Vancouver Is Getting Expensive. Legal Fees Are Hard to Come By
Regardless of your income bracket, Vancouver has become a difficult place to get by from a financial perspective. The Lower Mainland is seeing shelter-to-income ratio figures where close to 40-45% of homeowners spend 30% of their household income on shelter. If we factor in new immigrants, where we know wages are lower and many expenses (international tuition, fees, etc. are higher), we could expect this number to be even higher. City of Vancouver statistics showed that in 2010, approximately 7% of all renters and 4% of all owners spent 50% to 99% of their household income on shelter – a figure I imagine has continued to climb up to today.
Increasingly, and not surprisingly, I am seeing individuals facing extreme challenges to afford their legal fees, particularly where they do not have the support of a well-established employer willing to foot the bill.
However, their legal matters are becoming increasingly complex – including complex legal issues of procedural fairness, appeals, and judicial reviews. As immigration law has become better defined, it has become the finite details (many of which require the expertise of a professional to understand) that are the source of contentious decisions – and the ones that need to be litigated carefully.
The natural result of this are individuals seeking of free consultations, or even perhaps success fees. The quoting of a “price” has become the first, rather than the last question, where in the scope of solving legal problems its proper place is the later. Individuals are taking on their own cases now with more fervor – perhaps influenced by Immigration’s own “you can do it yourself” pitch and making some major, sometimes non-fixable, mistakes.
What has happened through this – and I have seen this in subsequent consultations and clients that I have retained – is delay, often times near fatal to their status in Canada, poorly prepared application, and ultimately the need to spend more getting out of a difficult situation than would have taken to prevent in the first place.
Five Things You Can Relay to Your Immigration Representative
I recommend all individuals now to be very proactive and very upfront when seeking legal advice. Let us, as your practitioners, know your financial situation, your budget, and your A to Z concerns. Be very cautious about paying for an entire service up-front without any stages of billing. Particularly with dealing with agents and those who are not abiding by their own professional codes of conducts, there may be more value being extracted by your money being utilized to make more money than by any actual provision of services. We saw this a lot with the investor immigration programs a few years back before they were unceremoniously dropped.This is entirely illegal for a lawyer to undertake in and one of the reasons our profession has strict trust accounting rules that watches the placement of our every penny. I usually bill about a third to a half on commencement of work and then the rest split between submission and/or a portion when the application is approved (in the context of a longer-term application).
Second – set up payment plans (if necessary). While most practitioners are unlikely to work for free before an initial payment is secured – many (myself included) are happy to break this down into monthly payments fitting your financial budget. Payment plans help ensure you are not creating more household debt by paying fees that you cannot afford upfront.
Third – don’t underestimate the value of a paid consultation – thirty minute free consultations here and there are more likely to end up being sales pitches than actually problem solvers and running into the wrong 30 minute consultation can embed incomplete and false advice that could take you on a more expensive path than you would have needed to go on. Sending your information via an online form or via emails to anonymous websites (on the other hand) are a huge sacrifice of personal privacy and more than a few individuals have ended up being victims of identity or immigration fraud in the interest of saving upfront consultation fees with an actual lawyer.
Fourth – ask us to train in addition to asking us to do. Whether it is on a set fee or an hourly fee if I see a client who is proactive in gathering their documentation and acts almost as a second legal assistant in championing their case – I will reflect this in the price that I charge. If I have to cross every i and dot every t on a form, this is something that we will have to charge extra for because our time is money. However, if you come see me in a consultation with several forms already drafted accurately and your questions and asks clearly defined in an application context, or in an appeal context if you provide me a strong factual record and your thoughts up front, it can save hours of work. A prepared client = an always more facilitate process = that will provide financial benefits.
Fifth – understand the difference between an hourly agreement and set fee agreement. Hourly agreements are not necessarily a bad thing (notwithstanding their bad public rap) especially where the work may be piecemeal or your budget may be a little tight.
However, if you want the security of the process being taken care of for you without any unforeseen work being charged – consider a set fee agreement. It is never a bad thing to share your budget and your ask in either case. Some cases are more suitable to one over the other, and an experienced practitioner will tell you which one and why and give you the option in each circumstance.
Faster and Cheaper is Not Always Better
Many of you will end up going to a website that purports to process volume and success rate at a high rate. You may end up sending a webform with your information, receiving an email from some administrator, and eventually having some “case manager” or “project manager” contact you. In many cases the more well-oiled the online marketing machine appears to be, the more careful you need to be about the process.
While it is not unheard of for some practitioners to be relatively sheltered from their clients, primarily having communication go through an assistant, I know at our Firm and through my practice that is not the case. Advice needs to come from me and instructions need to come from me. You may have a visa application or a study permit application turned in a day and realize it was so bare bones that a refusal is the only logical consequence. In that case (the basic filling out of forms) – I would even argue that you as an applicant have a better chance of doing it accurately than a visa mill trying to transfer your information from a generic client form.
I cannot tell you how many clients I have ended up helping that made a mistake of submitting a substandard initial application or eventually responding to a request letter the next day without giving proper though to content, form, or law. For some straight forwarded cases, a skeletal application may be good enough but increasingly – especially with respect to temporary residence applications from countries with more challenging local visa offices or permanent residence applications where the facts aren’t straight forward.
There’s a difference between – taking time (by delaying someone’s file) vs. taking time (by being diligent). Accuracy within a reasonable set time is very crucial and something unfortunately lacking in a majority of practices set today.
The legal landscape is certainly changing – and financial challenges threaten to influence consumer decisions away from the traditional trust model of legal representation to one based on speed, accuracy, and results. These three, I find anyways, are products of good work not the good work itself. Being transparent about financial challenges with your potential advisor, building rapport, and taking ownership of an immigration file as a collaborative venture is the key to success.
As always, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get in touch at anytime about your situation.