Choosing a Lawyer for International Work

If you need to see a lawyer, you need to see a good lawyer: not just someone who's going through the motions and racking up fees.

In order to do this, you will need to do some research. The research will take you a little time but if the case is important it is worth spending some time to make sure that you have the best person dealing with it.

Choosing a lawyer for international work – video guide

You can get a quick overview of choosing a lawyer for cases in a foreign country by watching this video with John Howell (editor & founder of Guides Global). Learn more by scrolling down and reading the detailed guide he’s written.

First, research the country

What can you expect from a lawyer in the country in question? Although, in most places, lawyers operate by the same set of ethical rules, in practice there is a huge difference between what you can expect from your lawyer in various countries around the world.

Remember that in no country is the situation perfect. There are bad and dishonest lawyers everywhere. It’s just that in some countries they seem to be far more numerous than in others.

In some countries, the law is well established and relatively clear, so the advice your lawyer can give you should be reasonably certain and relatively clear. In other countries, particularly the emerging Eastern European countries, the new post-communist legal system is only 20 or 30 years old. The lawyers themselves are still trying to understand it and you will find far more differences of opinion as to the correct interpretation.

In some countries you can be confident that your lawyer will be working diligently on your behalf and not engaged in any conflict of interests. In others this is not so. Sadly, in some countries, the level of integrity of some lawyers leaves a lot to be desired: I have come across cases where lawyers have actually been bidding against their own client in order to secure a plot of land or where they have lied to the client about the amount of compensation received for an accident and pocketed the difference. You will get some idea of the state of the legal system by doing a Google search: “problems lawyers COUNTRY NAME”.

Another good way of assessing the overall quality of a country’s legal system is to look at the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for rankings and information on over 100 countries.

Seek recommendations

There is no better way of finding a lawyer than by way of personal recommendations from people who have used them for a similar purpose and who were happy with the service they received.

Unfortunately, if you’re dealing with a problem in a foreign country, you may not know any family or friends who have had to use a lawyer there and so this avenue may not be immediately available to you. However, you may have family and friends who have used a lawyer for another purpose and who were happy with the service they received and you could always contact that lawyer to see whether anyone in their firm has the skills needed to help you or, if not, whether they can recommend somebody else who might be able to assist.

If you don’t know anybody at all who has used a lawyer in the country, your lawyer in your own country might be able to recommend somebody. Law firms are often part of international groups.

Failing that, you may find recommended lawyers on the website of your embassy or consulate in the country in question. Be aware, however, that you need a recommendation for a lawyer with the skills you need to deal with your problem. A lawyer who might be the best to help you with a criminal case will almost certainly not be the best to help you set up a new business or deal with a divorce.

Check the directories

There are a number of major international legal directories listing lawyers around the world. For example, the US-based MartinDale-Hubbell lists not only almost every lawyer in the US and Canada but hundreds of law firms around the world. The UK-based Legal500 lists lawyers in almost every country. For example, they list three law firms in Albania and one in Chad.

The important thing about both of these resources is that the entries are not merely adverts but, in most cases, are rated by peer review. This means that other lawyers are assessing the quality of the firms.

The main problem with these directories is that they tend to focus on lawyers dealing with more heavyweight legal issues rather than smaller cases. These lawyers tend to be expensive. However, they are often very helpful in that if you contact them and you do not have the sort of case in which they specialise (or which they would find it worthwhile getting involved in) they will refer you to some other local lawyer.

If all of this fails, many lawyers now advertise on the internet. If you find a lawyer in this way you will need to be a bit more careful in the further research that you do.

Check a few law firms

Once you’ve found one or more law firms in one or other of the ways mentioned, check them out.

Look at its website. Does it claim to have expertise in the area of law of concern to you? Does the website look professional? Is the material on it clearly written and understandable?

From the website you will probably be able to get the name of one or more lawyers who deal with the subject in which you have a problem. If so, make contact by email or phone.

If you can’t get a name in this way, write to the law firm and ask whether they have anyone with skills in the area of concern to you.

Check out the lawyer

If possible – and it is possible in most countries – check with the local Bar that the lawyer is a registered member of the Bar and whether they have been subject to any disciplinary sanctions.

It is also worth Googling their name to see whether any comments, good or bad, emerge.

Preparing for your meeting

To make the most of limited time you should prepare three things and, ideally, send them to the lawyer before your meeting so that they have had time to read them. If they have not read them then this is a danger sign.

  1. A copy of your proof of identity and proof of address. This would typically be a copy of your passport and some official documents such as bank statements or tax bills going to your normal address
  2. A short (maybe two pages of A4) statement about what has happened and why you need a lawyer’s help
  3. Copies of any really important documents relating to your case. For example, the contract involved or the police report or photographs of your accident

Meet the lawyer

Ideally, the meeting should be face-to-face as you will get a lot more out of it but if the firm is on the other side of the world you may have to conduct it by telephone conference call or (much better) a video call such as Skype.

If you meet in person, you can also ask to have a look around the office. You can learn a lot from this. If the place is a shambles and totally disorganised it’s likely that the service will be too.

Most law firms will give a free initial meeting of limited duration to prospective clients. This will, typically, be 15 or 30 minutes but they often overrun at no cost. This is your opportunity to establish whether this lawyer is the right lawyer to deal with your problem.

There are a number of issues you might want to raise:

  • How long has the lawyer been in practice?
  • What is their position in the firm – partner, associate, paralegal etc?
  • Do they have any special skills or qualification (such as a qualification in mediation or a masters degree in international tax)?
  • How many years’ experience do they have dealing with cases of your type?
  • What percentage of their casework is made up of cases of your type?
  • When did they take on the last case of this type?
  • What is their track record in terms of success?
  • Can they give your references from satisfied clients?
  • Who would actually be dealing with your case? Would it be this lawyer or an assistant and if so what experience would they have?
  • What backup does the firm have if this lawyer is off sick or on holiday?
  • Do they outsource any of their work or is it all done in-house?
  • What can you expect in the way of regular reports as to the progress of your case?
  • Does the lawyer have adequate time to devote to your case?
  • Does the firm have professional indemnity insurance and, if so, to what extent? This is compulsory in most major countries in the world but not all.

You will also want to ask questions about fees. See below.

During the course of asking these questions you will be able to establish:

  • How well does the lawyer speak your language?
  • Do you understand what they’re saying? Not just the words themselves – are they able to explain their points clearly so that you can understand the advice given and the reasons for it?
  • Is this somebody you think you’d be able to work with? Sometimes, however skilled the lawyer may be, you just know that you’re not going to get on and – especially if this is an important case – you could well end up working with this person for a long time.

The three main questions

There are three big questions which most lawyers don’t like answering because they feel it pins them down but which, for you, are essential.

Insist you get an answer to them but understand that the answer will be qualified by a few ‘ifs and ‘buts’ as these are not simple questions to answer.

  1. “Based on what you know of my case, what are my chances of success?”
  2. “How long will it take?” . . . “I know that this will depend upon all sorts of things including the response of my seller/opponent/other party but what would be a best case and a worst-case scenario?”
  3. “How much will it cost overall – lawyers’ fees, court fees and all other payments?”. . . “Again, I know that this will be variable but what would be normal, the worst case and the best case?”

Once again, I stress that the answers will be no more than general indications but they will at least help you understand what you’re letting yourself in for.

Fees

There are a number of issues to raise when it comes to fees:

  • Do you have any insurance or source of outside funding to cover the fees? For example, you might be a member of a trade union that has a legal fighting fund or your travel insurance could cover you for legal expenses. If you do have these things, will the lawyer accept them as a way of paying their fees?
  • If any form of public legal assistance/legal aid available to cover your case?
  • Does the firm operate on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis? If so, will there be any expenses that you have to pay? How much will they charge you if you are successful – i.e. what percentage of your winnings will they keep? Note that in some cases this can be very high. Note also that in many countries, ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements are illegal.
  • How much are the fees and all expenses likely to amount to?
  • When must these fees and expenses be paid? It is usual to pay some part of them in advance and then the rest as the case progresses.

Contract

Does the law firm have a standard contract with its clients setting out your mutual rights and obligations? If so, you need to see a copy.

If you agree to engage the law firm you will normally be expected to sign some kind of contract with them.

Conclusion

Remember that this is your first contact with these lawyers and that you cannot expect them, at this stage, to give you comprehensive advice about your situation and the ways in which it should be tackled.

Generally, they will have to read of all the paperwork and do research before doing that.

Nonetheless, by the end of your initial meeting you should be in a position where you are satisfied that the lawyer has a grasp of the basics of your problem and a sensible approach to dealing with it that he is capable of communicating to you and that you understand.

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