Retaining a Foreign Attorney
The information relating to the legal requirements of specific foreign countries is provided for general information only and may not be totally accurate in a particular case. Questions involving interpretation of specific foreign laws should be addressed to foreign attorneys. This circular seeks only to provide information; it is not an opinion on any aspect of U.S., foreign, or international law. The U.S. Department of State does not intend by the contents of this circular to take a position on any aspect of any pending litigation.
U.S. Department of State's Role
Officers of the Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates overseas are prohibited by federal regulation from acting as agents, attorneys or in a fiduciary capacity on behalf of U.S. citizens involved in legal disputes overseas. Department of State personnel, including its attorneys, do not provide legal advice to the public.
While U.S. embassies and consulates overseas may not recommend a particular foreign attorney, they may furnish the names of several attorneys who have identified themselves as willing to assist U.S. citizen clients, or refer inquiries to foreign law directories, bar associations or other organizations.
What Type of Lawyer Will You Need?
- Barristers and Solicitors: In some foreign countries you may need the services of specialized attorneys referred to as solicitors and barristers. Barristers are generally allowed to appear in any court. Solicitors advise clients and may prepare cases for barristers to try in court but do not frequently represent them in court themselves.
- Notaries: In some countries, notaries public, "notaires" or “notars” can perform many of the functions performed by attorneys in the United States. A notary in a civil law country is not comparable to a notary public in the United States. They frequently draft instruments such as wills and transfers of property. In some countries a notary is a public official appointed by the Ministry of Justice, whose functions include not only preparing documents, but the administration and settlement of estates. Such notaries serve as repositories for wills and are empowered to serve legal documents.
- Huissiers: In some countries "huissiers" serve documents. Your foreign attorney may delegate certain functions to a notary, "notaire", "notar" or "huissier" and is responsible for informing you about any other legal professionals that he or she engages on your behalf.
- Foreign Legal Consultants: These are attorneys, frequently working for U.S. law firms with offices in foreign countries, that may advise clients about the requirements of foreign law but who may or may not be licensed to practice law in the country where they work.
- Selecting an Attorney: When you receive a list of attorneys, you may wish to consider contacting several attorneys, and briefly describe the services you need.
- Find out the attorney's qualifications and experience and how the attorney plans to represent you.
- Ask specific questions and expect the attorney to explain legal activities in language that you can comprehend.
- Do not turn over documents or funds until you are satisfied that the attorney understands your problem and is willing to handle your case.
- Find out the rules of the foreign country concerning attorney-client confidentiality.
Guidelines on How to Deal with Your Foreign Attorney
- Understanding Your Attorney: Ask your attorney to analyze your case, but do not expect simple answers to complex legal questions. Be sure that you understand the technical language in any contract or other legal document prepared by your attorney before you sign it.
- Fees: Find out what fees the attorney charges and how the attorney expects to be paid. In some countries fees are fixed by local law. Establish a billing schedule that meets your requirements and is acceptable to the foreign attorney. Foreign lawyers may be unaccustomed to including a description of work performed in connection with billing. Some foreign attorneys may expect to be paid in advance; some may demand payment after each action they take on your behalf and refuse to take further action until they are paid; and some may take the case on a contingency or percentage basis, collecting a pre-arranged percentage of moneys awarded to you by the foreign court. Request an estimate of the total hours and costs of doing the work. Be clear who will be involved in the work and the fees charged by each participant. Determine costs if other attorneys or specialists need to be consulted, such as barristers.
- Method of Payment: Find out the expected means of payment (corporate check, bank check, personal check, international money order, wire transfer), specify currency and exchange rates (when and where applicable or feasible).
- Progress Reports: Ask that your attorney keep you informed of the progress of your case according to a pre-established schedule. Remember that many foreign courts work more slowly than courts in the United States. You may, therefore, wish the attorney to send you monthly reports, even though no real developments have ensured, simply to satisfy your questions about the progress of the case. Ask what the fee will be for progress reports.
- Language: Is the attorney fluent in English? This may or may not be important to you. If the foreign attorney does not speak or write in English, you can arrange for translation of correspondence.
- Document Translations: If you need to provide complex or technical documents to your attorney, you may wish to consider having the documents translated into the attorney's native language. Remember that even a fundamental knowledge of English may not be enough to enable the attorney to understand technical documents you provide. Discuss with your attorney whether it is preferable to translate the documents in the U.S. or in the foreign country. Compare the costs.
- Communication: Remember to keep your attorney informed of any new developments in your case. Tell the attorney every relevant fact in order to get the best representation of your interests. Establish how you will communicate with your foreign attorney (mail, phone, fax, email.)
- Time: Find out how much time the attorney anticipates the case may take to complete. In some countries the courts recess for a period of several months. In addition, even if the case is resolved, currency control laws may delay the transfer of funds awarded to you from the foreign country for an indefinite period of time. Discuss these issues with your attorney to ensure there is no confusion.
- Authentication and Translation of Documents: It may be helpful for you to provide foreign authorities or your attorney with authenticated, translated copies of pertinent documents. Consult your foreign attorney before going to this expense. Details on authenticating U.S. documents for use overseas may be found on our website.
- Records: Consider requesting copies of all letters and documents prepared on your behalf. Inquire about the costs of mailing you such documents
- Complaints Against Foreign Attorneys: If the services of your foreign attorney prove unsatisfactory, in addition to notifying the U.S. Department of State and/or the consular section of the U.S. embassy or consulate overseas, you may address your complaints to the local foreign bar association. Information about foreign bar associations may be obtained from the U.S. embassy or consulate overseas. Foreign embassies and consulates in the U.S. may also have information on this subject.
- Assistance of U.S. Embassies and Consulates: Should your communication with a foreign attorney prove unsatisfactory, a U.S. consular officer may, if appropriate, communicate with the attorney on your behalf. In addition, complaints against foreign attorneys whose names appear on the consular list of attorneys can result in the removal of their names from the list.
- Coordination with Attorneys in the United States: Attorneys from the United States may not represent you in foreign courts unless they are admitted to practice before them. Those that have experience in international law procedure may be helpful in explaining the complex legal issues involved in your case and may be able to recommend a foreign attorney to represent you as well.
Finding A Foreign Attorney
U.S. embassies and consulates maintain lists of attorneys on their websites, including American attorneys licensed to practice in the foreign country, who have identified themselves as willing to assist U.S. citizen clients. These lists include:
- Contact information
- Educational background
- Areas of specialization
- Languages spoken
There may be facilities in the foreign country for low cost or free legal services. If information is not included on the Embassy or Consulate’s website, ask the local foreign bar association or Ministry of Justice about the availability of legal aid. You may also contact the legal attaché or consular section of the foreign Embassy in Washington for specific guidance. Legal aid information may also be available from a local branch of the International Social Service.
- ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer Referral and Information Service
- ABA Division for Legal Services: Access to Justice
- ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants
- ABA Resources on Legal Services for the Poor
- ABA Center for Pro Bono
- ABA, Section of International Law and Practice
- American Society of International Law
- European Commission’s Legal Service
- Inter-American Bar Association (IABA) International Bar Association (IBA)
- Inter-Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) Law Association for Asia and the Pacific
- Union Internationale des Avocats