A good immigration attorney can make all the difference to your case. Many are hard working, honest professionals who genuinely want to help you -- they could, after all, potentially be making a lot more money in some other area of law.
However, a bad immigration lawyer can overcharge you, fail to provide the promised services, and/or damage your case in a way you might never recover from. Whether you are seeking to file a petition for a visa or green card, trying to avoid deportation, or applying for some other immigration benefit, make sure you get the right sort of lawyer on your side. Here are some tips to avoid the shadier types of practitioners.
A few "high-volume, low value" immigration attorneys prowl the hallways of immigration offices attempting to solicit business. This is not considered ethical behavior by the legal bar. Besides, any good immigration attorney is probably going to be too busy practicing immigration law and working for their clients to spend their time rounding up new clients this way.
Would you ask a neighbor to replace your heart valve, or your doctor to fill out your tax forms? Hopefully not. For the same reasons, only an actual, practicing lawyer should be trusted to handle your immigration matters. Unfortunately, many non-lawyers -- even some well-meaning ones, who don't recognize how complex this area of law really is -- claim to be capable of assisting foreigners who need help with the immigration process. In many cases, they offer little value other than a typing service. In the worst cases, they may literally take your money and run, or fill out your forms in wrong and dangerous ways without telling you the meaning of what they're doing.
You can probably find out a lot about your lawyer online: whether he or she is listed as a member of a state bar association (a requirement) and of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association or AILA (a professional organization that most of the best attorneys join); whether he or she gets good reviews on websites like Martindale-Hubbell; whether the lawyer has written professional articles for publication; and so on. If the only reviews you turn up show the lawyer getting arrested or disbarred, you can save yourself a personal meeting.
Be careful of any immigration attorney who suggests that you do something fishy: perhaps lie on an application or to a USCIS officer, give the attorney extra money with which to bribe an immigration authority, or buy a fake green card from him or her.
Such cases have actually occurred. The sad thing is that if you are caught going along with such a scheme, you are likely to get into much more trouble than the attorney. Saying, "But he told me that buying this green card stamp was the fastest way to work in the U.S.!" is likely to get you nowhere -- and will create a permanent stain on your immigration record, potentially making you ineligible for any future visas or green cards (inadmissible).
Not even the best attorneys can guarantee success. Ultimately, the outcome of you case is up to an immigration judge, the Department of Homeland Defense and/or USCIS. Any attorney claiming he or she has a 100% success rate and guaranteeing you a particular outcome may need to be more closely evaluated.
While most good immigration attorneys will likely be pretty busy, you should be able to talk to them and their office staff to get a sense of their commitment to clients as well as their overall demeanor and impression of honesty.
Talking to several attorneys will give you some basis for comparison before choosing the one who will be representing you. It will give you a chance to "feel out" various attorneys to get a sense of their personality and work philosophy to determine if they will be a good fit for you. In some cases, getting a second opinion may actually reveal that the first attorney did not fully understand your case or the law, or was trying to take your money to do something impossible or unethical.