How Do I Choose the Right Immigration Lawyer?
A decision to move to or stay in another country is a Really. Big. Deal.
You’ve read all there is you can online.
You’ve read our previous article on whether you need an immigration lawyer at all.
You’ve thought about all the potential ramifications if, gulp, it all goes horribly wrong (we have some articles lined up that will cover these worst-case scenarios).
And after all that…
You’ve decided you need professional advice.
A good immigration adviser could mean the difference between visa approval and refusal. Particularly if your situation is a bit tricky.
A bad one, though, can lead to literal nightmares.
So, how do you find the great ones?
First of All, Beware Unregistered Advice
Before you do anything, make sure your immigration lawyer or migration agent is in fact registered.
In Australia, the registration requirements for people who can give immigration advice can be a little complicated.
In short, currently both migration agents and immigration lawyers must be registered as “migration agents” with the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (OMARA).
Immigration lawyers must also hold a practising certificate from the local legal admissions board.
While registration is by no means a guarantee of quality, lack of registration almost certainly means you are dealing with a rogue.
PRO TIP: How do you know your lawyer or agent is registered?
It is a legal requirement for anyone giving immigration advice to have details of their registration, including their “MARN” (Migration Agent Registration Number), on their website.
What’s the Difference Between Migration Agents, Immigration Lawyers, and Accredited Specialist Immigration Lawyers?
Right then: you’re going with a registered immigration lawyer or migration agent.
But the choice doesn’t end there.
There are different types of advisers, and within each category there are huge variations in skill and experience.
Think about what you do when you have a niggling health problem. Say you wake up one morning with a bit of a pain in your chest.
Who do you see for help?
Your buddy Macca who had a triple bypass?
Is this a job for a paramedic?
Or do you need a cardiologist?
Each of the above serves their purpose, depending on the nature and severity of your problem.
What Are Migration Agents?
Originally there were just immigration lawyers.
However, a few decades ago, due to a burgeoning number of unregulated “backyard” advisers in the industry, the government decided it would be better to bring such operators under their control by creating a non-lawyer category of adviser called a “migration agent”, sometimes also referred to as an “immigration agent”.
The requirements to qualify as a migration agent have changed over the years. Some of the older ones were only required to sit a fairly basic test in order to register. Later the requirements became marginally higher – typically a 6 month online course. In the last year, that has now increased to a 12 month course for anyone entering the industry for the first time.
With no legal training, and no initial requirement for supervised practice, most migration agents struggle initially, and leave the industry before gaining 3 years in practice.
But that’s not to say there are no amazing migration agents. The best migration agents can literally save your life – and they are definitely out there.
An immigration lawyer needs to have completed not just a law degree, but also post-degree qualifications and practical experience in a law firm before they can become admitted to the Supreme Court in their state to practice law.
Immigration lawyers also need to have worked in a supervised capacity for at least 2 years before they can practice without supervision, and in addition to being registered with OMARA and adhering to the Code of Conduct, they have to adhere to the Solicitors Conduct Rules.
Apart from the rigorous training, there are few other distinct benefits to using an immigration lawyer over a migration agent:
- Because immigration lawyers have invested a lot more into the process of becoming lawyers, they also have a lot more to lose should they act unethically.
- An immigration lawyer can help not just with your visa application, but can also represent you in Tribunal and court matters. If something goes wrong you want to know all your options, in the tribunals AND the courts.
- The best immigration lawyers will work not just on your immigration matter, but will also be able to spot adjacent issues such as employment, family and criminal matters.
- The liability insurance held by immigration lawyers is generally superior.
- Your communications with an immigration lawyer are protected by legal professional privilege. Unlike a regular duty of confidentiality, government agencies such as Home Affairs are generally unable to compel a lawyer to grant access to information covered by legal professional privilege.
But an Immigration Lawyer, or Migration Agent, is Only as Good as their Experience
Lawyers in general practice are under pressure to be a “Jack (or Jill) of all trades”. They need to know about traffic offences, conveyancing, contracts etc.
Can they help you with your visa application?
They might give it a whirl, but that’s in between working on your neighbour’s fence dispute and interpreting Auntie Gertie’s will.
Immigration regulations and policy cover tens of thousands of pages, and it is changing constantly. There are over 140 visa subclasses in Australia.
You need someone who lives, breathes and eats immigration law, all day, every day.
There is no way a lawyer in general practice, even a brilliant one, can stay across this volume of ever-changing information.
If your lawyer is dabbling in multiple practice areas, they truly are a master of none.
What Is an Accredited Specialist Immigration Lawyer?
Finally, going back to the difference between your GP and your cardiologist…
An Accredited Specialist Immigration Lawyer is a lawyer who has been certified as having the highest level of experience and knowledge in their field.
Less than 2% of immigration advisers are accredited specialists.
The reason for the small number is the rigorous process of assessments and exams. You can’t even sit the exam until you have accumulated at least 5 years of legal experience specifically in immigration. And of those permitted to sit the gruelling exams – most fail.
That small number of top immigration lawyers who pass must thereafter undertake additional annual training, above that required by regular immigration lawyers, in order to maintain their accreditation.
So if you’re looking to minimise your risk, or if you’re dealing with the visa equivalent of open-heart surgery, an accredited specialist is your safest bet.
PRO TIP: Some Questions to Ask Your Potential Immigration Lawyer
How long have you been a migration agent/immigration lawyer?
How long have you specifically been working in immigration law?
Do you have an area of speciality in immigration law?
Do you have recent experience in the visa subclasses relevant to my situation?
So Where Do I Find These
Unicorns Top Immigration Lawyers?
Ideally you have a close and trusted friend or adviser who can give you a personal referral to someone at the top of the field.
But what if you don’t have a reliable immigration lawyer hook-up?
There’s Always Google
It pains me to say this but….you might need to resort to that great referrer of the digital realm: Google.
Even if you have a referral from a friend or colleague, it’s always worth doing a little extra due diligence online. Not every referral is reliable.
So where to start?
The Closest Lawyer is Not Necessarily the Best Lawyer
People typically search for an immigration adviser close by – for example, they search on terms like:
“immigration lawyer Melbourne”
“migration agent Melbourne”
“immigration lawyers near me”
“migration agents near me”
I get that. It’s nice to meet someone face-to-face, shake their hand and look them in the eye – especially if you are entrusting your future to that person. But note that immigration law is the same across Australia, so if you are happy to collaborate over Skype, telephone and email, proximity is not necessarily a major factor. I have numerous clients in different locations around the world, whom I have never met in the flesh.
Once you start zeroing in on lawyers online, have a look at the firm’s website. Is the information up-to-date? Have they made it easy to contact them? A flashy website isn’t the be all and end all, but it’s a start.
Next, take a look at online reviews to see if previous clients have anything to share. Of course, read with a grain of salt, as reviews are not always genuine.
When You Pay Peanuts, You Can Get Very Expensive Monkeys
We spoke a lot in our last article about the cost of immigration lawyers generally. Good advice can be expensive.
But in the long run, poor advice can be more expensive still.
If you’re shopping around, you might be faced with three or four cost estimates differing by thousands of dollars.
There’s no point choosing the mediocre $3,000 immigration lawyer over the top immigration lawyer who charges $5,000: that is, if you’re just going to have to go back to the top immigration lawyer later on to fix everything the mediocre one screwed up. By that stage, the cost of fixing up the mess could snowball to $10,000 on top of the $3,000 you have already spent.
Of course, the quality of an immigration lawyer is not always commensurate with their fees. To some extent, you will need to go with your gut.
It’s Not Just What an Immigration Lawyer Costs, But How Those Costs Are Billed
The only thing worse than being quoted a big legal fee, is not getting a clear quote at all.
Are you comfortable with an immigration lawyer or migration agent who, instead of quoting a fixed fee, gives a vague estimate and asks you to agree to being billed on a running tab of 6 minute increments?
It’s a bit like signing a blank cheque. And that sort of billing has a way of getting out of control…
Your immigration lawyer sends you a 5 word email – it’s added to the bill.
You reply to the email to say “yes” – another charge on the bill for “perusing” your email.
And if you want to call to your immigration lawyer to find out what’s happening with your case? Sure, just understand you are on the meter.
Maybe try talking faster!
Time-based billing, while still the norm, is a peculiar way to charge a client, because it incentivises inefficiency: the longer your lawyer takes to get the job done, the more they get paid.
And there are a lot of ways to pad out that time…
Increasingly, however, more and more immigration lawyers and migration agents are offering fixed fees. This means you know exactly what your matter will cost in advance, so you can make an informed decision and budget accordingly.
No need to hesitate before calling your immigration lawyer or migration agent, because of the extra costs. And no bill shock down the road.
Does Your Adviser Expect Money in Advance?
Many immigration lawyers and migration agents will ask you to deposit funds in their trust account before any work commences.
It’s a common practice.
You may or may not be comfortable paying thousands of dollars in advance for services yet to be rendered – but it’s something you should consider first, because it locks you into the relationship, on the immigration lawyer or migration agent’s terms.
Remember, if you have a disagreement or misunderstanding down the road, would you prefer to have your money parked in your wallet, or in their trust account?
PRO TIP: Some Questions to Ask Your Potential Immigration Lawyer
How can I expect to be billed? Will the fees be fixed fee or do you charge per hour? Do you ask for funds in advance?
Can I have an estimate for the work you will complete for me? Under what circumstances can the estimate change?
Ignore the Fancy Suit and Panoramic Views
Obviously, you don’t want to leave your immigration lawyer’s office feeling like you need to take a shower.
On the other hand, don’t fall for a flashy view and designer furniture.
There are some excellent migration agents and immigration lawyers who work from home, from serviced offices, or from a small shopfront in the suburbs.
One of the finest immigration lawyers I know is a stay-at-home mum who writes brilliant submissions inbetween breastfeeding and burping her pride n’ joy.
Remember, that magnificent view is expensive. Higher overheads for a law firm can lead to higher fees, and have little to do with better service or advice.
Beware Big Promises
Of course you want to be reassured – that’s why you’re hiring an immigration lawyer in the first place.
But there’s a difference between reassurance and unreasonable promises.
Beware any immigration lawyer or migration agent who guarantees you a positive outcome. Your immigration lawyer or migration agent will not be making the final decision – so not only is it impossible to guarantee success, but completely forbidden. If an immigration lawyer or migration agent declares such a guarantee at any point, you need to find another adviser.
On the flipside, has your immigration lawyer spoken to you in detail about the risks associated with your application? A good immigration lawyer will always do this, even if they feel the risks are minimal.
It feels good when your adviser has limitless confidence and likens your application to a “slam dunk”. But the best immigration lawyers don’t sugarcoat your expectations – this is true for fees, risks, processing times, and overall outcome. Top immigration lawyers are realistic and will communicate what you can expect from the outset, rather than just telling you what you want to hear.
A Good Immigration Lawyer Genuinely Cares About You
I have shared with you my own immigration story.
I get how stressful the process is.
When the stakes are high, and your future is in the balance, Immigration can be scary as hell.
But a good immigration lawyer can help you reclaim some control over an uncertain process. Not just the technical aspect – technical excellence should be a given – but someone who never forgets that for you this may be the fight of your life.
A good immigration lawyer will take time to explain the process, to provide status updates, to chase up the Department on your behalf and, yes, to answer your calls promptly.
A good immigration lawyer is not just a gun for hire, but someone who has your back.
Communication Is King
So much of your relationship with your immigration lawyer is going to come down to communication.
If it takes a while for them to respond to your first enquiry, that’s probably not a good sign. If they’re too busy to respond to your initial questions, they might be too busy to handle your matter properly.
If you have concerns about risk or a particular piece of your personal story that might impact an application, do you feel heard? A good immigration lawyer understands that there are no “stupid” questions, that no anxiety is “irrelevant” – you are, in part, seeking their counsel to alleviate those anxieties.
The best immigration lawyers won’t dismiss your anxieties, glaze over them, or pretend they’re not there. They will hear you out, and take the time to explain the process, their strategy, and what you might expect.
PRO TIP: Some Questions to Ask Your Potential Immigration Lawyer
How quickly can I expect a response to emails and phone messages?
What are the risks associated with my case?
Do you believe I have a chance of a positive outcome?
Think About What is Important to You
We’re all different – you’re going to have some deal breakers that might not matter to someone else.
- Do you prefer to communicate by email, phone, text, messaging apps, or face-to-face?
- Do you need an immigration lawyer who can speak your language?
- Are you really comfortable with technology or are you a bit “old school” and like paper documents?
Think about this stuff out before you start speaking to immigration lawyers and migration agents. It makes a difference.
Who Exactly Will be Working on Your Matter?
Maybe you found a great immigration lawyer – but will they be the one working on your matter?
If you’re not careful you might find that your application is delegated to a motley crew of paralegals, migration agents, admin assistants and, increasingly, “virtual assistants” based out of sweatshops in India and the Philippines.
Typically, the more people managing your application, the more scope for confusion and bottlenecks. That team may or may not be communicating with each other. You might give instructions to one, but the others remain oblivious.
Make sure you are getting what you signed up for.
And Finally… Trust Your Gut
You can usually tell pretty quickly when you “vibe” with someone.
You can usually tell, without too much effort, if the person you’re speaking with actually cares about your situation.
If you’ve found someone who knows their stuff, and you get along with them, and you can afford their fees – you’ve found your immigration lawyer.