Today someone came in to the office wanting a second opinion about their immigration lawyer. That is all I want to say about that. I won’t give such an opinion, but I will talk to people about expectations. I’m not going to say whether someone’s lawyer was right or wrong, too expensive, too distracted or part of the problem. But I do want to talk about some things you need to keep in mind.
First, you and your immigration lawyer are a team. That doesn’t mean you are pals, or the lawyer is always there for you and reassures you when you are out on the ledge. It means that you shouldn’t expect to buy a win. Immigration court is not like any other court. First it is always you versus the government. There are no little jury people, no rules of evidence. Instead, it is the wild west, with the judge as the person who decides outcomes. You may be used to the idea that trial lawyers can go to court and convince a jury with their eloquence and slick moves. But with immigration, you need to make the judge want to help you. At the end of the day it is about you, your credibility, evidence that you can find, and what you say on the day. Your lawyer can prep you, can give you the softball questions you can hit out of the park, and find some acceptable alternatives if you crash and burn. And the lawyer can help minimize problems and emphasize the good. But you work together.
I like to think of your immigration case as a “one way mediation.” You need to see things from the judge’s point of view. You need to understand what her limits are, what her discretion is. If you can get on the same page as the judge, you are heading for a win. If you expect that the judge will change her views and get on the same page as you, you are heading for disappointment. You need the judge to want to help. And you then need the judge to be able to help. It doesn’t work the other way round.
Second, you have one big day in court. Your individual hearing. Whatever happens along the way is small potatoes. If you are unhappy with your lawyer’s bedtime manner – she doesn’t give you the attention you deserve, and doesn’t seem to be devoting the time you think is necessary to the case – go see your lawyer in court. If she kicks ass for other clients, you are in good hands and feet, even if she is an asocial and unfriendly and unresponsive pain in her office. Your case is not won in the lawyer’s office.
Third, if your lawyer screws up, your first response may be to fire her. But that may not be the right thing to do. Get a sense of how she feels about the mistake – or the poor outcome. If she is as pissed as you, then you now have a demon on your side, determined to make things right.
Fourth, if the case is going badly, the lawyer is not necessarily screwing up. Some lawyers will take poor cases because they get that this is not about winning cases. It is about winning lives. If the outcome – measured as how happy you are in 5 or 10 years time – is “ok.” then I don’t really care whether the case was won or lost. Your life is still on track and that is a win. If your case is bad – if your options are limited – you need someone to help you survive whatever outcome is going to happen. And that is a special sort of lawyer.
Fifth – beware of notarios, or people who guarantee results, or who claim that you need to sell yourself into servitude to afford the best and most expensive lawyer around. That sales pitch just got you to buy in to the proposition that the most expensive lawyer around is the best. This is often true in the rest of law – where the lawyer’s performance wins the case. But in immigration the most successful lawyer may be the one who only cherry picks the best cases. The person who loses every case may actually be the best – she may be taking the hardest cases and making sure that no client ends up with a trainwreck even though the case is unwinnable.
Sixth – fees. Specialists are expensive. But if you need one, you pay what you need to pay. That is true in medicine and law. And everything else. If your life is on the line, what is it worth to you to stay alive. If your future in the US is on the line, then what is the value to you of another 20 years of productive work here rather than back home. Is your life worth more than a new car? Or is it worth three months rent? Or the cost of a new cellphone?
I go for preventative care – I’m like a GP. So my clients aren’t facing the end of the world, but are wisely acting early to avoid such an outcome. So my fees are low. If I can help five people stay out of trouble than get one person out of trouble, I can set my fees accordingly. But if I was a specialist – a legal surgeon – I would have to set a fee that allows me to carry on practicing that way. If you need the best deportation defense, you don’t want a lawyer who moonlights helping students with their visa issues or cooing lovebirds get their green cards, or programmers get their employment permit. You want someone who is dedicated to the skill you need. I will turn 9 out of 10 people down who need help in court, because I would be doing them a disservice by taking their case.
One last thought, if you want a specialist to help you with a small task, don’t expect a low fee. Sure you could ask a brain surgeon to help you with a headache, but you wouldn’t. You would get someone else to look at the headache and refer you to the brain surgeon if you are the one in a hundred, or a thousand whose symptoms aren’t cured with a couple of tylenol.
Good luck with your case.