By Fabiano Deffenti
Law is one of the oldest professions. Just like medical doctors, lawyers are in a special position vis–vis their clients. They are generally told their clients’ secrets and invariably are granted powers to act on their clients’ behalf.

The beauty of the workings of a market economy is that the supply and demand curves generally dictate price and quality of goods and services. Brazil has over 500,000 lawyers, in an economy the same size as Australia’s (which has approximately 35,000 lawyers). So, you would expect to receive great service for an affordable price.

Not so. Intense competition has led to desperation and fighting for any client a lawyer can find (the recent Gol Airlines crash provided a good example of how lawyers can go to any length to get a client). Except for the high end of the street” lawyers – those who act for large companies and high net worth individuals – many lawyers here are struggling to make a living.

With the growing number of international deals involving Brazil, and the flow of foreign investments in the country, amongst other things, some lawyers with a reasonable level of English fluency have discovered the opportunity to “make a buck out of the gringos”.

This means that you are probably a target.

The very lax enforcement of ethics rules by the States’ bar associations also does not help the gringos’ plight. Brazil’s legal system makes it very difficult (or impossible) for a party to prove a case based on oral evidence. In addition to cultural, language and other vulnerabilities, many foreigners end up being ripped off by unscrupulous Brazilian lawyers.

As in any country, Brazil has an ethics code that applies to lawyers (Código de tica e Disciplina). The rules are very tough. Yet, as many other rules in force in Brazil, full compliance is sporadic and enforcement by the authorities is next to non-existent. Here are some of the rules that bind lawyers:

1. Law firms must not have invented names. They must contain the name of at least one of the law firms’ existing or former partners who is no longer practicing;

2. Lawyers, when acting in their capacity as lawyers, cannot share fees with other professionals or any type of referral agency. This is probably one of the least respected ethics rules in Brazil, as many (if not most) lawyers pay “finder’s fees”;

3. Law firms must not be limited liability companies (“limitadas”). If you see “Ltda” or “Limitada” after the law firm’s tax invoice or letterhead, then the lawyer is in breach of his/her ethical obligations;

4. Law firms must not advertise, yet they may inform the public of the services they provide. There can be no advertisements of any type on radio or television;

5. Lawyers must not solicit for services. Unlike some other countries, lawyers are even not allowed to send you marketing materials by post without your prior request;

6. A lawyers’ office must be used exclusively for the practise of law. This is also an often-broken rule, as it is common for lawyers to operate real estate agencies together with their law practice (the other day I visited a site that offered real estate for sale, wedding ceremonies, plastic surgeries and lawyers’ services – among others – as one package for gringos).

The cardinal rule is to ask lots of questions. Ethical lawyers should have no problems in answering them. The more you know about your lawyer, the greater your chances are that you will select the right one.

The author is admitted as an attorney at law in New York, as a legal practitioner in Australia, as a barrister and solicitor in New Zealand and as an advogado in Brazil. He can be contacted at fdeffenti@cmted.com.br.

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