Can I Hire an Immigration Lawyer Who Is Not a Member of My State Bar?

Your immigration attorney needs to be licensed by a state bar association, but not necessarily the local state bar association.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

When hiring an attorney to represent you, the usual advice is to make sure that person is a member in good standing of the bar association in your state. After all, you want a lawyer who not only graduated from law school, but passed the "bar exam" and is licensed to practice law there; and has not been disbarred for disciplinary or other reasons. However, there is one caveat to this advice for immigration law matters. Your attorney still needs to have a license to practice, but can be a member of the bar in any U.S. state. This article explains why.

Federal Agency Law Can Be Practiced Anywhere

U.S. immigration law is federal, and is administered through a federal agency (the Department of Homeland Security or DHS). Once a lawyer has been licensed by the bar association of one or more states, and learned the basics of immigration law, the lawyer can set up practice wherever they choose—in any U.S. state, or even in another country.

U.S. immigration authorities recognize this fact, and regardless of which U.S. state the office or immigration court the immigrant applicant will be interacting with is located in, accept representation by lawyers who are members of the bar in different states. Many attorneys end up practicing far from the state where they were originally licensed. And even if they remain in the same state, they may accept clients from other states or countries.

Choose an Attorney With Experience in Federal Circuit Relevant to Your Case

There are some good reasons to narrow down your search for an immigration attorney on a geographic basis. For one thing, it's nice to be able to visit the attorney's office, if you yourself are in the United States. More importantly if you're in the U.S., differences in interpretation of U.S. immigration law exist between the various federal court circuits. (The U.S. federal courts are divided into 13 "circuits," based on region; and many immigration matters can be appealed only to those courts.) U.S. immigration authorities must follow their local circuit court's interpretations.

This can affect both everyday administrative matters as well as issues that come up in deportation or removal proceedings. Therefore, it can be helpful to hire a lawyer who has been practicing for some years in the area where your immigration case will be decided upon.

If State Criminal Charges Are Involved, Choose an Attorney With Bar Membership in That State

If you will be asking the immigration lawyer to interpret how a state crime will be viewed under U.S. immigration laws, that attorney needs to be a bar member in the state where the crime and conviction took place. That's because the precise language and interpretation of a state criminal statute might be critical in determining whether a particular crime is, for example, considered to match the federal law definition of a "crime of moral turpitude." (A responsible immigration attorney will bring in another local attorney as a consultant in such a situation.)

Related Considerations When Choosing an Immigration Attorney

Here are some other things to bear in mind when hiring an immigration lawyer:

  • The attorney must be a member of SOME state bar association. Do not make the mistake that some do of believing that bar membership is not necessary for an immigration attorney. To represent you in immigration matters, the attorney must be a member of the bar of a U.S. state or possession, territory, commonwealth, or the District of Columbia). It just doesn't matter which state.
  • The attorney must be in good standing with their state bar association; that is, not the subject of any disciplinary actions, and not under any court order restricting their practice of law.
  • The attorney must be an attorney. That might sound obvious, but people such as "notarios," immigration consultants, paralegals, document preparers, volunteers at community associations, and so forth are everywhere. They are not authorized to analyze your case or act on your behalf unless under the direct supervision of an attorney. Even if they have your best interests at heart, immigration law is insanely complicated, and trusting your case to a non-expert can lead to disaster.

And again, for convenience sake, you probably want to hire an attorney who is practicing in the area where you will be attending your immigration interviews or hearings, so that you can have your attorney present without paying for plane tickets!

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