Clients should know, when they hire an attorney for immigration matters, the attorney owes them several duties under State Bar ethical rules and contract law.
Every year, I write hundreds of articles for the press dealing, in general terms, with new immigration laws, regulations and interpretations impacting hundreds of thousands of immigrants both inside and outside the US. Rather than start off this New Year with an article regarding new changes in the law or changing interpretations as to what can be done, legally, for clients in certain circumstances; I decided to publish an article about how things should be done, in practice, for clients seeking the highest quality legal representation. Clients should be aware that when they hire an attorney to represent them in their immigration matters, the attorney owes them several duties under both State Bar ethical rules and contract law. In order to help clients understand what they duties are and how to better obtain the benefits of the services they bargained for in retaining the attorney, I present this Clients’ Bill of Rights.
First of all, you, the client, have a right to a competent consultation with the attorney whose representation you seek. This means that when you schedule your initial consultation appointment with the attorney, whether paid or free, you have a right to meet with that attorney and that attorney owes you a duty to listen to the facts of your case, review the procedural background and documents and render a competent opinion. You have a right to understand the strategy to be implemented in the case, such that the attorney owes you a reasoned explanation as to how he intends to go about helping you. You do not have to settle for meeting with a “paralegal” or “assistant” to start work on your case. If this is what the attorney’s office presents to you as an appropriate starting point for your case; you have the right to walk out and consult with another attorney.
You also have a right to a written retainer contract, which must clearly describe the services the attorney will provide and how you are to pay for the services. State Bar rules require that the retainer agreement be sufficiently detailed so as to inform the client as to exactly what the contract includes. You have a right to know what you are paying for! In this regard, you have a right to be charged a fair fee for the services to be rendered. State Bar rules strictly prohibit an attorney from entering into an agreement for or charging an “unconscionable” or unreasonably excessive fee. Factors included to determine whether a fee is unconscionable include: The amount of the fee in proportion to the value of the services performed, the relative sophistication of the attorney versus the client and the uniqueness and difficulty of the questions involved and the skill required to perform the legal service properly. One measure of a fee’s reasonableness is also the standard or “going rate” for similar services among similarly competent and experienced attorneys in the same field. If you think you have been charged an unreasonable or unconscionable fee, you have a right to seek a second opinion on the case and also to seek State or local bar fee arbitration. If the attorney has violated his ethical duties to charge only a reasonable fee and not abuse his relative sophistication or, worse, coerces you into signing the agreement through exaggerated claims of the attorney’s rate of success or fame, you have a right to walk away from the client and go to a higher authority.
You also have a right to the benefit of whatever bargain you have struck with the attorney, which means you have a right to speak to that attorney, meet with that attorney or email that attorney and obtain satisfactory answers regarding any factors impacting your case as well as progress and developments. When you sign the retainer agreement, you should be facing the attorney you hire. Once you have signed the retainer and paid the attorney, you have a right to that attorney’s representation. You did not hire a “paralegal” or the firm’s office manager. If your calls are unanswered or you are only allowed to speak to the paralegal after you hire the attorney, you have the right to hire a new attorney who will honor the retainer contract and actively represent you; not hide behind a paralegal and ignore your phone calls and emails.
In addition to these rights, you also have the “self-evident” right to be treated with dignity and respect. Too often I hear stories from people who were denied access to their attorneys at other firms, only to be belittled and derided by the paralegals; when they finally get a chance to speak to the paralegal! When you hire an attorney, you are hiring a professional. A true professional will adhere to the rules of ethical conduct and basic human decency in carrying out his duties toward his clients. If you are receiving anything less from your attorney, you have the right to take your case, and hard-earned money, somewhere else.