A person walks into an immigration attorney’s office seeking assistance in applying for a greencard for himself and his family of four. After consulting with the attorney, the attorney demands that the client pay a $20,000 fee. After being unable to pay such a large fee, the person then visits an immigration consultant where someone who is not an immigration attorney offers to help file the family’s greencard petition for $4,000 or less. The person agrees and provides the consultant with the necessary information, and then waits for a favorable decision. Six months later, the person returns to the consultant to check on his application, finds that the office has closed.

Although this represents an extreme case, the above example illustrates the challenges people face in seeking immigration help. Typically immigration attorneys charge clients a flat rate for completion of a case. Thus a client may agree to pay an immigration attorney a standard fee to represent the client for a work visa or before the immigration court. The benefit of this fee structure is that the client knows the legal costs from the start and can budget accordingly. At the same time, because there is no general fee structure for attorney’s fees, a client may not know whether the fees charged by the attorneys are fair and reasonable. There is often a wide fluctuation in the fees charged.

Although there is no established fee structure for attorneys, they are bound by general ethical guidelines that the fees should be reasonable. The American Bar Association (“ABA”), a national lawyer’s association, has issued the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (“Model Rules”) that provide guidelines. Factors include complexity of the case and an estimation of the time the attorney thinks he will need to devote. The more difficult the case, the more time an attorney would have to spend on it and therefore a higher fee would be involved. Another factor is the attorney’s experience and reputation in the field. One would expect to pay more for an attorney with twenty years of experience in the field rather than two years. However, despite these other factors, the Model Rules also state where the cases are the same or similar, the attorney’s fees should not be so disproportionate to the fees charged by other local attorneys for the same or similar work unless there are extenuating circumstances involved with the specific case.

So how should a client determine, whether he is paying the appropriate legal fees for his immigration matter? Although, much of it will depend on the complexity and difficulty of the case, the client also needs to do his own homework as well. Research the background of the attorney and firm you are considering hiring to ensure they have a good reputation and the experience to properly handle your case. I suggest checking their website and calling the local State Bar or checking the State Bar’s website for the attorney. Second, many immigration firms will provide a consultation at no charge and provide a written price quote for your case. A consultation will provide you with the opportunity to meet with the attorney, to learn more about the firm and ask questions about its services. The bottom line is that you need to make an informed and reasoned judgment about the attorney and the fees that are being charged.

Clients will also find that there are numerous “Immigration Consultants” who offer their services. Often, but not always, the fees that they charge are low, making these services attractive to people who require immigration help but who are concerned with the amount of money involved. However, a person should be warned of the potential consequences of hiring an immigration consultant. Consultants are not licensed immigration attorneys and do not have the necessary experience or education or the ethical obligations imposed by the State Bar. The results are often extremely unfavorable to the client and can delay or even destroy a person’s chance at obtaining immigration benefits. In many cases, immigration consultants have accepted money and then failed to provide any service at all! The situation has become so serious that the U.S. Congress has proposed legislation that would make certain fraudulent immigration consultant practices a criminal offense. Many states are vigorously prosecuted immigration consultants.

A person may wish to meet with two or three immigration attorneys to develop a better sense of what fees and costs are reasonable. While the fees quoted vary, a person may want to investigate further if there appears to a wide discrepancy between the fees quoted. In addition, while an immigration consultant may seem like a less-costly alternative to hiring an immigration attorney, you should be aware that you could be putting you and your family’s future at risk. Please do your homework when selecting immigration attorney.