When to Hire a Lawyer
By Bea Spolidoro, AIA, WELL AP, LEED Green Associate
"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers".
That’s what Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI. Not so fast, I would say. Although the expensive fees can intimidate the majority of people (and make architects think that we have chosen the wrong profession) I am a firm believer that we do need lawyers indeed. If you think you don’t have or don’t want to spend the money on hiring one, please keep reading, as this article outlines important concepts and common mistakes that you should think of anyways.
Quoting Socrates: “I know that I know nothing”. When I started my American experience, my language skills were decent, but not good enough to fully understand legal jargon. There is a world of nuances in every word used, and many unusual words.
Even if your English were good enough to understand everything, you might lack the experience to know what to really focus on - or even which visa to tackle! After going through three different visa processes myself, I am glad I had a lawyer suggesting which visa would be best for me, and what to do at every step. Obtaining a visa is 50% about understanding what the rules say, and 50% about knowing how to fulfill every requirement in an efficient way. Efficiency comes from being very much acquainted with the process.
The second reason for hiring a lawyer is that reading long regulations and the fine prints can be cumbersome. Precious information can be easily misinterpreted or missed altogether. I really felt grateful I was always able to hire a lawyer that explained in plain English the consequences and the requirements of every visa. Sometimes, a visa can look appropriate to your case but can have very serious consequences on your future ability to travel or work in the Country. For example, J-1 visas are a great way to start your adventure in the USA, but then you might be subject to a two-year home-country physical presence requirement. This means you have to return home for at least two years after your exchange visitor program. Yet, there are waivers, there are exceptions and there are exemptions that only a lawyer can expect and look for.
The third reason is personal, but many might share this characteristic with me. I tend to overreact and worry too much, and that’s very Italian of me. Every time I read checklists and instructions connected with my visa, I always over-think things and I cause myself -and my family- lots of stress. Regularly, my lawyers bring me down to planet Earth and clarify for me what I should truly worry about. Don’t get me wrong: you should always take visas seriously but also know that there are nuances, and there are many possible ways to comply with certain requests.
Here is another way to frame the question of hiring a lawyer: time is money, and that means also YOUR time. Although hiring a lawyer is expensive, you should understand your own
billable rate and how to use your time best. There is a chance that it would be more costly for you to do your own paperwork, rather than to hire a lawyer. All in all, lawyers are more efficient in going through the process, since they do it all the time. Your learning curve would likely be pretty high and cost you extra time. Or you might focus on the wrong thing for a long time, to discover only at the end that you should have gone another route. This is without keeping into account any mistakes you might make, that would cost you extra money to fix (lawyers have insurances and would take financial responsibility for their mistakes). It is better to hire a lawyer early, rather when it is too late.
Lastly, every immigration case is unique. For sure, the rules are changing very quickly, in particular now. These are “interesting times”, as you might have noticed, and even lawyers are struggling with keeping up with new regulations, or sudden changes to old-time requirements. You cannot rely on friends or family members’ previous experiences, as their strategy might be no more valid.
You need to understand your very own options, when it comes to choosing a visa versus another one, as there are many ways to obtain legal status in the USA. Please, never make assumptions based on things you heard on the street: very often, you see only the tip of the iceberg of an immigration case. Without a lawyer, you might suddenly find yourself in deep waters without a lifeguard.
“Honey, I blew up the visa.”
For what concerns when to hire a lawyer, my personal experience shows that you should do it at the beginning of a new immigration period. If you cannot afford the full services, you can at least meet only once. For a flat fee, usually small, many lawyers are available to see you and to give you their word of caution. You might even get a brief framework for what to expect next. That is what I have done in the past, towards the end of my J-1 visa and before an H1-B visa. Chatting with that one lawyer made me realize that I couldn’t go further without legal help. Thus, I hired lawyers for the next steps and I am still glad I did it.
As I was writing this article, I found some posts that were a few years old and stated that the majority of people go through immigration without an attorney. Yet, I also found recent articles that tell a different story. Here a piece of data from an AP article I found: “Analyzing data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Wisconsin Watch found that of Wisconsin residents whose cases began between 2010 and 2015, those who had lawyers were more than six times as likely to be allowed to stay in the country as those without. Nearly 55% of those with lawyers were allowed to stay compared to 9% of immigrants without lawyers. Nationally, the picture is similar: Immigrants without lawyers had an average success rate of less than 8%.” Please note: that data is for a period before the 2016 elections!
There are many kinds of visas; some are all about filling forms (and paying fees) and visas that require you to demonstrate specific things, such as “extraordinary abilities” and the like.
The first kind could be a family-based visa, while the second could be a merit-based visa. For the first, if you have the patience to fill the forms and follow the checklists yourself, you might still be able to do it without a lawyer. You still would need to demonstrate certain things, but if you are sincere and have nothing to hide, it should be straight forward. It is likely you will incur minor mistakes, adjustable for additional fees, and you might delay the process a little bit.
The second kind of visa is trickier for all the reasons we have outlined above. I strongly believe that a lawyer would be needed for those. I am sure some intrepid fellows might have done otherwise, but I wouldn’t recommend taking the chance.
Also in other aspects of life, people tend to do things by themselves without consulting with the experts. Yet, many lawyers are making more money in fixing unfortunate situations that people using “Legal Zoom” and the like created for themselves! In the end, we don’t know what we don’t know, rules are changing fast, and every case is unique. If you have the financial ability to do so, you should ALWAYS hire a lawyer, since day one.