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LEAD STORY–Consultant Walks U.S.-Based Businesses Through Foreign Deals



A Local Guide for the Mexican Legal System

When doing business in Mexico, don’t assume bribery and payoffs go with the territory, said a San Diego-based foreign legal consultant.

Laura Nava, one of only 14 such consultants certified by the state Bar, said despite a pervasive stereotype of payoffs connected with business dealings, the reality is legitimate business transactions don’t involve it, Nava said.

“In a lot of cases, it doesn’t get you where you want to be, and in many cases, it only gets you into trouble,” she said.

Nava has seen some people ignore that advice and get burned. “We had a client who went into Mexico and ended up having a lot more consequences than would have been expected just for not obtaining one little piece of paper,” she said.

The client was exporting goods into Mexico from the United States, and didn’t have the proper documents in order. Because of that, the client was fined, the shipment was delayed and he was put through some unnecessary frustration, she said.

Nava’s job is helping clients, most of whom are U.S.-based businesses, navigate the potential minefields that exist when dealing with the Mexican legal system. Before taking her current position with Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, Nava practiced law in Mexico for seven years, primarily working on business transactions involving foreign investment in Mexican companies.

The legal systems of the United States and Mexico differ in many ways and go well beyond the laws and court proceedings being conducted in a different language, Nava said.

In terms of the basic civil proceedings, the history of case law takes precedence in this nation, while in Mexico, civil codes interpreted by a judge is the main determinant in cases, Nava said. Also, there are no jury trials in Mexico; the judge is the sole arbiter of the facts, she added.

Having practiced law in both systems, Nava said both systems have certain advantages.

“Both systems have their pros and cons, and in an ideal world, both systems could be improved in one way or another,” she said.

Nava’s experience and background in helping forge and negotiate legal agreements in Mexico often come into play in her current job. Nava has worked on loan transactions, ensuring that the proper collateral on those loans is legally accurate.

Whenever property is involved in legal transactions, Nava often researches the agreements, making certain the represented owner of the land is the duly registered owner in Mexico. Nava also has worked for Mexican clients in criminal proceedings in the United States. A recent case involved a Mexican doctor who was charged with fraudulent billing of U.S.-based medical insurance plans.

While Nava is a fully certified attorney in Mexico, she is not a full-fledged attorney in the United States. Her certification as a foreign legal consultant allows Nava to practice law in a limited manner in California. For example, she cannot litigate cases in this state, she said.

Obtaining certification from the state Bar wasn’t easy, Nava said. Before getting certified, an attorney must prove to be an attorney in good standing for four of the last six years. They also must provide proof of “good moral character.” Loosely translated, that means they aren’t wanted for any outstanding criminal or civil violations, Nava said.

On top of all that, they or their employer must obtain malpractice insurance and post a bond insuring against professional misconduct.

– Licensing Requires

A Criminal Bond

Getting a required $50,000 criminal bond is one of the more difficult aspects of the licensing process for the foreign legal consultant, said Wafa Hoballah, a consultant working in Los Angeles, who does a lot of legal work in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

Hoballah, who also has offices in Washington, D.C., and Beirut, has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in criminal cases, usually involving Lebanese or Arabic nationals.

“A large part of my practice involves working with second- and third-generation Lebanese-Americans,” Hoballah said. “Many of these clients have inherited property in Lebanon and they want to do something with it, either sell it or register it in the names of their children.”

Hoballah said she was admitted to the Lebanese bar in 1982 at age 21 and has practiced in that country and in England. She is also a licensed attorney in New York and Washington, D.C., and a registered legal consultant in the nation’s capital, she said.

“I do a lot of traveling,” she said.

Like Nava, Hoballah does a lot of civil transactional work representing U.S.-based businesses. As for the business climate in the Middle East, it’s gotten much better since the end of the Persian Gulf War, she said.

– Fulfilling A

Lifelong Goal

After graduating from the University of Monterrey’s Law School, Nava worked for a year as an in-house corporate counsel for a computer company. She then worked as an associate for the Tijuana law firm of Gallardo, Ogarvio, and Oseguera, S.C., doing corporate, trademark, real estate and labor law.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer, from the time I was 6 years old,” Nava said. “I was always oriented to the idea of fairness, and in getting people to do the right thing. And I was also interested in helping people in general.”

Her job often puts in her on the front lines of business activity in one of the fastest-growing regions of the world, especially in the years following the passage of NAFTA.

Nava said the trilateral trade pact has only been in effect for about six years and is having a positive impact on all three nations’ economies, but the benefits to Mexico may not be as great as those to the United States and Canada at this juncture.

“NAFTA will work, but it may take awhile. But in 10 years we may see more benefits in Mexico,” she said. “Mexico has a much bigger step to make.”

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