“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.