Let's say you've found a lawyer--either based on a friend's recommendation, through an internet search or maybe from an ad you saw on the bus--and you've arranged for an initial meeting. How should you prepare for this meeting and what should you expect?

There are a few purposes for an initial consultation. First, the lawyer should evaluate your case, discuss strengths and (especially) weaknesses, and help you understand your options. Second, you need to know whether the lawyer can assist with achieving your goals. And finally, you need to decide whether the lawyer is right for you. Here, we'll discuss the initial consultation (affectionately called a "consult") and hopefully help you get the most out of that meeting.

To prepare for the initial consult, you should try to gather all relevant documents from your case: Your passport and I-94 (which you can get through the I-94 locator), any documents you received from the U.S. government (such as USCIS receipts, prior decisions, documentation from your arrival in the U.S., and, if you are in Immigration Court, the Notice to Appear), documents related to any prior immigration cases, any criminal records, and any evidence related to your current case. It is very helpful for us lawyers to see the documents, as we can usually hone in on the relevant material. And so if you can bring your papers with you, it will likely make the meeting more efficient and more productive, and we will be better able to provide accurate advice about your case.

Prior to the meeting, you should think about (and maybe write down) any questions you want answered. What decisions do you need to make and what information do you need from the attorney to make those decisions? Time is limited, and you want to be sure you get answers to your most important questions. On this point, it's not a bad idea to bring a pen and paper, so you can take notes.

Some lawyers will ask you to complete a form before they meet you, in order to gather information about you and your case. They may also ask you to send documents in advance or--if they are really fancy--have an assistant gather information from you before the meeting.

In addition, many lawyers charge a fee for the initial consultation. Some lawyers will apply this fee to the cost of your case; others will not. How much does an initial consult cost? Fees vary widely. In my office, for example, depending on the type of case, our consultation fee ranges from zero (for certain asylum cases) to $300 (for most everything else).

At the meeting itself, most lawyers will want to start with some basic questions, so they have your background and have an idea about what you need. Even if you have a particular agenda, lawyers often want a fuller picture of your situation before they advise you, so they can determine all the available options, even some you may not have considered. Information you give to an attorney is confidential. Lawyers are not permitted to share what you tell them with the U.S. government or anyone else (the only possible exception is if you reveal your imminent intent to commit a crime--so don't do that!).

Once the lawyer understands your situation, she can hopefully present you with some options. In many of my clients' cases, there is only one option--to seek asylum. But sometimes, there are choices to be made and the lawyer should help you understand the pros and cons of each choice (though as I have discussed, one question that is basically impossible to answer is, What are the chances I will win my case?). It is the attorney's job to explain the options, and it is your job to choose which option is best for you. Make sure you understand what the lawyer tells you, and if you have questions, don't be afraid to ask--that is the main purpose of the consultation after all.

Also, remember that it is the attorneys' job to identify problems in your case so that they can be addressed (and hopefully overcome). If the attorney does not do that, she is not really helping you. An attorney who "guarantees" that she will win your case, or who glosses over your problems, or who seems more interested in selling her services than helping you, is an attorney that is probably best avoided. An attorney who listens to your concerns, identifies the risks and weak points in your case, and tries to honestly evaluate your options, is probably more trustworthy and will likely provide better service.

A final piece of the consult is the decision about whether or not to hire the attorney for your case. You do not have to make that decision immediately. If you are not sure or want to think about it, or if you want to talk to other lawyers before choosing someone for your case, you can do that. If a lawyer is pressuring you to sign a contract, you probably should look elsewhere.

If you feel comfortable with the lawyer and want to hire her, you can do that (assuming the lawyer is willing to take your case). Lawyers are required to set forth their fee (whether it is a flat fee or an hourly fee) and provide you with a written contract. These contracts are often difficult to understand, even for native English speakers, so take a moment to review the contract and ask any questions that come to mind. If you want to review the contract at home before you sign, you can ask to do that. Also, some lawyers have contracts in other languages, and so if that is something you need, ask for it.

In terms of the fee for a case, these vary widely from one lawyer to the next. I wrote something about fees here, but there is such a wide range of fees that the only real way to know is to shop around. I will say that lawyers who charge more are not necessarily better, and in fact, there is little relationship between a lawyer's fee and the quality of her work.

Finally, remember that attending a consultation does not mean that you have a lawyer. Unless you have an explicit written agreement for representation, the lawyer you met with is not your lawyer.

In some ways, the initial consult is the most important meeting you will have with your lawyer. It can lay the foundation for the remainder of the case and set the tone of the relationship between you and your attorney. If you use your meeting time wisely, it will hopefully be the first step towards a successful outcome in your case.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com