You are not required to have a lawyer when applying for an immigrant visa or green card in the United States or overseas. If you have a straightforward case, are clearly eligible for the benefit you seek, and have no record of crimes or negative run-ins with immigration authorities, you can potentially proceed all the way to a visa or green card without a lawyer. In fact, if you are overseas, lawyers cannot attend consular interviews with you, though they are allowed to prepare the paperwork and have follow-up communications with the consulates.

However, there are numerous types of situation when you’ll need a lawyer’s help — or will save yourself a lot of time and aggravation by getting it. Immigration law is notoriously, insanely complicated, and it’s run by a bureacuracy that receives less oversight and public scrutiny than you might expect. So, let’s look at some of the most likely situations.

If You Are in Immigration Court Proceedings

If you are or have ever been in immigration court deportation (removal) proceedings, run, don’t walk to see a lawyer. If the proceedings are not yet finished or are on appeal, your entire immigration situation is in the power of the courts — and you will not get anywhere trying to use the same application procedures as people who are not in proceedings. Even if the proceedings are over, you should ask a lawyer whether the outcome affects your current application.

If You Are Inadmissible

The most common legal issue encountered by would-be immigrants is the claim by USCIS or the consulate that they are inadmissible for one or more of the reasons listed in the article, “Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.” Possible examples include having committed a crime or previously lied to the U.S. government. If you know that any of these grounds apply to you, it makes sense to get legal help before you begin the application process.

If You Are Overwhelmed by the Paperwork

Even the simplest of U.S. immigration applications involves filling out some forms, and you will most likely be asked to follow some detailed instructions about gathering and including other paperwork and fees. Make a mistake, and you may find your application returned, delayed, or even rejected.

Immigration lawyers have dealt with this paperwork countless times before you, and have both the knowledge and the streamlined systems to prepare the applications smoothly. They have computer programs in which they can enter your information and spit out the forms in an instant. Hiring a lawyer can be well worth it for the peace of mind alone.

If You Are Encountering Delays

Another circumstance that often drives people to lawyers is the failure of USCIS or the consulate to act on or approve the application, for reasons that have more to do with bureaucracy than law. For example, an applicant who moves from Los Angeles to San Francisco after filing the green card application might find that the application, which should be transferred to the San Francisco USCIS office, has instead disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole for months. Delays at the USCIS Service Centers are also far too common.

Lawyers do not have a lot of power in such circumstances. But at least the lawyer may have access to inside fax or email inquiry lines, where they (and only they) can ask about delayed or problematic cases. Unfortunately, even lawyers have trouble getting answers to such inquiries, but it’s often worth a try.