If you want to hire a lawyer to help you with your asylum case, you’ll find that attorney fees are all over the map. Some lawyers charge tens of thousands of dollars for a case. The larger immigration firms typically charge in the five to ten thousand dollar range. “Low bono” lawyers–and I include myself in this group–charge a few thousand dollars for an asylum case.
But what if you do not have any money for a lawyer, and even a “low bono” fee is too much? The options then are to do the case yourself (usually not a great idea) or to find a pro bono attorney.
Pro bono (short for “pro bono publico”) is a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.” In the legal context, it basically means that the lawyer does the work without charging the client any money.
There are different types of pro bono attorneys. The major categories are lawyers who work for charities, attorneys who work for law school clinics, and private attorneys who volunteer their time. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of pro bono attorney, and strategies for finding an attorney in each category are a bit different.
I suspect that most asylum seekers who find a pro bono attorney do so through a charitable organization. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of such organizations on the Executive Office for Immigration Review website (EOIR is the government agency that administers the nation’s Immigration Courts). The list is organized by state, which is helpful. If you do not see your location, click on a nearby state and you should find charities that serve your area. The American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (an association of private and non-profit attorneys) maintains a similar, and probably more comprehensive, list. Many of the organizations on these lists are free. Some charge a nominal fee (though in certain instances, I have heard about “nominal fees” ranging into the thousands of dollars, but this is the exception, not the norm). Also, most such organizations will not take a case where they believe the asylum seeker has the ability to pay for a lawyer.
The main disadvantage of using a charitable organization is that they are very busy, and they may not have the capacity to take your case. Also, if you need your case done in a hurry, they may not be able to accommodate you. Indeed, the reason lawyers like me exist is because the charitable organizations do not have the resources to help everyone. If you are able to obtain representation from a charity, they will either do the case in-house, or they will find you a volunteer attorney who will work under their supervision. Many of these volunteer attorneys do not specialize in asylum. However, the non-profits are adept at training and supervising their volunteer lawyers, and in most cases, you will get excellent representation.
So how do you get one of these charities to take your case? It often is not easy, and you may need to call/email/visit a number of organizations before you find one that can help you. But if you are persistent, you may be able to obtain representation. If one organization cannot help you, ask whether they can recommend another to try. It can feel like a full-time job to find a pro bono lawyer, but those applicants who make the effort are often able to obtain representation.
Another type of pro bono representation is the legal clinic. Many law schools have clinical programs where a law professor supervises law students in real-life cases. The students do the actual work on the case. I do not know of a comprehensive, updated list of law school immigration clinics, but this list (in Excel) from the Law Professors Blog Network should get you started. Also, you might try Googling “Law School Immigration Clinic” + the name of your city. Again, these clinics receive many requests for assistance and they have limited capacity, so it is often difficult to get one to represent you.
If you are represented by a law school clinic, you will work mostly with the students–after all, the primary purpose of the clinic is to provide a learning experience for the students. The obvious question is whether law students have the ability to adequately represent asylum applicants in court or in the asylum office. My observation is that, what the students lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm and energy. Also, the supervision at clinics (at least the ones I have seen) tends to be excellent. I do not know of any studies on this, but I expect that the success rate of clinical students is comparable to the success rate of practicing attorneys. One issue for clinics is that their cases must be scheduled according to the academic calendar, which can sometimes cause additional delays (though sometimes, it can make things faster instead).
Finally, many law firms have pro bono programs where the firm will represent individuals free of charge. Most firms get their pro bono clients from charitable organizations, but they can take on individual cases directly. If you know someone at a law firm (or if you know someone who knows someone), you might want to ask about this. If the attorney is not familiar with asylum law, she can likely partner with a non-profit organization, which will supervise her (the non-profits usually love to get new volunteer attorneys and are happy to help).
In truth, it is often difficult to find pro bono representation. Resources are stretched thin. But if you persevere, it is possible to find a free attorney. And having an attorney can make a big difference in the outcome of your case.