Normally when I go to see a solicitor I expect to be kept waiting, and I also expect to be treated with a certain kind of distant formality. This time was different.
The first thing that struck me about Begoña was her warm welcoming smile and the fact that she was ready to see me at the exact time of my appointment.
Secondly, it is obvious that Begoña loves her work. Not only does she take an enormous amount of personal interest in her clients' welfare, she is also happy to discuss finer points of the law in detail, and with a good deal of patience.
Begoña studied a five-year law degree course at the Universidad Pontificia de Comillas in Madrid, specialising in business law (derecho y empresariales) and she is a registered member of the Alicante Professional Association of Lawyers (Colegio de Abogados de Alicante). She first worked in a solicitors' office in Villa Martín, Orihuela Costa and there she met her husband who is a builder. When she became pregnant with twins in October 1991 she decided to start up her own office so that she could work to her own timetable. Her present business in Torrevieja town centre opened its doors in May 1992, while Begoña was heavily pregnant. Her first clients were English and Swedish, and she decided to specialise in working with foreigners. Now her clientele is about 97% English-speaking – that is mainly British, Irish and Scandanavians.
What was your work like at the beginning?
"Until 1998 it was illegal for lawyers to advertise. That meant that other people could advertise the same services who weren't qualified lawyers, while we were not allowed to. There was no control over this at all, you could be absolutely anybody, and just set up an office and give yourself the title of asesor or gestor and start advertising. I don't mean that there's anything wrong with being an asesor or gestor. I know many of them who are perfectly legal and do a good job, but the situation is open to abuse. In 1998 the law changed to allow lawyers to advertise, but only under strict limits regarding the size and contents of the advert. There are still all sorts of people around working with foreigners, but at least now we can advertise our services as well. A lot of lawyers complain about this kind of unfair competition, but I just say, we should combat them by doing the job better than they do.
So, when should people use a lawyer?
You don't have to have a lawyer. It's just the same as if you build a house, you don't have to have an architect. But what happens if there are structural problems with the house that you can't solve? That's the problem. People can do their own paperwork, or employ a gestor to do them, but what happens when there's a legal problem? For example, with house purchases someone who isn't legally trained might not pick up on a problem with deeds before going to sign at the notary, or perhaps they don't check that builders are covered by the obligatory ten-year insurance policy, the seguro decenal. When drawing up and executing wills all kinds of problems can arise. It's alright until things go wrong, and that's when you realise you should have used a lawyer.
Tell me about the way you work
Well, I am the only actual lawyer in my office, and I get to know all my clients personally. My staff are all graduates and have been with me for years so they can do a lot of the routine paperwork, but any client's first interview is with me and they can approach me at any time. Last year was difficult because I had another baby and I had a very bad pregnancy, but now I'm back to normal. In Spain it's very important to know people personally. The same applies when I send clients to another office of any kind, I always phone and say "I'm sending you Mr. and Mrs. so and so, please deal with them quickly". Because they know me they treat my clients well, otherwise they know they'll have me on the phone telling them off.
What is your experience with foreigners coming to Spain?
I'm still really surprised, I mean absolutely amazed at the number of people, often couples with two or three children, who turn up saying "I've sold my house in England and I've come over here with my family to live and look for work, or start up a business, like a bar". I find it incredible. I don't think any Spaniard would just sell up and move to another country with their family where they don't speak the language and don't really know anything about the country, just to look for work or try and start up a business.
What is the main problem you have with these people?
They think they're still living in their own country. They do not understand that the laws here are different. Sometimes I have to explain it over and over again because they don't seem to realise. They say: "But in my country it works like this…" I have to be very patient and keep explaining to them that Spain is different, some things are more complicated and other things are easier to do than in your country, but you must understand that things work differently here. Some of them just don't get it! I would say that 80% of English people here don't integrate. They don't learn Spanish because they don't see the need to. The same happens in the office, usually my English is better than their Spanish so even if they try to use Spanish I switch to English to save time. It's just the way it is.
Do you keep clients for a long period of time?
Yes, I've got to know some of my clients very well. They are very appreciative and sometimes bring little gifts to the staff to thank them. That always pleases me because it means the staff are doing a good job and my clients are happy. At Christmas time they bring tins of biscuits and all sorts, and we always say: "No, we're trying to watch our weight!" I find that a lot comes down to having a relationship of trust. I tell people what the law is about house purchase, or wills or tax and there are some people who refuse to believe me. I've even been accused of trying to decieve them in some way. If that happens I prefer not to have them as clients. If they don't believe that I am acting in their best interests then I tell them it's better that they go elsewhere. Once or twice this has happened and they have then found out that what I told them was correct and have come back and apologised. Another thing I never do is withdraw money from my clients' bank accounts. When their taxes or fees are due I contact them and ask them how they wish to pay. This is actually a lot more complicated and expensive for me, but I don't feel it is right to take money from people's accounts, especially when they don't understand what it is for. I always explain to them what every payment is for in advance. Another thing I always say to my clients is: "Never ever sign anything at all that you don't understand. Ask for time to read it, and if it's in Spanish bring it to us to translate, but do not allow yourself to be pressured into signing anything."
This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com