A couple of years ago I wrote a blog piece entitled, A Tale of Two Pigs. Now, I don’t want to make a comparison between lawyers and pigs – that’s not my point – well, not entirely. But still A Take of Three Lawyers seemed like a good title.
Janet has wanted to buy a lot for her parents to build a simple house on for as long as I have known her. The story of how she socked away the cash and found the lot is a good one, but one for another posting. This one is about the legal system in the Philippines; or at least about three lawyers we sort of employed.
Seven months ago she found the lot and made an offer which was accepted quickly. Easy, right? Hmm – not quite. The seller provided her with some, though not all, the required documentation. I knew enough about the Philippines to know that a lawyer was a good idea to review the documents. I asked around, got a recommendation and contacted the Attorney via Facebook, which is where most lawyers apparently conduct their business here. He asked me to send the documents as attachments on FB Messenger. I offered to email him real, honest to God, Word documents, but somehow he couldn’t handle that. Nonetheless, he reviewed the documents, made some recommendations which sounded lawyer-like and we told him (via Facebook) that when the time came we would contact him about creating a final contract and deed of sale. I never received a bill or request for money, nor even an idea of what his services cost; in fact I never heard from him again. This is not totally unheard of in the Philippines, but still by US standards, where entering an attorney’s office and breathing the air required payment, it struck me as odd. Janet and I discussed the situation several times over the next couple months. Certainly I figured I would get billed at the end of the month or contacted in some manner. It never happened.
Months went by. The seller was dragging his feet. The documents he still owned Janet were coming in slowly. The seller was complaining because other people he had sold property to had not required legal irrelevancies such as the title to the property or proof that he’d paid his property taxes. We were being unreasonable but still he agreed and one by one he gradually sent us the documents.
In the meantime, Janet was working on reacquiring her Philippines citizenship. It required her to get a document notarized. It was the beginning of January and we stopped by several lawyers’ offices (most notaries seem to be attorneys here) only to be told that the lawyer in question was not currently licensed to be a notary since it was the beginning of the year and he hadn’t gotten around to being relicensed for the year. If only we could come back in a week or two they’d be good to go.
Finally in frustration, we discovered that the City of Dumaguete actually provided inexpensive notary service at City Hall. We went there, met with a young attorney who recommended we change our document. She was fast and inexpensive. Janet liked her and decided that if the real estate deal ever went threw she’d like to use this lawyer to do the paperwork.
While there still remained several fits and starts and lots of drama, we were getting closer to having everything done. We went to see the young lawyer in her home office to draft a deed of sale with a couple contractual clauses Janet wanted. At the end of the conversation I asked the lawyer how much the work would cost. “Whatever you think is fair, Sir.” I had heard this type of phrase before when dealing with service providers in the Philippines but still I was surprised to hear it from a lawyer. “I have no idea of what legal services cost in the Philippines, so it would be great if you could give us an idea,” I responded. Actually I did have an idea of what legal fees cost in the Philippines; at least I knew what the other lawyer had charged us – nothing. Finally she agreed that she would think about it and let us know when we came to get the documents.
The next week we returned to pick up the documents. There was some talk as to whether Janet should sign the documents right then and there since our young attorney was also a notary. But she recommended that Janet sign at the same time and place as the seller. She thought that was safest and we agreed. In the end she quoted a price for her services which seemed reasonable, we paid it and happily left, confident that we now knew a trustworthy, competent lawyer in Dumaguete.
The next day we traveled to Southern Cebu to meet with the seller. He knew an attorney/notary, perhaps the only one in the area, that we could go to and sign the documents.
The lawyer began to review the documents. This surprised me. OK, actually it annoyed me. We were there to get the documents notarized, not reviewed. I began to fear that this guy was going to charge us for legal services not just the notary services we wanted. In the end he recommended a relatively minor change to the document, and went into his office to handwrite the change.
We waited and waited but finally the signings happened, the docs were notarized and the lawyer returned with the final work in hand, a look of triumph on his face. I asked how much we owned him. He quoted a figure. “What!” I said. “For notary services?”
“You’re charged a percentage of the value of the property,” he explained, though I didn’t buy it.
“You didn’t create the deed or contact and in fact the lawyer who did, charged us less to do all the work that you are charging us.”
I sat and stewed while Janet and the seller determined who got what and who would do what now. I knew that by American legal standards the amount was chump change, but I felt like an idiot. Why didn’t I ask him right away what the charge would be? The answer to that was that based on my previous experiences with the first two lawyers, I wasn’t going to get a definite answer anyway.
I stewed some more. Could this be the famed “long nose tax” that so many expats complain about? Maybe. More likely, I thought the seller had taken us to a friend to soak us, and quite possibly get a piece of the pie for himself.
I calmed down, paid the guy, and took Janet, her mother and a brother and sister to 7-11 for ice cream and a San Miguel for me.
The ice cream tasted great in the hot sun. The San Miguel went down really well. And then I reminded myself that we had paid a grand total $105 for the services of three lawyers. So, life can’t be all that bad.