Representing Foreign Nationals in U.S.: Some Considerations

George Benaur, Benaur Law LLC

In the past five years of managing my law practice in midtown Manhattan and focusing on international business, investigations and litigations, I have had the chance to deal with a broad range of cultures: Middle Eastern, Russian, European, Georgian, Latvian, Ukrainian, and others. People with legal problems. Some have a dispute pending in the commercial courts in the United States. Others want to open a business, move to the United States or help their children to set up here. The cases have ranged from small to very large, but there is one common trend: the lack of understanding about the American legal system and process, and difficulty dealing with American law firms. There are definitely common trends in the way people from other countries perceive the legal system in our country and some special considerations needed when dealing with international clients.

Legal Fees & Costs and Managing Client Expectations: Although most international clients do understand that there are real costs associated with litigations and corporate transactional work, people are progressively questioning the fees being demanded by larger law firms. The issue for many is not the fact that the fees are being charged, but the fact that there is no end in sight for when the transactions or litigations will be completed. It is helpful in these circumstances to have a clear (but at times difficult) dialogue with clients about the projected timeline for the case. It has been my experience that when people understand the reasons for the various stages in the process (whether for transactions or litigations), and there is an ongoing clear dialogue between the client and the attorney, then people do come to understand the challenges involved and associated costs. People generally do understand that no one wants to work for free; this is indeed a maxim that is understood worldwide now.

Evaluating Risk & Making Business Oriented Decisions About the Case: In America, throughout my ten year career at large law firms, I have definitely heard Americans refer to some cases as “litigations for sport.” There are examples of multimillionaires spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over a broken partition which costs a fraction to fix and scores of other examples of unreasonable decisions that make no business sense whatsover (let alone examples of large corporations that pay lawyers to delay cases to beat up the smaller plaintiff to a much smaller settlement than the true value of the case).  And many lawyers do not oppose it. The theory being — if the client wants to litigate, it is their decision, the lawyer is just the conduit or agent for the client. In most international cases, at least in my experience, this type of approach does not work. People do not care to be in court. Foreign national clients definitely want to win, but I have found that most people that I have dealt with from other countries, want to accomplish their business objective as cost efficiently as possible, and have no interest in the legal process per se for its own sake.

Understanding Cultures, Objectives and Overcoming Challenges: Upon recently returning to the Philadelphia community where we immigrated with my family more than thirty years ago, I remembered what a long road it has been since those days to be in midtown Manhattan now. But more importantly, seeing that emigre world, I also again thought about the importance of respecting and understanding the local cultures when representing clients from other countries. One cannot apply the same expectations as we have in the United States, which is a common mistake made by many lawyers in such situations. At the same time, there are also challenges that are unique when dealing with international clients, especially those from particular regions (such as the European Eastern block and former CIS republics, for example). Many people from these countries still have much skepticism for the judicial system, largely stemming from the era of the Soviet Union and the corruption of the 1990s. This fact was evident from the discussions in Split, Croatia with local clients there, as well as the many clients from Russia, Latvia, Georgia and other former CIS countries. These same clients may have an overly unrealistic expectations of American legal systems — the U.S. being viewed as a pinnacle of legal justice reform (at times, subject to great disappointment down the road as the case progresses). Again, maintaining an honest dialogue and conducting your own due diligence is critical in such cases.

These are just a few considerations when dealing with foreign clients entering the United States to conduct business or litigate disputes. There are no doubt so many more and as the months and years of my practice progress I hope to update this piece with other considerations and observations. In the meantime, best wishes for the New Year!!




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