Can I Handle This Myself?

In my last post I addressed the issue of hiring a non-attorney to assist with an immigration matter (and why you shouldn’t do it). Today I’ll discuss a more common concern: Whether you should hire an attorney, or whether you should simply handle the matter yourself.

In my office, I handle mostly affirmative, family-based immigration petitions, so I’ll discuss the issue from that perspective.

When I’m on the phone with a potential client (let’s say a U.S. citizen who wants to file a K-1 Visa Petition), and they ask me “do I need to have a lawyer handle this?” I know that they are really asking two distinct questions: “Am I required to have an attorney represent me?” and “Is having an attorney represent me the most prudent thing to do?”

The answer to the first question is, of course, no. You are not required to have an attorney represent you when filing a petition with USCIS, just as you are not required to have an attorney draft your will or even represent you in a court of law. But that doesn’t mean foregoing the assistance of an attorney is the most prudent thing to do.

Here are the facts:

  1. Many people file petitions with USCIS without the assistance of an attorney;
  2. Many of them have no problems along the way;
  3. Many of them run into problems along the way, decide to hire an attorney after all, and end up spending more money in the long run than if they had hired a lawyer at the outset.

Most immigration attorneys charge a flat fee when filing paperwork with USCIS. But let’s say you decide not to hire an attorney and file the paperwork yourself. Six months later you receive a letter from USCIS saying that they need additional evidence to adjudicate your application. At this point you start to worry and turn to an attorney. Depending on the complexity of the issues involved, an attorney may opt to charge you an hourly rate rather than a flat fee. The end result is that you will end up spending as much or more on attorney’s fees as if you had hired a lawyer at the outset, and your application will face a delay of up to several months.

Remember that when you pay for an attorney you’re essentially paying  for your time and your peace of mind. How much time will it take you to fill out the application yourself, including all of the research you will have to do to answer the questions and assemble the supporting documents correctly? How much time will you spend worrying about the application once you send it out? Would you rather have an attorney who is a phone call away to answer your questions and alleviate your anxieties?

Some people inevitably try to find the answers to their questions online. I should say a few words about sites such as avvo.com, where attorneys post answers to legal questions posted by users (with the caveat that these answers constitute “general information” and not “legal advice”). Most of the advice given on such forums is generally correct, though often incomplete. However, sometimes lawyers will post answers that are at best misleading and sometimes flatly incorrect. Usually this is the result of an attorney not understanding the question, or not taking the time to answer thoroughly. In any case, online “question and answer” forums can never take the place of advice received in person from an attorney that is tailored to you specifically, and given after the attorney has had time to fully familiarize him or herself with your case.

My advice is always to at least consult with an attorney before proceeding. Most immigration lawyers do not offer free consultations, but most don’t charge much for one, and many will deduct the consultation fee from your overall legal fees if you eventually decide to hire the attorney, making the consultation effectively free. Compared to the overall cost of filing a petition with USCIS, the small fee charged by most attorneys for a consultation may appear as little more than a drop in the bucket.