It's not always easy to find a decent immigration lawyer, especially for people who are new to the country, who don't speak much English, and who don't really know what to expect from an attorney. What do you do if you've hired an attorney and have now lost confidence in him?

Before you take action, you should think carefully about whether the attorney really is failing at her job. Attorneys are busy, and we are not always as responsive to our clients as we might be. We also have to prioritize our cases based on government deadlines, and so some clients' cases get put on the back burner until we can work on them. In addition, clients often make "small" requests that are not so easy to accommodate: Can you write a letter about my status for my job, school or landlord? Can you help me with the DMV or with the Social Security Office? Lawyers may not have the time or expertise to assist with all such requests, and they may charge extra for tasks that are outside the contract. Aside from all this, the asylum system is a mess. Cases move slowly or not at all, cases get lost, the government makes mistakes. Much of this is outside the attorney's control, and so blaming a lawyer for systematic failures is not fair. In short, be aware that lawyers often can't give you everything you want, when you want it, and that there is much that is outside our control.

That said, lawyers are required to communicate in a timely manner with our clients. We are required to be honest with them (and with the government). We are required to do our work competently and on-time. These are requirements of the bar association--they are not optional. If we fail to fulfill these duties, we can rightly be punished. If a lawyer never gets back to you or fails to keep you updated about the case, if he changes the terms of the contract after you've signed it, or if he is dishonest with you or with the government, that is a problem. If the lawyer is unprepared for a hearing in court or at the Asylum Office, or if the quality of the lawyer's work is poor, that is also a problem. If the lawyer refuses to give you a copy of the case to review before it is filed, or a copy of the case after it is filed, that is a problem too.

So let's say your lawyer really is failing you, what can you do?

First, you may want to talk to the lawyer to explain your concerns. It would probably also be a good idea to put your concerns in writing (maybe in an email). If you are calling your lawyer, and he is not responding, keep notes about the dates and times you called. If the lawyer tells you something orally, write it down and email it to the lawyer to confirm that this is what he said. In other words, document all your interactions (or attempted interactions) with the lawyer. When a lawyer knows he is being watched carefully, he is more likely to behave properly.

Second, get a copy of your complete file from your attorney. Lawyers are required--again, this is not optional--to give our clients a copy of the complete file. Even if you owe the lawyer money, she is required to give you a copy of the file. She cannot "hold your file hostage" until you pay any outstanding fees. Lawyers--including me--don't love this rule, as it seems unfair to give a client her file when she owes us money. Nevertheless, it is the rule, and lawyers who fail to turn over a file can face discipline (we can, however, charge a reasonable copying fee for the file). If the lawyer refuses to give you the file, you can report that lawyer to the bar association (see below).

Third, find another attorney to review your case and evaluate whether you are receiving proper representation. Lawyers love nothing better than to dis the work of our fellow lawyers--it is one of our guilty pleasures. Hopefully, a second opinion can clarify whether your current attorney is doing her job, or whether it is time to find someone new.

If you do switch attorneys, you will need to get a copy of your complete file from attorney #1, so you can give it to attorney #2. The new lawyer should be able to assist with this if necessary. Also, it is a good idea to get a copy of the file from the government, especially if you do not trust attorney #1 to give you everything that he submitted.

Also, you may be entitled to a partial refund from attorney #1, depending on the contract and on how much work the lawyer has already done for you. Some attorney contracts are "hourly," meaning you pay for each hour (or minute) the attorney spends on your case. For such contracts, you usually submit a retainer (a lump sum payment) that the attorney "draws down" when he works on the case. So if the attorney charges $200 per hour, and works on your case for four hours, your bill is $800. If you gave that attorney a $1,500 retainer, you would be entitled to a refund of $700, which represents the "unearned" portion of the retainer fee.

Most immigration attorneys I know, including me, have "flat fee" contracts, which means that you pay a certain fee for the case. So for example, we might charge $4,000 for an affirmative asylum case. Even in flat fee contracts, however, we have to account for our time. This means if a client pays me $4,000 for a flat-fee case, and then fires me before I complete the case, the client would be entitled to a refund of unearned fees. My flat-fee contract indicates that my time is billed at $300 per hour, meaning if I worked for five hours on the case, I would get to keep $1,500 and I would have to refund the remaining $2,500.

If you fire your attorney, you can ask for an accounting of her time and a refund of unearned fees. This means, she would have to tell you about each task she worked on and how long it took. This accounting is not optional; it is required. And if the accounting seems suspicious (why did it take you three hours to write an email?), you can challenge it.

In practical terms, it is usually not so easy to get a refund, and most attorneys can justify their fees. Often, it is easier for the client to just move on. However, if you feel you were ripped off, you can and probably should pursue a refund.

Further, if your attorney was dishonest, or damaged your case, or failed to properly account for her fees, you can file a bar complaint against her. Bar complaints are also sometimes required to reopen a closed case. What is a bar complaint? All attorneys must be members of a bar association. This is an organization that monitors attorney conduct and provides training and services for lawyers and the public. Each state has its own bar association. The attorney's contract, letterhead, website, and business card should all list which state bar association(s) he belongs to (hint: if an attorney does not make this information available, he is best avoided). If you Google "bar association" + the state, you should find the bar association website, which should have information about making a bar complaint. Once the complaint is filed, the bar association should investigate the attorney's conduct (some bar associations are better about this than others) and, if appropriate, punish the lawyer. This punishment can range from an "admonishment" (basically, a public statement that most lawyers would find embarrassing) to disbarment, wherein the lawyer would no longer be able to practice law.

Of course, most attorneys would rather avoid having to deal with a bar complaint, so we try to follow the rules. If your lawyer is doing something wrong--not giving you your file, for example--the threat of a bar complaint might cause her to shape up.

So there you have it. In some ways, lawyers have more power than their clients, particularly immigrant clients, who tend to be less familiar with "the system" than native-born people. But clients are not powerless. You should not feel trapped in an attorney-client relationship that is not working. If your lawyer stinks, take action. Fire him. Move on. These cases are important and often life-changing. Don't let a bad lawyer destroy your opportunity to remain in the United States.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: