attorney disciplinary process requires documented proof. Some attorneys who make frequent mistakes will intimidate their clients with thinly veiled threats in a way that makes it unlikely a complaint will be filed. Also, these days, it’s common for paid employees to write positive reviews, and anyone writing negative reviews may be threatened with a libel suit. Even if a negative review is true, just the time and cost of winning a libel lawsuit is a sufficient deterrent to silence potential critics.
- Specialization. What’s complicated for one attorney may be simple for another. In the field of medicine, doctors are usually very good at identifying early on what of condition you have and recommending a specialist qualified to handle it. Lawyers are supposed to do this also, but for the reasons mentioned above, sometimes they don’t.
About This Document. The above document is written for the purpose of consumer advocacy. The negative points raised are based on an actual experience with a bad attorney. As with most of the documents on this site, this document will probably be revised and expanded to over time to ensure it is current and comprehensive. Revisions and additions are based on further research, reader feedback, and site visitor data. More articles about consumer advocacy can be found on this website, or by referring to the Consumer Defense Resource Group.
Contributors. We wish to thank the National Visa Center, the Iowa State Bar Association and the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board as well as other attorneys who offered feedback helpful for developing the above article.