Hiring an Attorney in Ecuador

There is nothing mutually exclusive about selecting a well qualified real estate attorney and visa attorney in Ecuador.  In fact, while still the exception, there are some excellent legal firms that can well represent an expat looking for both real estate and visa services, from one central legal source.  Many of the positive qualifications you will seek in a legal firm will equally apply to both the real estate and the visa side of the business.  At the same time, however, there are some specialized skill sets and practical aspects, which should be independently considered.  The goal in this brief report is to provide expats, or expats in the making, a primer for what they should be considering, when seeking general legal counsel, and the specific requirements needed for a hiring an attorney in Ecuador whether it be a solid real estate or visa attorney.

General Attorney Qualification Factors

Current licensing:  Sure…laugh.  A no-brainer, right?  Well, let me tell you, I personally know of at least three attorneys currently practicing sans license and can extrapolate that this figure is much higher, especially away from the central city-centers, where industry regulations are less diligently enforced.  If you are conducting a real estate transaction in the rural parts of the sierras or in a small fisherman’s village on the coast, be particularly leery of any “legal assistance” thrust upon you.  Make sure to conduct a search, or have another local professional conduct a search, in order to ensure that the attorney is legally and currently licensed to practice.  A nationally recognized license is required to practice law in Ecuador.  Every attorney should be able to show you their license.

Convenience of location:  May not be something that readily comes to mind, but having an attorney close to where you reside, even if only a temporary residence, can be a big advantage, especially for more personal, face-to-face meetings.  While Ecuador may be a small country, and the transportation network generally excellent, the legal profession is one where “rapidly arising” or “las minute” issues are common.  In such cases, the lack of close proximity to your attorney can lead to unnecessary delays, especially if the changes require new/fresh signatures, or the review and discussion of legal documents.  While I certainly would recommend a well-qualified attorney from afar, as opposed to a less qualified option “closer to home”, it is best, whenever possible, to try and ensure both.

Field of specialization:  Like medical professionals, all attorneys are “generally trained” in  most aspects of their field, but just like physicians, attorneys tend to specialize in a specific area or two.  When you want someone representing your legal interests to have maximum subject knowledge and field experience, you want to select an attorney that specializes in the exact legal matter you wish to address.  Ask them about their specific qualifications and experience, in your specific legal field.  Regardless of their claims and proof, call up a few other attorneys in the same specialized field and ask them a qualifier, as to their experience in working with your target counsel.  Most, not all, will volunteer something.  What you are mostly looking for is that quizzical, “Who?” every time you mention the targeted attorney’s name.  Never a good sign.

Bilingual/Translation services:  Let us face it, you are an expat.  Perhaps you have not 100% mastered the Spanish language yet, let alone well enough to express complex legal issues to counsel.  Always best, when possible, to find an attorney that can speak your native tongue.  If you are a native English speaker, you are likely in luck.  Many attorneys in Ecuador have received some education in the USA or Canada.  Many have even lived in those two countries for a time.  If your native language trends towards French, German, Italian or Portuguese, you may also be in luck…likely not as much as an English speaker.  If your native tongue is Thai or Hungarian, your challenge has likely increased dramatically.

The preceding is important not only to communicate complex legal issues, but also to address matters of legal document translations.  All legal documents in Ecuador must be drafted in Spanish.  If your attorney is not bilingual, you will likely incur the additional costs,  of an external translator, which will likely charge higher fees, than the in-house admin staff of your legal counsel.

If you simply cannot find an attorney comfortable with your native language, consider inviting a friend or acquaintance along, who is familiar with Spanish and your native language.  In the absence of such a person, your last remaining options are a call to your local Embassy/Consulate for advice, or a call to major city university linguistics department, to see if they can offer suggestions and relief.

Legal fees:  “Ka-ching”, we got us a “Gringo”!  Sadly, but truthfully, in a country where the art of “Gringo gouging” has not escaped any industry sector, one should not assume that the professional elite of the legal field are above applying “fee variances”, when you walk in speaking broken Spanish.  This matter is made worse in this sector by the reality that “firm pricing standards” simply do not exist.  Often in the legal field, you get what you pay for…and it is very hard to generalize about “expected pricing”.  Best suggestion is to call your local Embassy/Consulate and see if they can provide some ballpark statistics on legal fees.  Otherwise, you are back to “dialing for dollars”.  Call at least 5 attorneys in your chosen specialty field and discuss fees with them.  A pattern should emerge.  Truthfully, it is best to have native Spanish speaker make those same calls on your behalf, so that you can be certain that you are not experiencing a “uniform pattern” of Gringo gouging.

References:  The obvious.  Don’t hire any attorney that cannot provide 3-5 good references.  However, don’t stop at the stated references.  Think about it, if the references are legit and the client party is truly happy with the legal services, they should be able to, in turn, provide you with another 1-2 names of “happy clients”, which they personally referred to said attorney.  Get those names and phone numbers.  Give them a call as well.  Extended families here in Ecuador can be quite large.  Make sure you are talking to independent and legitimate reference sources.  Again, if possible, get a friend or acquaintance to make those calls for you in Spanish.  May help you ferret out issues that would otherwise go undetected.

Real Estate Attorneys – Additional Considerations

When hiring a real estate specialist, you need to address, at least, two additional issues.  The first is their ability to travel to a closing.  Keep in mind, you may purchase a property in location A, while you may reside in location B, with the closing taking place in location C, and your attorney residing in location D.  If you heed our other recommendations, you are less likely to encounter this dynamic, but it is real…it is possible…I have lived it!  Prepare in advance.  Two days before your scheduled closing is not when you want to hear your selected attorney say, “By the way, I need at least 2 weeks advance notice, in order to attend your closing, because the location is so far away.”  Believe me, it happens.

Additionally, another common practice amongst a select group of attorneys is to personally represent you from afar, until the closing date.  However, come closing date, they send their “junior league” associate to your closing, or, often times much worse, they send some “gun for hire” local attorney, who already resides in the proximity of your closing locale.  Please, do not allow this to happen.  I cannot emphasize enough that sharp drop-off in the quality of service you will often received.  Your critical closing date is not when you want to rely on the “B-team”.  Make sure you address this, along with all your other expectations, early on in your discussions with legal counsel.  If they will not commit to accommodating you, walk.  Next!

The second critical issue in selecting a real estate attorney in Ecuador is to ensure that they already have a special “legal escrow account” established.  While this matter is already best addressed in a separate report, there may be times when you will want to bank wire closing funds, or even purchase funds, into the account of your attorney.  It is a big legal “no-no” to wire said funds directly into their personal bank accounts.  It is the commingling of funds.  Along with the issues of legality, it also carries certain risks.  Best to ensure that your selected attorney already has an established escrow account for receiving such funds.  It should be noted that this criteria is also a great litmus test, which goes directly to experience.  Any good, experienced real estate attorney will have dealt with this matter in the past and, by necessity, will have such an account.  Be leery of any real estate attorney that says, “Oh, yeah, we have plenty of real estate experience….”, but then cannot produce evidence of an existing escrow account, or refuses to accept funds.  If this happens, turn that front door to their office, into a revolving one…and move on to your next option.

Visa Attorneys – Additional Considerations

Wow!  Probably no specialized field in Ecuador requires more “hands on” experience than being a visa attorney.  While much more difficult to clearly categorize, you need to be certain that your visa attorney has the proper connections with the Immigration office and the various departments responsible for approving your visa application.  In Ecuador, candidly, this is more a business of who you know, than what you know.  It can be the difference in turning a 3 month process, into a 3 week process…and vice-versa.  Do not be afraid to ask your perspective visa attorney for details on who their points of contact (POC) are with the various corresponding government agencies?  How long have they worked with said contacts?  How responsive have those contacts been…recently…very recently?  I have seen the ever increasing stacks of visa applications.  Trust me, you don’t want to be moved to the bottom of the pile.

Additionally, a good visa attorney should be prepared with a well-prepared “Plan B”.  So, what happens if you don’t get approved?  What is the appeal process?  What strategy does your attorney suggest you explore next?  A good visa attorney will provide details of these “break glass, in case of emergency” options.  If they can’t provide a game plan, then I would question how long they have been in the “visa gig”.  This is not a field you want to entrust your fate to someone just cutting their teeth in the industry.

If you follow these basic considerations, I cannot assure you of a smooth, let alone ideal, legal experience.  I can assure you that you will maximize your advantages in locating the right legal counsel, for your specific needs, location and personality.  Locating solid legal counsel is not a game you want to leave to chance, or the scales of justice will likely tip against you.