12 Tips for Choosing an Immigration Lawyer

Finding the best immigration lawyer for your situation is one of your most important decisions. You need to make to make sure you start your application on the right foot. How can you ensure the representative that you choose will work to meet your goals? How can you avoid an expensive lawyer who treats you like a number? Follow these tips to make sure you find the best immigration lawyer for your situation. Here is a top 10 list (plus 2 bonus tips!) to help you find the best immigration attorney!

1. Use Your Consultation to Get Answers

The consultation is the time when you can ask the lawyer any and all questions about your application. Consultation Fees range from $150CAD to $600CAD, depending on the firm, and you should use this time well. Cheap consultations can last only 15 or 20 minutes. In the brief time, however, you need to make sure you can trust the lawyer to deal with your situation. Before you book the consultation, make sure the lawyer will give you enough time to answer your questions. Initial Consultation appointments should be an hour.

During the consultation, you should decide whether you trust the lawyer and s/he has the right experience for your case. Ask them about what happens if the application is refused. Ask them about their experience doing appeals to Federal Court or other types of appeals. Get the answers during the consultation.

2. Avoid the “Jack of All Trades” LawyerAvoid a Jack of All Trades

Canadian Immigration law is complex and the system can be difficult to navigate. Be cautious of lawyers who say they are experts in many areas of the law. It takes a dedicated professional to stay on top of all the changes in Canadian immigration law. If the lawyer practices Real Estate Law and Immigration Law, for example, there is the risk that they do not have sufficient expertise for your case.

In English, the expression: “Jack of All Trades and Master of None” is apt for the complex world of Canadian immigration law. Jack of All Trades lawyers may handle simple applications in various areas of the law but they sacrifice expertise; they are not a “master” in any of the areas they practice. Avoid the lawyer who claims they can do it all.

3. Don’t Bargain Hunt

For some things, bargain hunting is appropriate; however, the stakes for immigration applications is too high and too risky for bargain hunting. We have seen too many “factory firms” where there is a lawyer at the top and they simply delegate the work to consultants, assistants or paralegals who do the work in poor working conditions. A Factory Firm may not give you the personal attention that you need to win your case. Many consultants advertise low fees but they offer limited services and, if there are complications, they cannot represent individuals on appeals so the client is stuck. It is much better to find someone you can trust, who charges reasonable fees and can deal with every aspect of your application.

4. Discuss Fees Before Signing

A good lawyer is open and honest with fees. The lawyers should give you a Retainer Agreement (the contract that describes the fees and services) that is clear and s/he will answer any questions that you have about the contract. You should be comfortable talking to your lawyer about payment plan options and other ways they can be flexible. In Canada, the standard practice for immigration applications is to charge a “fixed fee for service”, a “block fee” or a “flat fee”. Most other areas of practice charge clients on a “hourly fee for service”. Find a lawyer who offers flexible pricing and gives you the choice of either “fixed fees” or “hourly fees”.

For a complex case, the “fixed fee” agreement may be best. If you believe the case is straight-forward and you only need the lawyer to guide you through it with limited help, the “hourly fee” agreement may save you money. Before you sign the agreement, ask the lawyer about the different options and pick the fee structure that fits your individual situation. Make sure you trust that you have found the best immigration lawyer for you before you commit and sign the agreement.

As a reference, click here for a guide for Immigration Fees for lawyers.

5. Avoid Empty Guarantees

A sign that a lawyer cannot be trusted is when they offer empty guarantees of success. The fact is that your lawyer does not make the decision and they should not be giving you a guarantee for a positive result. If you hear “we guarantee 100% success”, we advise that you run the other way. If they representative is not being honest to you about the possible outcomes, they cannot be trusted. The lawyer should be able to tell you your chance of success and share with you their personal experience with similar cases.

6. Be Wary of the Shady Consultants

Unfortunately, there are many unethical immigration consultants who have taken advantage of their clients with worthless promises and bad strategy. With immigration matters, the stakes are simply too high for the unnecessary risk of trusting a consultant who may just want your money.

In the US, the government restricts representation to licensed lawyers can represent clients in their applications so they have avoided the problem of incompetent consultants. In Canada, the government has allowed limited representation to “immigration consultants” who have passed an exam and are licensed with ICCRC. There are certainly many trustworthy consultants who help their clients and who put in the countless hours necessary. There are also many shady characters who offer cheap services and end up costing their clients more in the long term. Here are just a few cases of lives have been ruined by Immigration Consultants:

The above is just a sample of the biggest cases that make the news. Most cases of fraud and misrepresentation are not reported. Often the shady Immigration Consultant is a “friend” or a member of a church group who offers to help. Unfortunately, they lack the expertise to do the work.

So what can you do? First, if you decide to hire a consultant because you feel that you just cannot afford a lawyer, ask for references. You should be able to see some proof that they know what they are doing. Ask them for details about a case with similar facts. Second, ask whether they are being supervised by a lawyer. Legally, the supervising lawyer may be responsible for the work. Third, ask them where they obtained their credentials. Seneca College (program no longer offered) and Ashton College each had or have good programs to train Immigration Consultants. (Incidentally, Alastair Clarke taught at Seneca College in 2012.) Finally, check the ICCRC page to make sure they are properly accredited.

7. Check References and Free Online Databases

Look online for references or reviews. If a lawyer does not have a website, ask for the reason. We live in a connected world and it is important for lawyer to connect with their clients. If they do a good job, those clients will write reviews, testimonials, references or endorsements. Click here to read some reviews from past clients and colleagues of Clarke Law. 

CanLii is a free online database with cases from Canadian lawyers that is widely used by academics, judges and universities. Most Federal Court decisions and some decisions by the Immigration and Refugee Board are found on CanLii and it is growing every year. A good lawyer will have some recent cases listed on CanLii.org. Of course, cases that are settled before a decision, cases that receive a “bench positive” decision, and minor cases may not be reported. For example, click here for some cases listed on CanLii that were handled by Alastair Clarke. In addition, click here for more cases by Clarke Law.

8. A “Free Assessment” is Not a Consultation

Some companies, often Immigration Consultants, offer a “free assessment” as a type of phishing for your personal information. This is often just a hook to get information from the potential client with the promise of something for “free”. Giving your personal information benefits the company.
What is a “consultation”? The simple answer is that it is the time for you to:Full service immigration law firm

  1. See if you trust the lawyer or consultant;
  2. Ask questions about the General Process of Your Application;
  3. Get An Estimated Timeline;
  4. Identify Potential Issues;
  5. Discuss Legal Fees, Government Fees (including Application Fees) and potential Disbursements;
  6. Get a General Strategy For Achieving Your Goal(s); and,
  7. Answer your questions.

For the initial consultation, the appointment with the lawyer should be at least 1 hour to make sure they understand the important points in your application and explain all the above so you leave the consultation confident that your application is in good hands. Before you book an appointment, ask the lawyer how much time they will spend with you during the consultation.

9. Stay Away From Dinosaurs

It’s 2016, not 1986. Lawyers who refuse to learn technology may also refuse to learn new immigration laws. Canadian Immigration Laws, like modern technology, is constantly changing. You need a lawyer who can stay on top and provide you with up-to-date advise.

Communication is also key. We wary of lawyers who only use the telephone. That may indicate that they have had previous complaints from the Law Society and they are cautious about putting their advice in writing. You need a lawyer with great communication skills and the ability to use all the modern tools.

10. Avoid Fear-Mongering Lawyers

Immigration applications are stressful and the system is complex. A good lawyer will clearly explain the process for you, identify the possible choices and advice the right choice. Avoid lawyers who use your stress and fear to push you into a decision. Some lawyers use fear-mongering to persuade clients to make a hasty decision. If you feel that the lawyer is using fear and taking advantage or your stress and uncertainty, we advise that you seek a different lawyer.

You can also check the news to see if the lawyer has handled any big cases. Journalists screen lawyers ahead of time. If the lawyer is quoted in the news for a big immigration case, likely the lawyer has good references.


11. Bring a Friend to the Consultation

Immigration applications are stressful and the Canadian immigration system is complex. Sometimes it can be very helpful to bring a friend to the consultation to make sure you keep a level head. The friend can ask questions about the lawyer’s background and give you an objective opinion to make sure you choose the best immigration lawyer for your case.

12. Be an Active Client

At the end of the day, the decision by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the government will have a huge impact on you and your family. Not your representative. Be active through the application process and make sure you understand what’s going on. The Law Society requires that lawyers communicate with their clients on “a timely basis”. Some firms are notoriously bad at communicating with their clients. You should be aware of the steps involved with your application. Find a lawyer who listens!