“Why do I need a consultation?” is a question we’re often asked. And we understand. Many prospective clients are eager to get started on their case or want a fee quote over the phone right away or just want “five minutes of your time” to ask this one question about a visa their friend has, and are unsure how a paid consultation helps them. But consultations are an essential part of the overall legal process for both prospective clients and attorneys. For prospective clients it’s a way to explain their immigration history, to find out key information, and ask important questions, as well as to see how well they interact with the attorney, and for attorneys it’s a way to obtain important information about the prospective client’s history and determine the best strategies to help the client with their unique situation (trust us, every client is unique).
A consultation, in many ways, is like a job interview: the prospective client is seeing if you can work with the lawyer and the lawyer is seeing if they can be of assistance and work with the client. With this in mind, we thought we’d provide some tips to get the most out of a consultation and explain what to expect.
Before a Consultation
Prospective clients should gather documents that relate to their immigration history including any previous petitions filed on their behalf, along with any notices from US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). Additionally, it’s ideal to bring their passport and evidence of their current immigration status in the US along with information and documentation of any arrests and any criminal or immigration issues. Prospective clients should also bring their resume/CV and a work portfolio, if available. It’s also advisable to write down questions before the consultation to ask the attorney.
Why Is There a Consultation Fee?
In addition to law school, most experienced attorneys have years of valuable experience in determining appropriate visa categories, case strategies, how USCIS adjudicates cases, and spotting potential problems or issues for cases. This knowledge and experience is used during a consultation to evaluate the case and decide upon the best strategy. Just as patients pay a fee to see a doctor and talk to them about their medical issues, so do prospective clients pay a fee to compensate attorneys for their time and knowledge; specifically, for their expertise in determining a case strategy and for their evaluation of all options and explanation of the process and timing.
During the Consultation
Although many prospective clients may come in for one specific issue, it's important for the attorney to get a full picture of their immigration situation. The attorney will ask detailed questions about their immigration history, past and current visas and status, as well as educational and work experience. Additionally, the attorney will ask about family relationships to determine whether an employment-based or family-based case is most appropriate.
Based on the prospective client’s answers, the attorney should describe the different visa options that are available and explain how the prospective client may qualify for each of these options. If clients do not understand the options, this is the time to ask questions and understand exactly what each of these categories and options are. The attorney will clarify any points not understood.
During the consultation, it’s vital for prospective clients to be honest about their immigration history including any arrests, convictions, or issues they’ve had with Customs and Border Protection (CPB), as well as other pertinent information. Along with recommending a strategy based on the client’s goals and the available options, attorneys will identify a timeline for the case, legal and government fees, and possible issues for the prospective client to be aware of before moving forward with the case.
It’s important during consultations for clients to ask questions and see how the attorney responds. If the attorney doesn’t satisfactorily answer questions, that may be cause for concern for the prospective client. During the consultation, it’s strongly recommended for the client to take notes, as the case may be complicated or involve multiple steps. Most people have a lot to remember, without even considering complicated immigration cases, so it’s best to write it down to consult notes afterwards!
After the Consultation
The initial consultation, as mentioned, should answer the prospective client’s questions, outline any available immigrant or nonimmigrant visa options, as well as provide fees and a timeline. For those prospective clients who are happy with the information provided, that’s great. The next step would be retaining the attorney by signing a retainer agreement and paying some legal fees. But for those who aren’t thrilled with the information or believe the attorney might be overcharging, it’s not a bad idea to obtain a second opinion.
That said, it’s important to remember that immigration attorneys have an ethical obligation to provide the best counsel and advice for their clients, and sometimes that means attorneys give answers to clients that they don't want to hear. Prospective clients should also send the attorney any follow up questions they have. If the attorney does not get back to them in a timely manner, this may be cause for concern.
Retain the Attorney to Start Work on the Case
For prospective clients who are ready for the attorney to begin work, they should obtain the retainer agreement, thoroughly review, ask questions if they don’t understand parts of it, and sign once terms are understood and acceptable. It’s absolutely vital to obtain and sign the retainer agreement as it explains what services the attorney will provide along with the total fees to be paid to the attorney as well as government filing fees, when the payments are due, and other key points.
In the retainer agreement, it will likely state that either the client or the attorney may terminate the agreement, with or without cause, upon written notice at any time. This ensures both parties are not contractually obligated to remain together if they find their attorney-client relationship is not working. Note, however, that this doesn’t absolve the client from paying for legal services that have already been completed.
The decision to pick an attorney to work on their case is an important one, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It is a relationship that can be cultivated on mutual respect and aligned goals. The consultation is the time where prospective clients can get a sense of what the relationship would be like with the lawyer while getting information about their immigration case. Consultations can be crucial to the overall immigration experience and prospective clients should welcome the opportunity rather than avoid it.