Unraveling the Mystery of Legal Fees: What You Need To Know About How Immigration Lawyers Charge for Their Work
“What is the legal fee for my case?” This among the most important questions for anyone considering hiring an immigration lawyer. Today, we unravel the mystery of legal fees.
What is the difference between an hourly legal fee and a flat fee?
The vast majority of attorneys charge their clients hourly. This means that an attorney has an hourly rate and you are billed for every minute of time the attorney spends working on your case, including time drafting emails, talking to you on the phone, and doing legal research. Even discussing your case with another attorney or staff member in the office can cause you to receive a bill. Hourly rates can vary, from $100 per hour to thousands (yes, thousands!) of dollars per hour, depending on the attorney’s experience level, practice area, and market. For example, at my first job in a large international law firm in London, my billing rate was over $500 per hour. To put this in perspective, if I spent 5 minutes writing an email or talking to a client on the phone, the client would be charged $41.66.
Although the hourly billing model is still standard practice for most lawyers, clients generally dislike this type of billing, because it makes predicting the final cost of the case very difficult. The flat fee model presents a solution to that problem. Under this model, an attorney will estimate the number of hours it will take to complete a client’s case, and multiply that number by the attorney’s hourly rate, resulting in a fixed fee quote for the client. If the attorney ends up spending more time on the case than he originally estimated for the scope of work you agreed to, the flat fee will not go up.
This model is particularly attractive to more price-sensitive individual consumers who do not want to weigh the importance of a question they may have for their attorney against the cost of placing a phone call to get an answer. Keep in mind, however, that the flat fee model is designed to provide cost predictability; it does not mean that the attorney is giving you a discount or is charging less for his or her time. Immigration attorneys typically charge on a flat fee model, although some immigration attorneys are shifting towards hourly billing, particularly in areas like defense in removal proceedings, waivers, and asylum.
Good attorneys with an established reputation know the value of their time. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to hire an experienced attorney with a proven record of positive results if you are looking for a bargain when it comes to legal fees.
Why do some lawyers charge for initial consultations, while others do not?
As a consumer, you have likely seen many attorney advertisements on television, inviting you to call “right now!” to receive a “FREE” consultation. However, have you also noticed that most of these attorneys are offering services in the areas of law that relate to some type of physical injury, like auto accidents, slip and falls, medical malpractice, or products liability? This is no coincidence. These attorneys offer free consultations because their area of law works on a contingency fee basis, meaning that when you win, they take a percentage of the money awarded to you (usually, at least 30%). Because they only take cases that they expect to result in money awarded, they do not charge for their work up front. After all, they are virtually guaranteed to get paid later. In some personal injury cases, the attorney collects hundreds of thousands of dollars. Almost every other area of law, including immigration, does not work this way.
Why do some lawyers charge more than others for the same type of case?
Free consultations are not the norm in most areas of law. The major exception is the personal injury field, because, as discussed above, these attorneys know they will recover large sums of money for their clients and then take a significant percentage of the recovery, so it is in their best interest to get as many of these clients in the door as possible.
In other areas, where attorneys are not compensated on a contingency fee basis, time spent on consultations is time away from work on cases that are already bringing money to the firm. If the attorney spends a significant amount of time providing free consultations, in addition to not making money from these consultations, he will lose money by not working on the firm’s existing cases. Attorneys prioritize tasks that bring revenue into the business. Most experienced attorneys with established reputations have a steady flow of returning clients and referrals, so they are under no pressure to lose money by offering free consultations. Therefore, in the immigration context, free consultations are offered mostly by new attorneys looking to get new clients, or relatively unknown attorneys who do not have enough clients.
Attorney’s fees vary, based on the quality of an attorney’s education, experience, and results. More experienced lawyers are likely to charge more than their less-experienced counterparts. Experienced attorneys, and those who are highly-regarded experts in a particular area, are generally more expensive. These attorneys are also less likely to offer free consultations, discounts, or payment plans.
Buying a service is not the same as buying goods. While you may be able to find the exact same pair of shoes in two different stores for two different prices, two immigration attorneys may do different amounts of work on the same type of case. For example, we recently had a client who had paid his previous attorney ½ of what our firm charges for an investor visa case. For his money, the attorney submitted 7 supporting documents, totaling less than 100 pages, and a cover letter which included nothing more than a list of the supporting documents.
Although our fee would have been higher than what this attorney charged, our typical investor visa case receives no less than 30 hours of attorney time. We thoroughly review and submit the hundreds of pages of documents required to properly document an investor visa case, and our filings are always accompanied by a detailed cover letter, usually no less than 10 pages, explaining the applicable legal requirements and how the applicant meets those requirements. With this detail-oriented approach, we are far more likely to get a positive result for our clients.
As the above example demonstrates, an attorney who charges lower fees often does less work. Additionally, lower fees could be an indicator of a “conveyor belt” approach to your immigration case, where the lawyer does not spend much time addressing the individual details of your case, but rather uses pre-drafted documents and simply changes the names.
Some immigration practices also involve a heavy reliance on paralegals. This allows the firm to cut costs and increase profits, but this may not be what you are looking for in your legal representation. Therefore, when you are considering hiring an attorney, it is prudent to ask whether the case will be prepared by an attorney or by a paralegal, only to be signed by the attorney at the end. If your initial meeting is with a paralegal, rather than with an attorney, it is a good indication that your case will receive minimal attorney time and review.
Why can’t the lawyer just tell me how much my case will cost, before I sign up for a consultation?
Clients are often frustrated when attorneys will not quote them a fee over the telephone, before conducting a consultation. An explanation by analogy may be helpful. If you call a doctor’s office, complaining of a migraine, and ask how much your treatment will cost, you can expect that the receptionist will tell you that the doctor will need to see you in person, to conduct an examination, learn your complete medical history, and rule out any serious conditions that may require immediate attention. If your migraine turns out to be just a simple headache, he will tell you to take an aspirin, but if he discovers a serious medical condition that may be causing your migraine, your treatment may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the same doctor had told you over the phone that you would be able to treat your problem for $5 (the cost of a bottle of aspirin), but, after seeing you, gave you a treatment plan costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, you would, understandably, be upset.
Why do lawyers cost so much?
Lawyers work very much like doctors when it comes to “diagnosing” your legal problem. Very often, a person might call our office believing they are eligible for a certain type of visa, however, upon meeting with them, we learn facts about their case or immigration history that would make obtaining that visa impossible, or would require additional costly steps, like a waiver, or corporate restructuring. Like every illness, every immigration case is different, and because attorneys generally charge based on the amount of time they expect to spend working on your case, without knowing the details of the case, which affect the amount of work required, it is impossible for the attorney to give you an accurate fee quote.
Clients, even highly-educated ones, are not always capable of identifying the complicating factors in their cases and may believe they have a straight forward case when they do not. A widely-circulated news item about a Ph.D. who prepared his own immigration documents, and due to a small mistake, got placed in removal proceedings, is a good example. Attorneys use their extensive education, training, and experience to “issue spot” for complicating factors and analyze how these factors may affect the strategy, timing, and outcome of the case.
Because an attorney sells services rather than goods, if an attorney quotes, for example, $1,000.00 for your case, it is easy to assume that this entire amount becomes the attorney’s profit. However, that is not the case, due to the high cost of being in business as an attorney. For example, to maintain their license and offer their clients competent representation, attorneys must invest thousands of dollars annually in continuing legal education courses as well as in books and research database subscriptions. They must also maintain costly insurance policies. These expenses, in addition to traditional office overhead costs, like office rental, electricity, etc., are built into the fees that each attorney charges.
There are several factors that contribute to the cost of legal services. First, becoming an attorney is a difficult, long and extremely expensive process. This process involves a minimum of 7 years of post-secondary education, costing over $200,000, on average. Reflecting the time and cost of acquiring the knowledge and skills required to perform complex jobs, in the labor market, highly-skilled workers are compensated at a higher rate than those who have fewer skills. For example, doctors earn more than cashiers, because becoming a doctor requires more education and training. Similarly, because lawyers are highly-trained specialists, their compensation is generally higher than the average service provider.
The outcome of your immigration case will affect the rest of your life.
As you select your attorney, remember that the outcome of your immigration case stands to affect the rest of your life. If you are successful, you will remain in the United States and benefit from the economic opportunities this country offers. According to a recent study, the average US worker earns approximately 1 million dollars over his lifetime. Even if you pick the most expensive immigration attorney, most cases will cost less than the price of a used car. That’s a fairly small investment for a lifetime and 1 million dollars’ worth of opportunity per family member. Bargain shopping for an attorney can lead to poor representation and an undesirable outcome in your immigration case.
Every year, thousands of immigrants become victims of domestic violence and/or emotional cruelty, however few seek help for fear of negative immigration consequences. The U.S. laws, however, offer extensive protections to victims of such abuse, whether the perpetrator is a U.S citizen or not. Taking into account that abusers may attempt to control or intimidate their immigrant partners by threatening to have them deported, the law provides for ways in which victims can obtain or maintain lawful immigration status without their abuser’s knowledge or participation. Outlined below are several common immigration scenarios and a brief description of the solutions available under U.S. immigration law.
The immigrant does not have lawful status in the United States and is married to a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident (“LPR”). The U.S. citizen or LPR spouse has abused the immigrant spouse and refuses to file immigration documents on behalf of the immigrant spouse.
Under this scenario, the immigrant spouse may be eligible to file a “self-petition” under the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) and obtain his or her green card without relying on the abusive spouse to file immigration documents. Among other things, the immigrant spouse will have to demonstrate that he or she was subject to either physical or emotional abuse at the hands of his or her U.S. spouse. The immigrant spouse should keep in mind, however, that “abuse” is defined broadly, and what may not be considered abuse in the immigrant’s native culture could qualify as abuse for immigration purposes. Evidence of abuse may include, among other things, copies of protective injunctions, police reports, domestic violence shelter records, the immigrant’s own sworn statement and affidavits from others who witnessed the abuse. The immigrant may be eligible for a VAWA self-petition even after divorcing from the abusive U.S. spouse, provided certain conditions are met.
The immigrant has obtained his or her conditional green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or LPR. The immigrant has been abused by his or her U.S. spouse and the U.S. spouse refuses to jointly file documents for the permanent green card.
Typically, during the 90 days preceding the 2 year anniversary of when the immigrant obtained his or her conditional green card, the U.S. spouse and the immigrant spouse must file a “joint petition” with the Immigration Service to convert the conditional green card to a permanent one. In marriages involving abuse, the U.S. spouse may refuse to file the joint petition, or use the need to file the joint petition as a tactic to further abuse and manipulate the immigrant spouse. Under this scenario, the immigrant may be eligible to petition to receive his or her permanent green card without the participation of the abusive spouse.
In this situation, the immigrant spouse is not required to divorce the abusive U.S. spouse prior to filing for the permanent green card. However, he or she may divorce his or her spouse, if he or she wishes, without affecting the right to file independently for a permanent green card. In order to file independently, the immigrant spouse, will have to provide, among other things, evidence of the abuse, including police reports, domestic violence shelter records, the immigrant’s own sworn statement and affidavits from others who witnessed the abuse.
The immigrant does not have lawful status in the United States and was abused by an individual who is either without lawful status in the U.S. or who is not the immigrant’s lawful spouse.
An abused immigrant who is married to an individual without lawful immigration status in the U.S. would not be eligible for a VAWA self-petition described in scenario #1 above. Similarly, a person whose abuser is not their lawful spouse is also ineligible to file a self-petition under VAWA. However, such individuals may benefit from a form of immigration relief called the U-Visa. The U-Visa is available to victims of certain serious crimes, including domestic violence, who cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities in investigating and prosecuting these crimes. In order to file for a U-Visa, the immigrant will need to first obtain a certification from the police or the prosecutor, attesting to the immigrant’s full cooperation.
Once the law enforcement certification is obtained, it is forwarded to the Immigration Service, together with other evidence, including evidence that the immigrant was the victim of a qualifying crime, that he or she suffered mental or physical injury as a result of the crime and that he or she fully complied with all requests for cooperation from the prosecutor and/or law enforcement. It is important to note, that a U-Visa is not a green card. Rather it gives the immigrant lawful status and work authorization in the United States. Provided certain conditions are met, the U-Visa holder will eventually be able to apply for a green card.
Cases involving abused immigrants are incredibly complex and individuals who find themselves in any of the situations described above should seek the counsel of a duly licensed immigration attorney with experience representing victims of domestic violence. For questions regarding domestic violence immigration options or any other immigration matter, please contact one of our top rated Orlando immigration lawyers.
Immigration removal proceedings typically end in one of two ways: the immigrant either wins his case and is allowed to remain in the United States, or if he loses his case in Immigration Court, an Order of Removal is entered against him. However, a third, little known option called Administrative Closure may help certain individuals avoid being deported from the United States.
Administrative Closure is a legal mechanism, through which a pending case is removed from the Immigration Court’s calendar indefinitely. If Administrative Closure is granted, no final merits hearing is scheduled for the case, and no Order of Removal is entered against the immigrant, however the individual is still considered to be in removal proceedings and any applications for relief, such as asylum or cancellation of removal, are considered to be pending before the Immigration Court.
What are the advantages of applying?
You may be wondering, “Why would I seek Administrative Closure in my case, if I have an opportunity to present my case before the Immigration Judge at my final merits hearing?” Administrative Closure is most appropriate when you have a relatively low chance of winning your case in Immigration Court and you want to avoid having an Order of Removal entered against you. For example, if you have an asylum case and you filed for asylum outside the one-year deadline, you have limited documentation to support your claim, the Asylum Office made a determination that you were not credible or that there were material inconsistencies in your testimony or documents, winning before the Immigration Judge could be very difficult. In cases like this, the immigrant has two options: pursue the weak case before the Immigration Judge and risk being ordered removed, or apply for Administrative Closure of the case, and, if successful, avoid an Order of Removal. Avoiding an Order of Removal offers advantages beyond the obvious advantage of not being subject to removal from the United States. If an individual whose case has been Administratively Closed later marries a US citizen or has an approved Family Petition (Form I-130) from a US citizen child, the procedure for obtaining his or her green card will be far less complex than if he or she was subject to an Order of Removal
Is it a valid immigration status that allows me to travel and return to the United States?
No, Administrative Closure is not a valid immigration status. However, it does mean that the US government is not actively pursuing your removal from the United States at this time. You should not travel outside the US if you have been granted Administrative Closure, because you may not be able to return to the US.
Can I get a work authorization?
Maybe. Certain individuals, including those whose applications for relief (asylum, cancellation, etc.) have not been withdrawn prior to Administrative Closure, may be eligible to receive and/or renew their Employment Authorization Documents. Not all applicants will be eligible, however. Eligibility will depend on the individual facts and history of each applicant’s case.
Who might be eligible for Administrative Closure?
Administrative Closure is a discretionary form of relief. This means that the government weighs the positive factors in your case against the negative factors and reaches a decision based on that balancing test.
Positive factors, which weigh in favor of granting Administrative closure, include the following:
- Long-term residence in the US
- Relatives in the US, especially if they are members of your immediate family and are US citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents
- Community ties in the US, such as volunteering in your local community, church attendance, membership in local clubs and organizations, education obtained in the US, establishment of a job-creating business in the US
- Employment and the payment of US taxes
- Absence of ties to home country or inability to speak the local language
- Dangerous conditions in the home country
Factors, which will generally weigh against granting Administrative Closure include the following:
- Criminal convictions, even for minor crimes
- Serious and repeated violations of immigration law (illegal re-entry, Visa Waiver overstay, etc.)
- Immigration fraud, including filing false documents or providing false testimony
- Threats to national security and public safety (membership in or support of terrorist groups, gangs, etc.)
How do I apply for Administrative Closure?
You can apply for Administrative Closure of your case by submitting a request for Administrative Closure to the Office of the Chief Counsel, typically in writing with supporting evidence, documenting the positive factors in your case. A detailed cover letter, summarizing the evidence and the nature of your request may be appropriate.
Immigration law is incredible complex and there is no “one-size-fits” all solution. Before applying for any form of relief, it is essential that you fully understand the advantages and drawbacks of doing so. One of the key disadvantages to Administrative Closure is that the government can restart the removal proceedings against you by making a motion to the Court. However, based on currently available information, it does not appear that the government has the resources or the intention to recalendar administratively closed cases. Only an immigration attorney with experience handling removal cases can properly advise you of your chances of winning your case or the chances of winning your request for Administrative Closure, and you should not make a decision regarding an application for Administrative Closure prior to receiving such advice.
It is further worth noting that the government’s discretionary policies are subject to change, and it is possible that the policy for requests for Administrative Closure will change in favor of a much stricter approach under the Trump administration. Therefore, individuals who are presently in removal proceedings and may be eligible for Administrative Closure of their case are encouraged to seek the advice of a qualified attorney regarding this matter prior to President-elect Trump taking office on January 20, 2017.