What to Look for When Selecting Outside Immigration Counsel
Those who vet outside counsel look at a variety of factors in the selection process, such as competence, cost and reputation. Beyond this, companies want counsel that understands the needs specific to their industry, will be proactive, and will act as a trusted partner with the best interests of the company in mind.
Below are tips on how to assess these factors specific to the field of immigration law.
Substantive competence in the field is often assumed if an attorney is licensed and indicates they have a certain number of years of experience practicing in the field. While a starting point, we all know experience alone is not a sufficient gauge. Perhaps more so than other fields, immigration laws and policies change frequently in response to changes in the political arena, the economy, and national security concerns. What to look for:
As a base point: The field of immigration law is highly-specialized and more complex than many realize. Full knowledge and understanding of past and current immigration statutes, regulations, case law and government agency policies and procedures is imperative.
There are various sub-areas of immigration law practice: employment-based immigration, family-based immigration, removal (deportation) defense, and political asylum. It is important to ensure that the counsel you select has experience and expertise in the sub-field which applies to your needs.
Years of experience do matter. Counsel that has seen the changes in the law as it responds to current events (the dot-com boom, the recession, political swings to the right or left) is often in a better position to assess future trends and be proactive.
It is frequently not just an individual attorney, but a firm which must be vetted. While a firm’s support staff does not provide legal advice, they are key to ensuring smooth and timely processing of matters. Again, because immigration law is such a niche practice, paralegals and legal assistants with years of experience in the field are in a better position to support the practice as a whole.
As with any area of practice, reputation matters. It can be an indicator of the quality of the firm, and can also help others trust in your choice of choice of counsel.
Clearly, referrals from other clients with personal experience with the firm are useful.
While not a guarantee, it can be helpful to determine if an attorney or firm has been recognized or rated by well-reputed organizations such as Martindale-Hubbell, US News and World Report Best Lawyers, Who’s Who (of Corporate Immigration Law) and Chambers USA.
Membership and active participation in a specialized bar association is key to keeping abreast of new developments. The pre-eminent local and national bar association for immigration attorneys is the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). AILA not only provides substantive legal updates, but its network of liaison groups with various government agencies gives its members the opportunity to participate in policy-making and addressing problems with adjudication and process directly with the agencies. Those who hold an office in AILA or serve on its various liaison committees are often at the forefront of these actions.
Most industries now operate in a very fast-paced environment. Immediate needs are not uncommon, nor is the expectation of a quick response, be it to internal or external clients.
Employment-based immigration law often involves the need to onboard a key employee right away, regardless of where in the world the employee is located.
Hiring managers want to know what to expect in the process – what is it going to cost, how long is it going to take, and what are the potential roadblocks?
Human resources professionals and recruiters want to be clearly and accurately guided through the process so they can meet the expectations of employees, hiring managers, and executives.
Executives and General Counsel want things to run smoothly without having to micro-manage a function for which they simply don’t have time.
It is important to select counsel who understands the above and will work with you to meet your needs and expectations. They should let you know what to expect in the overall process. They should be responsive through phone, e-mail, and offer the transparency provided by an on-line secure database which provides real-time status and is available 24/7.
Immigration law is personal. The immigration process can cause tremendous anxiety for the foreign national who is often looking at a major move, a new job, and a new place to raise their family. Counsel needs to be able to communicate with the employee in a manner which helps them trust that the process is being handled competently and with an understanding of their concerns.
Most business immigration attorneys operate on a flat fee, rather than an hourly basis. This is because the nature of the practice involves handling dozens of different matters every day, as opposed to spending the whole day on one matter. When vetting counsel for cost-effectiveness, it is extremely important to be sure you are not comparing apples to oranges. What does the flat fee include? Where does the case begin and end? What about all those ad hoc questions about prospective employees, corporate restructuring, worksite enforcement and compliance? Make sure the costs you are comparing reflect the same thoroughness and service level.
The role of counsel in any field is to do their best to provide their client with a proactive, strategic, positive solution to a problem. However, no immigration attorney should be boasting a 100% approval rate or guaranteeing an approval. Just like those who litigate and can’t guarantee to their client how the judge or jury will rule, the fact of the matter is that even the best immigration attorneys cannot control the ultimate decision in a matter, as it is the government agency which makes the final call. The reality is that is that an honest attorney will also tell you when the answer is no or an action is unlawful. They will provide you with the best lawful alternatives.