Jersey City, New Jersey – We’d like to think that all lawyers know what they are doing. That if someone holds himself or herself out as an immigration attorney, he or she would be an expert in the field and represent clients in immigration court competently. Unfortunately, that is not the truth. Just like there are good and bad teachers, plumbers, contractors, and waitresses, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. Unlike having a bad waitress, who you didn’t choose, and from whose service you can walk away without any harm, hiring the right or wrong lawyer is a life-altering decision with the most serious consequences, both positive and negative.

A recent decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates how important it is to find a good lawyer at the beginning of the legal process because correcting, or undoing, mistakes is much harder than doing it right in the first place. In Carlos Alvarez-Espino v. Barr, Docket Number 19-2289, decided on May 20, 2020, the court agreed with Mr. Alvarez-Espino that his first immigration lawyer was ineffective, but due to procedural restrictions, the court affirmed his order of removal.

Mr. Alvarez-Espino immigrated to the United States in 1996. He supported himself and his four children by running an upholstery business. In 2002, he was the victim of a robbery at gunpoint. Later, he was arrested for a DWI, and after violating probation, served more than 180 days in jail. As a result, he was placed into removal proceedings in the immigration court.

Mr. Alvarez-Espino hired an immigration lawyer who only applied for one form of relief in the immigration court—cancellation of removal. However, Mr. Alvarez-Espino was not eligible for cancellation of removal because he spent more than 180 days in jail. As a result, he was ordered removed and the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the removal order. Only after all this did Mr. Alvarez-Espino consult with a different immigration lawyer and learn that his status as the victim of a violent crime made him eligible for a U-visa that could have allowed him to remain in the United States. The new lawyer tried to get time in immigration court to apply for a U visa, but the request was denied. The Board of Immigration Appeals faulted Mr. Alvarez-Espino for failing to tell his lawyer that he was a victim of a crime, and denied the request for more time.

The Seventh Circuit, faulted the Board for putting the burden on Mr. Alvarez-Espino when the burden belonged on the lawyer. However, because Mr. Alvarez-Espino could still apply for a U visa even after being removed from the United States, the court concluded there was not enough prejudice to meet the standard for a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The question lingers – how do you know who the right lawyer is? This is a difficult question and there is no magic formula. However, there are tools available to help and some basic strategies. Read about the lawyer; read the lawyer’s website, Google reviews, Avvo reviews and any published information you can find about the lawyer. Is the lawyer’s website well-written? What do the reviews say? Are they descriptive or just stars without comment? If they are critical, why are they critical? Never hire a lawyer who promises an outcome or tells you what you want to hear. Such promises are unethical and impossible to make. Were you referred to the lawyer? Was the person who referred you trustworthy? Was their case as complicated as yours? Was it even related to yours? Does the lawyer’s fee seem reasonable? Is it lower than similarly experienced lawyers? Is it exceedingly high? Both of these things should be red flags. Be critical in evaluating a prospective lawyer because your first decision may be your last.

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