Immigration law is difficult to understand and constantly changing. No fewer than three major agencies administer the US immigration system and dozens of other agencies play a role. So it’s incredibly important to hire a good lawyer if you are dealing with any kind of immigration issue. Because there are more than 7,500 immigration lawyers practicing in the US, the process of selecting just the right lawyer can be difficult.

A great way to start your search is at Go to the Find a Lawyer search box that appears on each page. Under Personal Needs where it says, “Select a type of lawyer,” scroll down the areas of practice and click on “IMMIGRATION.” Then type in your hometown, insert your state, and click on the Search button. You should be able to pull up a list of immigration lawyers in your area.

Next, find out every thing you can about the lawyers and then do some initial screening to narrow down you list to three or four prospective candidates:

  • Look at the biographies and Web sites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they have any information on their Web sites about immigration law that is helpful to you?
  • Is the lawyer a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association? AILA is probably the immigration lawyer’s best resource for up-to-date information on the law. While being an AILA member is not a sure sign of quality, NOT being an AILA member should definitely make you concerned about just how much the lawyer knows about immigration law.
  • Has the lawyer ever been disciplined by the Board of Professional Responsibility of the state bar? This could be a sign of possible problems. There are also people who falsely claim to be licensed lawyers. The local bar is also the place to check that the lawyer is licensed and in good standing.
  • Has the lawyer established a good name for himself or herself in the community? If your lawyer has a sterling community reputation, chances are it was earned through hard work.
  • A strong reference from a friend or colleague is often the best indicator of whether a lawyer is up to snuff.
  • Within immigration law, there are a variety of subspecialties, including employment, family, asylum and deportation. Consider going with a lawyer with a strong background in your particular type of case.
  • It’s tough enough for a full-time immigration lawyer to keep up with all the developments in the practice area. It’s nearly impossible to be a top-notch immigration lawyer while trying to balance being an expert in many other practice areas as well. While someone can be a good immigration lawyer and also be very competent in another practice area, watch out for lawyers where immigration is one practice area on a laundry list of claimed specialties.
  • Technology has revolutionized the practice of immigration law probably as much as any other area in the legal profession. Does the lawyer have an e-mail address? Does the lawyer have the latest research and case management software? Does the lawyer provide electronic newsletters and email alerts to inform clients of breaking news? Does the firm have an extranet that allows you to log in to a private and secure web site to see what is happening on your case? Does the firm file applications electronically? Lawyers who master technology deliver legal services with better quality and can often leverage technology to deliver legal services less expensively.
  • A few states certify lawyers in the practice of immigration law. If your lawyer practices in a state that does, make sure he or she has this credential. It’s no guarantee of quality, but it can certainly be an indicator.
  • While many fine lawyers have come out of mediocre law schools and lousy lawyers come out of the Ivy Leagues, where a lawyer went to school can still be an indicator of a person’s ability to achieve.
  • Lawyers who write frequently about their practice area tend to keep themselves better informed about their area of law. The ability to get published may also indicate that the lawyer’s expertise is respected.
  • A number of immigration lawyers focus on particular types of employers and have become particularly adept at handling visa matters in their industries. For example, a small number of immigration lawyers in the United States represent the bulk of physicians applying for visas because of the peculiar difficulties present in these types of cases.
  • Unlike most fields of law, the location of your immigration lawyer is not nearly as important as you might think. Immigration law is strictly federal in nature. That means it is basically the same across the country and a lawyer in one state is practicing under the same system as in every other state. Immigration law is almost entirely administrative as well. That means that most petitions are submitted by mail and personal appearances by an immigration lawyer are becoming less and less common.
  • Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
  • Check out the archives of your local newspaper. Has there been any publicity about the lawyer or the cases that he or she has handled?
  • Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from a lawyer who speaks a language other than English?

You will probably want to hire a lawyer with at least a few years of experience. Much of immigration law is unwritten and the longer a lawyer is in practice, the better his or her instincts become. But the opposite can be true as well. Lawyers who have been practicing for years may become lazy about staying up to date on the latest changes. So try and strike a balance.

Compare backgrounds and experience. Use your common sense and gut instincts to evaluate the remaining lawyers on your list. You’ll want to be comfortable with the lawyer you hire. You want to choose the best lawyer you can afford who is experienced, competent and willing to communicate. Prioritize your choices and start making some telephone calls to set up meetings with several lawyers to interview them.