More and more I have been approached by spousal (spouses and common-law partner) sponsorship Applicants and Sponsors asking me to provide a review of their materials in lieu of full representation. While I still recommend those that can afford it to pursue full representation if possible, I understand the benefit of hourly review during these times.
Yet, many lawyers and law firms I know are unwilling to do hourly review because of the risk and uncertainties this work poses. Many are afraid that having an incomplete picture that can lead to incomplete advice, and create liability problems down the road.
I believe spousal reviews is not only a necessary part of my practice but good for access to justice. However, because of the misalignment between the clients seeking the services and the lawyers willing to offer it, many times confusion is created.
In this piece, I put forward six points that will make it easier for self-represented applicants to approach lawyers and work through the review process.
Point 1: Understand Our Mutual Limitations and Constraints
The main constraint of the self-represented applicants seeking my assistance in hourly review is cost. They are unable to pay a full set fee, have exhausted public information (from forums, blogs, etc.) and now need help on specific pieces of their application. Most often times these specific issues include inadmissibility, letters of explanation, police certificates, etc.
From the lawyer’s perspective, the constraint is usually more based on risk. With only incomplete or piecemeal information, how can a proper job of assessing a file be done? Is the time spent on this particular issue (usually clients will want reviews to be done in 2-3 hours or less) worth the possibility of not being able to see the application, the whole way through.
First, in order for this process to worth smoothly, an immigration lawyer must prepare a clear retainer that indicates the scope of work (limited scope retainer) and in subsequent emails continue to set and establish the expectations of both sides. Applicants and Sponsors should be aware that a full cover to cover review does take several hours (ideally 4-5 hours +) and limiting the budget of a review to only 2 or 3 hours may not allow for all the details to be adequately looked at.
In some cases, this will be fine as your issues are limited to particular areas. In a limited review, it is my practice to clarify with you both at the outset of my review and as well after providing my comments and recommended changes, that I did not see the full application and cannot be responsible for issues such as incompleteness.
This is a risk the Applicant must bear in a limited review, but ultimately where the cost savings also occur.
Point 2: Organize Your Files: Personal Checklists and Electronic Files
It is my practice to send a cloud-based link to my clients so they can upload the files they want me to review.
I can advise that from a time/cost-saving perspective, when these files are all over the place and not in the order of a personalized checklist or even the document checklist, this adds time to my review. I often see this manifested in things such as uploading relevant documents as unnamed jpegs and single page pdfs.
One of the best ways to save on costs is to put everything in your file into one very organized bundle or at least electronic subfolders that guide me into what I should review and in what order.
Point 3: How Do You Want to Structure Your Review?
Some lawyers prefer (and I prefer) at least a check in during the beginning prior to preparing the materials. It is so crucial to spend an hour at the front end going through materials to make sure everyone is on the same page.
I point out usual traps and where clients often make mistake, introduce standard form content for support letters, the importance of a photo essay, how to document shared finances, or cohabitation, etc.
I prefer these reviews because I am able to first give instructions and then meet the clients when their documents are drafted. Some add a session for a first draft and then a final draft.
I am bigger fan of more check in points on these hourly reviews as it usually makes the final review of the combined pdf package or paper package, much more effective and efficient.
Point 4: Do You Want to Disclose My Assistance?
There are mixed perspectives on whether an IMM 5476E – Use of Representative Form is required where an Applicant seeks legal advice but where counsel does not act as an authorized representative.
Currently, the IMM5476E form is only required to be signed by a paid authorized representative. Where only review takes places (especially partial review), many practitioners do not consider themselves as the authorized representative on the file. You will likely see this language in both retainers and as well on any advice letter you may receive.
My advice for clients is to choose for themselves whether they wish to disclose my assistance. For those that do request, I usually provide a letter at the end of the engagement confirming my assistance and services provided as counsel but not as the authorized representative for the file.
I do hope there is a fix down the road, where IRCC creates a form for the disclosure of assistance received. I do believe it is problematic that many unauthorized representatives are able to ‘ghost’ applications, but at the same time requiring all authorized representatives to be disclosed by self-represented applicants who may have sought piecemeal advice from various lawyers, seems also unsuitable.
On that final point, always ask to have direct communication with the individual behind the scenes – if it is a lawyer, or consultant. Check their name against the ICCRC consultant registry or territorial/provincial law society lists. Always make sure to have direct contact established with the individual who is listed or authorized to provide immigration advice.
Point 5: When to Convert to a Set Fee
Depending on who represents you, this conversation may come up. Sometimes it will be a sales pitch, but in my practice I really do ensure to let the clients know when a file is of a significant enough level of complexity OR if what I am seeing in drafts is so poor that full representation is the ideal solution.
Make sure to ask (at the front end ideally) how it works when that switch occurs. A representative who is transparent and client-focused with their work will give you some sense of this at the front stage of an hourly retainer or else take some credit for time spent when quoting that set fee.
Point 6: Discuss How Follow-Up Would Work
Once the application is submitted, there could be other steps. In other cases, it might be the stage you decide to go it your own as the remainder of the application is simply administrative until a fire arises.
It is good to signal to your lawyer how you want to work moving forward. Perhaps you want to leave a small amount of money in trust for follow-up work? It is best to clarify these things in advance so there is not a last minute, unexpected request when something goes wrong, without certainty of when these steps might occur and capacity to step in to put out those fires.
Transparency is Key. That is Why I WRote This Piece.
I hope in reading this piece, it is not looked at through the lens of me marketing my services. Indeed, some within the lawyer-side of the industry would wonder why I would discuss in so much detail my thought processes and ways of work. For me, at the end of the day, it is about ensuring those who contact me know they are getting into.
We have had remarkable success to date on hourly review files that have saved both client fees and obtained the end results, while providing the key knowledge and training needed to complete the tasks. Again, this will defer, from client to client. Some will need extra hand holding. Some will have more complicated fact patterns and legal issues that require full representation as authorized representation. Yet, there is a very large demographic of clients that can seek just enough advice to keep costs affordable without compromising end product that I hope will learn a few things from this article.
What’s Happening in October?
Signing off until the end my tribunal matter tomorrow. October will be a crazy month of presentations and personal changes and I am really looking forward to sharing all of the news and updates with all of you. I have also working on a few legally technical/substantive pieces that I hope will you will enjoy!