Lawyers, Consultants, Notaries...What's the Difference?

There are several sources of help for immigration problems including attorneys, consultants, notaries, free services such as churches and other outreach programs; public forums like bulletin boards, Internet news groups and home pages; friends and relatives, newspapers, and the Immigration Service itself. Let's look at each of these to help you decide what might be best for you. (Keep in mind that the writer is an attorney and may be biased in his view.)


Attorneys should not be lumped together as equally good or bad. Attorneys are individuals and come with the strengths and weaknesses of any group. Probably the best indicators of attorney competence are the attorney's experience and good personal recommendations. Articles or books by an attorney may indicate the depth or spread of an attorney's knowledge (if they were not ghost written by someone else).

The advantage of an attorney is that you know he/she has had some formal training in the law, has passed an examination, and was required to show proof of good moral conduct. Be careful in selection since these do not guarantee success or ability. They may have occurred years ago, and examinations may not have been designed to test competence. They certainly do not test immigration law knowledge to any extent. A few states now have a specialty certification examination in immigration law (California, as an example). This writer is not familiar with the exam and cannot comment on the certificate as an indicator of competence. Most states do not have such programs so the lack of a certificate should not be taken as an indication of lesser competence.

An attorney does have a license to protect and is subject to discipline for gross incompetence or neglect. This may give you some comfort.

An attorney can represent a person before the Immigration Service. All notices go both to the attorney and the client. A non-attorney (with some exceptions) may not formally represent a person before the INS and notices will be sent only to the applicant.

Attorneys can call upon colleagues, law libraries, and other sources of expertise that may not be readily available to others. Some attorneys have smaller, boutique practices with somewhat higher fees but with specialized, individual attention given personally by the attorney to each case. Others operate a kind of assembly line, volume practice with lower fees but less time and attention given to inquiries and cases. Communication may be through a receptionist or paralegal with references to clients by case number rather than name. In some of these offices, the attorney is rarely seen after the first visit.

Click Here for "How to Choose a Lawyer...If you want one"


There are a number of immigration consultants who offer to help obtain residence or other immigration benefits. Some specialize in investments and investor visas. Some are hard working, knowledgeable and competent. Some are former employees of the Immigration Service or are former U.S. consular employees. Since a consultant may not formally represent a client before the Immigration Service, notices will go directly to the applicant.)

Because there are no uniform examinations or licenses needed, it may be difficult to determine the background and experience of a consultant. The best recommendation is a personal referral from a satisfied client. Consultants are not subject to discipline except to the extent any person might be held to damages for fraud or other gross misbehavior. (This is not to imply that consultants practice fraud more than attorneys or any other group).

It is probably a good idea to learn about the education, background, experience, and successes of a consultant, perhaps speak to some former clients if possible. Be sure to obtain the arrangements for fees and other charges in writing. (Be careful about entrusting large sums of money to consultants, attorneys, or anyone.)


Notaries may have substantial duties related to legal documents in Spanish language countries and in some European countries (Italy, as an example). The Notario prepares documents, and oversees their execution. In the U.S., notaries are appointed by states according to each state's criteria. The duties of notaries here are usually confined to validating a signature, taking an oath, or certifying a copy of paper. In the U.S. a person can become a notary without legal training. A notary may not formally represent a person before the Immigration Service.

Free Services Such as Churches and other Outreach Programs

When a person is apprehended by the INS, they receive a list of free legal services. These are usually approved to represent people before the INS at deportation and other litigated proceedings. The workers may be attorneys or trained lay-people. Competence varies. Some are more competent and experienced than some attorneys. Some may not be knowledgeable in immigration matters outside their usual type of immigration cases (the same thing can be said about attorneys and consultants). They often carry large case loads leaving scant time for individual attention...but you can't beat the price.

Public Forums: Bulletin Boards, Internet News Groups, Internet Home Pages

A good source of general information are the public forums. The advice given is necessarily general and may not precisely respond to the inquiry. It may be possible to "meet" an attorney or other help source through these public means.

Friends and Relatives

You can get all kinds of advice and rumors from people you know, some of which may be useful , and all of which should be verified. Also, other people are your best source of recommendation for help. Remember that what worked in one case may not be good for another and it sometimes takes considerable experience and training to see the danger in blindly following informal advice.


You may have had the experience of reading a newspaper story about an event or subject that you personally knew about and you were surprised at how inaccurate the news story was. The same danger exists in stories and advice about immigration matters, laws, and procedures. Newspapers often do not get it right. Question the story, show it to an attorney or other expert before relying on newspaper stories.

The Immigration Service as a Source of Advice

The INS has a dual function. In simple terms, the INS issues green cards, and deports people. These two conflicting functions sometimes colors the advice given by the INS. Also, INS employees are often not familiar with many aspects of immigration law. The INS has been known to give erroneous and dangerous advice. If a person relies on the advice then later tells a judge "But I only did what the INS told me to do." The judge is likely to say "Too bad, you should have gotten better advice."

INS employees are often harassed, impatient, and not very understanding (and this after you've waited in line for an hour or more to get the advice). Even the seemingly simple task of telling you which form to use may be a disaster in the making. Be careful about relying on advice from the INS.

Send e-mail to

Return to The Immigration Home Page sm

© Richard Madison, 1998

Law Office of Richard Madison