I’ve written previously about the poor state of the immigration bar. And while there are–unfortunately–too many bad lawyers, there are many excellent ones. The question is, for an immigrant unfamiliar with the American legal system, how can you distinguish between the good and bad? In other words, how do you find a lawyer who will assist you, and not just take your money? Below are some hints that might be helpful:
- Bar complaints: Complaints against lawyers are often a matter of public record. So you can contact the local bar association (a mandatory organization for all lawyers) to ask whether a potential attorney is a member of the bar and whether she has any disciplinary actions. You can also look on the list of disciplined attorneys provided by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”). Sometimes, good attorneys are disciplined, but if an attorney has gotten into trouble withe the Bar, it would be helpful to know why.
- Referral from non-profits: Most areas of the country have non-profit organizations that help immigrants (EOIR provides lists of such organizations here). While these organizations are often unable to take cases (due to limited capacity), they usually have referral lists of attorneys. I would generally trust the local non-profits for recommendations, as they know the lawyers and know their reputations.
- Referrals from friends: Most people who hire me were referred by an existing or former client. However, from the immigrant’s point of view, I do not think that this is the best way to find a lawyer. They say that a million monkeys with a million typewriters, typing for a million years will eventually write a novel. It is the same with bad immigration lawyers. Once in a while, they actually win a case (usually through no fault of their own). The lucky client then refers other people. I suppose a recommendation from a friend is better than nothing, but it would not be my preferred way to find a lawyer.
- Instinct: If you think your attorney is not doing a good job, he probably isn’t. Attorneys are busy people, and they may not be as responsive as you might like, but if your attorney never returns calls and is never available to meet with you, that is a problem. Also, if your attorney seems unprepared in court, that is obviously a bad sign. If you are having doubts about your attorney, nothing prevents you from consulting with a different lawyer for a second opinion.
Hiring a lawyer can be tricky, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with the American legal system. Given that the quality of lawyers varies so much, it is worth while to spend some time investigating a lawyer before you hire him. That is the best way to protect yourself and (hopefully) ensure that you receive the legal assistance that you need.