By Bethany McAllister, Esq.
Immigration clients tend to see everything in black and white: they either love their lawyers or hate them.
The biggest complaint is that lawyers charge too much money. Most immigrants have never had any contact with the American legal system and do not understand how lawyers decide how much to charge them. In other words, clients pay more than they expect.
This lack of understanding, especially regarding finances, leads clients to mistrust their lawyers. This lack of trust and understanding sometimes leads to hostility.
This article is aimed at clarifying billing issues to help clients have a positive relationship with their lawyers.
Why does my lawyer charge me money when he or she isnâ€™t working?
Most clients subconsciously follow the same unoriginal mantra; seeing is believing, seeing is believing, seeing is believing. They might feel cheated because they cannot see their lawyers working. The majority of a lawyerâ€™s work involves thinking, and assuming the responsibility for a clientâ€™s unique case. Thinking and assuming responsibility require a great deal of time and effort. All of these things are invisible. Everything else, such as court appearances, meetings, prepared immigration forms, and written pleadings, result from the lawyerâ€™s intellectual efforts and the responsibility that the lawyer assumed when he or she decided to take the case. So, a clients focused on seeing tangible acts of work from their attorneys rarely have seen enough work to justify a large bill.
What gives my lawyer the right to charge me?
A lawyer should bill a client in accordance with the contract that both parties signed. These contracts have many names such as â€œretainer agreement,â€ â€œengagement agreement,â€ or a simply, â€œcontract for legal services.â€
The contract must outline the nature and scope of the legal services as well as the legal fees. Some contracts charge clients a flat fee. Other contracts require clients to pay a retainer or a certain amount of money up front to begin the case. The lawyer will deposit this money into a special bank account called the â€œclient trust accountâ€ and will withdraw money according to the number of hours he or she spent working on the case. Clients must replenish the account according to the services provided, maintaining a certain balance.
This is actually a very fair practice because many clients start out paying a certain amount and then stop paying. The client might have many reasons or excuses for their inability to pay the lawyer, for instance some want to send money to relatives overseas. But: clients must also consider that they will not be able to send money home if they are deported.
How much can my lawyer bill me?
Flat fee agreements for legal services do not require any explanation.
The most confusing type of contract is one that allows lawyers to charge each client by the hour. When a contract permits the lawyer to bill by the hour, the contract must specify the hourly rate, such as $150 to $280 per hour. Generally, a lawyer has the right to determine his or her own hourly rate. The only limitation is that a lawyer cannot charge excessive legal fees.
An example of truly excessive legal fees.
A woman paid an unethical lawyer $9,000 to file immigration forms for a â€œcleanâ€ marriage-based case and attend the interview. When it came time for the interview, the lawyer charged an additional $2,500. The woman never met the lawyer in Florida and sent the money via electronic transfer. She spoke to the lawyer approximately three times. The lawyer prepared the forms, but refused to attend the interview without receiving the additional $2,500.
How do I know what the lawyer has done and why he is charging me?
When lawyers bill clients on an hourly basis, they should provide the clients with a detailed statement of legal services. In other words, the billing statement requires the lawyer to specify the amount of time spent on each activity. Typical billable activities may include: telephone calls to and from clients; telephone calls to and from opposing counsel and other interested parties; preparing written correspondence; office conferences and consultations with the client; legal research, the preparation of pleadings; the review and revision of written documents; preparation of memoranda to the file, and reviewing the file. Sometimes lawyers will specify the nature of each activity. For example, instead of billing for one hour of â€œresearch,â€ a detailed statement will charge the client for one hour of â€œresearch regarding whether a U.S. citizen who intentionally exposes his foreign wife to an incurable disease gives rise to extreme mental cruelty.â€ This in fact is a better practice because it is difficult for a client to understand why the lawyer charged him for â€œresearch.â€
My wife and I had to go to our green card interview alone. Why did my lawyer cheat me?
Maybe the lawyer cheated you and maybe not. Again, the contract specifies the exact scope of the legal representation. If the contract only requires the lawyer to prepare and file immigration forms, then the contract does not require the lawyer to attend the green card interview.
What can I do?
When you meet with your lawyer for the first time, ask him or her to explain the contract. Ask which services the lawyer will provide. Ask if the legal fees include court and interview appearances. Do not feel ashamed if you cannot read or write in English. There is a good chance that the lawyer cannot read or write in your language. Take a friend or family member to translate.
1. Take a list of questions to the consultation. You have a right to ask questions.
2. If you have a complicated case, write down important facts about your situation in chronological order. Pay close attention to names of people and dates of significant events.
3. Write facts down even if you believe that they have no significance.
4. Remember to take important original documents or copies of them to the consultation. This includes, passports, visas, I-94 cards, letters from the government, and copies of petitions and applications.
5. Ask the lawyer the best way to contact him or her. Does the lawyer prefer to communicate via email? Are there certain times when the lawyer prefers to take client telephone calls?
The most popular complaint that clients have about their lawyers (after legal fees) is that the lawyer does not answer telephone calls. Clients must understand that lawyers have many obligations and are not always available.
Do you expect your lawyer to call you once a week to tell you that nothing has arrived? If you do, then be honest and up front. Lawyers do not usually call clients every Friday to let them know that a receipt notice has not arrived unless the case is time sensitive. In this case, you and your lawyer can determine how much he or she will charge you, if at all.
A friend of mine charges a flat fee of $75 per phone call. If you think that amount is too much money, imagine if he charged the client the hourly rate.
A good rule of thumb. If you believe that your question is worth paying for, then by all means, call.
Your lawyer should be very honest and up front with you, just as you should keep your end of the bargain and pay him or her on time.
I do not know of many lawyers who charge for all telephone calls. I am only offering this example because clients have many legitimate concerns about telephone calls. You should know what to ask your lawyer when you sign the contract so that you do not have any ugly surprises.
And before you get too worried, just remember that your lawyer will treat you in a fair manner.
I hope that this explanation of billable hours will assist you in communicating your billing concerns with your lawyer. Most lawyers do not guarantee prices over the telephone nor do they offer 2-for-1 pricing for a friend. Price hunting will not convince your lawyer to lower his or her price.
I can honestly tell you that my goal is to establish and maintain a very good relationship with my clients and I also believe that most lawyers feel exactly the same way.
Hopefully, you wonâ€™t hate us so much!
This article does not constitute legal advice and those with immigration problems should seek out the services of a competent immigration specialist.
Ms. McAllister is an attorney in private practice in Dearborn, MI. Please direct immigration inquiries to Ms. McAllister by telephone at (866) 584-4411.