Joseph G. Cella, Esq. 

Let’s face it, apart from your health and the health of your loved ones, your immigration status in the United States may well be the most important issue in your life. That’s why choosing an excellent immigration attorney is nearly as important as choosing an excellent doctor or surgeon.  Unfortunately, although most immigration lawyers are conscientious, diligent and caring professionals, due to the complexity of immigration law as well as the fact that, being from other countries, many immigration clients are not so familiar with our legal system, the area of immigration may lend itself to unscrupulous  immigration practitioners, “notarios” and “immigration consultants”.  Not only may a bad immigration lawyer, “immigration consultant” or “notario” overcharge you, s/he can fail to provide the promised or appropriate services, and/or may even damage your case in a way you might never recover from.

So, how can you insure that you will hire, or have hired, an excellent immigration  attorney? There are tips and pieces of advice which should be helpful.

Ask For Recommendations From Families or Friends 

If you know someone who has used an attorney for a successful immigration or removal defense case, this may be a good place to start your search. However, keep in mind that, because immigration is such a vast and complex area of law, no two cases are ever identical. Therefore, an attorney who was successful in one case may not be as successful in another type of immigration case. For example, an attorney to whom you were referred because s/he successfully handled a family petition case, may not be well-versed, and therefore as successful, in handling a removal defense case based upon a criminal conviction. Therefore, at your consultation, ask pointed, specific questions relevant to your situation.

Make Sure You’re Dealing With an Actual Licensed Attorney, Not a “Visa Consultant,” “Notario,” or “Petition Preparer”

Even though the “ice cream man” and the brain surgeon both where white jackets, you would be insane to let an ice cream man perform brain surgery on you. The principal is the same of “notarios” and attorneys.

In much of Latin America a Notary Public or “notario” requires a certain level of education and is authorized to perform legal services such as preparing wills and contracts. However, in the United States notaries public, or “notarios” have no educational requirement, pay a fee of about $25.00, and are only authorized to verify a person’s signature. That’s all! They do not have to be educated; do not have to carry insurance; do not have to take continuing legal education classes; and do not have to follow any code of ethics as all attorneys must.  Unfortunately though, many notarios prey upon their own communities by capitalizing upon the Latin American understanding of what a notario is and is not authorized to do. Without a doubt, the absolute worst, most difficult cases I have had in over twenty years of practicing immigration law have been those that were started, and ruined by notarios and/or consultants.

In most cases, “notarios” and “consultants” 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 understanding of telling you the implications of what they are  doing.

Research the Lawyer

You can probably find out a lot about your lawyer online; whether he or she is listed as a member of a state bar (a requirement) and of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association or AILA (a professional organization of which most of the best immigration attorneys are members).  Also  you may be able to find actual attorney ratings and client reviews online at sites like Martindale-Hubbell and AVVO.  Also, see if the attorney has been published in any professional journals , and if so, read the article(s). Although positive reviews don’t guarantee that you have found an excellent attorney, they may suggest it.

Avoid Lawyers Who Approach You At Immigration Offices And/Or Who Offer to Meet You At A Diner, Starbucks or Any Other Non-Office Location.

A few “low value” immigration attorneys prowl the hallways of immigration offices attempting to solicit business. This is not considered to be ethical or appropriate attorney behavior by the legal bar. Moreover, any good immigration attorney is likely going to be too busy practicing immigration law to spend his/her time soliciting new clients this way.

If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is

Not even the best attorneys can guarantee success as the outcome of your case is ultimately decided by an immigration judge or  officer.  Any attorney claiming he or she has a 100% success rate and/or  guaranteeing you a particular outcome, is acting inappropriately and should be avoided.

Additionally, avoid any immigration attorney who suggests that you do something inappropriate or  illegal,  or to  lie on an application or to an USCIS officer. If the lawyer claims to have somebody on the inside of immigration, and/or that he can bribe someone for you, it is likely that the Immigration Service knows him or her as a shady operator, which could work against your case and result in yo being involved in a criminal investigation .

Compare Advice By Talking to More Than One Attorney

Consulting with several attorneys will give you more information with which to choose your lawyer. It will give you the opportunity to compare different options and fees, and to “feel out” various attorneys to get a sense of their personalities, work experience, and even their willingness to spend the necessary time with you to analyze the law and to explain your legal options to you.

When Ready to Hire, Get a Written Retainer Agreement

Immigration attorneys, just like any other attorneys, charge for their time. Depending upon the type of immigration matter you have, an attorney may properly charge you a flat rate, by certain things happening like by a court hearing or appearance, by the hour, or perhaps some other way. Whatever, the agreed-upon arrangement is, make sure you get a signed written retainer agreement, and make sure you understand it. If your first language is not English, don’t be shy about asking for a retainer agreement in your language, or to have each sentence explained to your in your language.  The attorney should have absolutely no issues with providing you with your agreement in writing.


By following the advice above and using a bit of common sense, the chances are very good that you will find an excellent immigration lawyer to represent you and/or your loved ones.

The author, Joseph G. Cella,  is an attorney practicing immigration law since 1993. He has been published in many publications including the New Jersey Law Journal, and he has lectured on Complex Immigration Topics For the Federal Bar Association and Other Organizations. 


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