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.

 

 

 

 

Should I Pay a Non-Attorney to Help Me With My Immigration Matter?

 

The answer is quick and simple: NO.

There are two types of non-lawyers that hold themselves out as authorized to provide immigration related services to clients for a profit. The first are web-based companies with names like “speedy-greencard.com” (not a real company) that offer to review and process your immigration paperwork for half the cost of hiring an attorney. The second are individuals who refer to themselves as “paralegals,” “notarios,” or “immigration consultants” and claim to have some expertise in the field of immigration law, while offering to provide the same services as an attorney for a fraction of the cost. Below are just some of the reasons why you should never hire such an individual or company  to assist you with an immigration matter.

  1. They Are Likely Committing a Crime

Engaging in the unauthorized practice of law is a crime in Washington (under RCW 2.48) and every other state in the nation. Only an attorney or accredited representative* can legally practice immigration law. A “paralegal” is not authorized to practice law and must work under the supervision of an attorney. Furthermore, anyone can call him or herself a “paralegal” as no license or qualification is required to use that title. There is no such thing as a “certified paralegal”  (there are individuals who may have, for example, earned a “certificate in paralegal studies” by completing certain courses, but this is simply an educational credential, not an authorization to practice law in any capacity). In certain countries in Latin America, the term “notario” designates a person with a certain degree of legal training, who may be authorized to perform some services that in the United States would be the exclusive right of an attorney. No equivalent position exists in the United States, and it should not be confused with a “notary public” whose role is mainly to witness the signing of documents.

Such individuals or companies may claim that they are not engaged in the practice of law, but are merely “filling out paperwork,” and that as such the work does not require a licensed attorney. Let’s take a look at how the “practice of law” is defined in Washington State. You can be the judge:

“The practice of law is the application of legal principles and judgement with regard to the circumstances or objectives of another entity or person(s) which require the knowledge and skill of a person trained in law. This includes but is not limited to:

(1) Giving advice or counsel to others as to their legal rights or the legal rights or responsibilities of others for fees or other consideration.

(2) Selection, drafting, or completion of legal documents or agreements which affect the legal rights of an entity or person(s)…” (Washington Court Rules, General Rule 24).

If you are going to hire an individual or entity who is not licensed to practice law to assist you with an immigration matter, you need to ask yourself whether you trust someone who is breaking the law through the very act of providing these services.

2. Every Immigration Matter Has Serious Legal Implications

If someone tells you that immigration law is simply a matter of filling out paperwork, that’s the first sign that you should run away as fast as you can. Either they  are not taking your matter seriously, or they don’t understand much about the immigration system. Any interaction you have with the immigration authorities, and any form you complete can affect your or your loved one’s ability to enter or remain in the United States, in some cases permanently. Whether or not you or your family can be united or remain together is not a matter to be trifled with. What appears to be a simple, check the box, yes or no question may be much more complicated than you think. This doesn’t mean you need to be afraid, but it does mean you need to be careful. For this reason, it is always advisable to at least consult with an attorney, specifically one who is knowledgable regarding U.S. immigration law.

3. Attorneys Are Licensed and Subject to Discipline

Not all lawyers are good lawyers, or even good people. Not all good lawyers have the requisite knowledge to practice immigration law effectively. However, when you hire an attorney you can know that there are certain safeguards in place. A license to practice law is evidence that an individual had the necessary intelligence and work ethic to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam. It also tells you that this person will be subject to discipline or disbarment in the event they commit ethical violations such as fraud, lack of diligence, or even false advertising. You should hire a licensed attorney for the same reasons you would hire a licensed contractor to work on your house. You can check to see if an attorney is licensed or has been subject to discipline by visiting your state bar association’s website (Washington’s can be found here). Be careful when choosing an attorney, but never hire someone who is not licensed to practice law to do a lawyer’s work.

4. A Non-Lawyer Will Charge You Too Much

Non-lawyers will try to get you to choose them over an attorney by offering to perform the same services for half the cost. While this may seem like a good deal at first, it is important to remember that these people may have no more knowledge than you regarding U.S. immigration law–in fact they may even have less! They will also try to lure you in with guarantees that they will perform their work in a fraction of the time it would take an attorney. What this really means is that they will not approach your immigration matter with the level of care that an attorney would, or with the level of care that you would use in handling the matter yourself. Don’t waste your money.

Don’t be fooled by fancy websites, or guarantees of quick, cheap service. If you need help with a legal matter, immigration or otherwise, hire an attorney.

For more information, follow the link below:

http://www.stopnotariofraud.org

*The only exception to the rule against having a non-attorney assist you with an immigration matter is in the case of “accredited representatives.” These are individuals who work for specific non-profit organizations that are recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals and authorized to represent individuals before the Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office of Immigration Review.

 

This blog’s content is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.