Introduction. For the past 10 years, about 20% of my practice has been, and continues to be, devoted to international family law matters. This includes Hague1 proceedings and non-Hague international proceedings, as well as registration of foreign decrees. I have never met, in person some of my clients, who reside all over the world; including India, Sweden, the Netherlands, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, The Russian Federation, and Iraq, as well as active military personnel. I am on the United States Department of State’s referral list for Hague proceedings. My intent for this article is to share some of the insights, protocols, and lessons, if you will, I have learned from the international component of my practice. They are in no particular order, but taken as a whole, I hope they prove helpful.
Be prompt: If the stereotype for Americans is to be “fashionably late,” foreign clients are just the opposite. Whether it be for a meeting at an attorney’s office, a Skype conference, or telephone conference, international clients are consistently prompt and on time.
Keep your financial records in order: While this is common sense, it is especially essential when dealing with an overseas clientele who will be wiring you significant retainers from overseas, coupled with a chain of international emails. You can safely assume that you are on the government’s radar screen, as well you should be, especially when dealing with clients from the Middle East, for example. As such, it is also a given that more than just you and your client will be privy to the contents of your telephone calls, text messages, and emails.
Be especially sensitive to keeping your clients informed: They have entrusted a matter to someone who could be 8,000 miles away and have sent sums of money in the form of a retainer to someone whom they have never personally met. I have a policy for all clients of not charging for a brief email or quick status phone call. I will list it on their statement, but mark it “no-charge.” I never want a client, especially a client who may be on the other side of the earth, to worry that the “time-clock” will always be ticking whenever they call. If you are tied up with another case, let your clients know this in a quick email, text, or telephone call.
Know what your telephone carrier charges for international calls: Not doing your homework could result in one receiving an insanely high phone bill. Emphasis on “insane.” Some carriers offer an international calling plan that, for an additional monthly charge, provides lower international rates. This could literally mean the difference between $10 a minute and 15 cents a minute.
Also remember that if your client initiates the call, generally there is no charge to you. Finally, be sensitive to the fact that an international telephone call is not part of yours or your client’s unlimited calling plans, especially if the calls are made to somewhere outside of North America. As with any part of a practice, do your homework and it can save you a lot of unnecessary expense.
I use DHL for overnight international document transmittal: I do not get paid by DHL for this endorsement. If I am overseas sending documents back to the States or asking for original documents from an overseas client, I use DHL. They were referred to me by an International Banker who swears by them. They will also be happy to open an account for you so if and when the time comes to use their services, you will be ready – and get a discount while you are at it.
Know the time zones of your clients: I have an application for my cellphone that tells me the time in every city that I enter. I input every city that I currently have a client in. I recommend no particular application.
International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyer (“IAML” or “the Academy”): IAML enables Fellows practicing international family law to obtain legal assistance of the highest caliber in another country. Fellows, non-IAML lawyers and members of the public alike are able to search the IAML website for the most highly regarded international family law practitioners in the countries represented. There are currently 45 countries represented in this database and IAML has over 620 Fellows. The Academy’s website is iaml.org. Disclaimer: I am proud to say that I am a Fellow of the IAML.
Sources of law: For Hague proceedings, there are two main entities that are an invaluable source of resources and up-to-date information, as well as a starting point for more research. The first is the United States Department of State. For international custody practitioners, there is an International Parental Child Abduction webpage that provides detailed instructions and tips for filing a Hague Application.2
Even if a case involves a non-Hague signatory country, this is still a good place to start. The second source, which is equally helpful, is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.3
Any practitioner having even the slightest inclination to practice family law should immediately download a copy of the Center’s manual titled Litigating International Child Abduction Cases Under the Hague Convention for their reference library.4
Volunteer to get more international experience: The United States Department of State has a Hague attorney referral list. Sign on willing to take a pro bono Hague petition. The Department of State will help you along the way with resources and, if needed, provide you with a mentor attorney to assist you. The American Bar Association’s “Operation Standby” program maintains a list of attorneys willing to assist people in the active military with their divorce and custody issues at either a reduced fee or pro bono. There is nothing more satisfying than assisting a soldier on active duty with their issues. It is not unusual for our office to get calls from Iraq or Afghanistan, from a solider needing help with his or her family law matter. It should be noted that it has always been my experience that the soldiers who call me are some of the most polite, respectful, and appreciative clients I have had the privilege of representing.
Beware of strangers from the Far East bearing gifts: Often times, I will get a brief email inquiring if I can handle post-judgment collection of a case that was settled somewhere in Asia, including Australia. The most common email source seems to be from NAME@iprimus.com.au.” Often times the Big Steel Company will send a request from a gmail account. Or a woman has a six figure support judgment that just needs to be settled locally. While fortunately I have never taken the bait, I have learned how the scam works. The “client” offers to sends a “certified check” with a very large retainer as well as an extra five figure amount. In return, the “client” only asks that once the “official certified” check is deposited in the attorney’s clients’ funds account, the attorney wire back the extra funds. Then, a few weeks later, the attorney gets an NSF notice from their bank: the “certified check” was a fake, and the funds wired back to the “client” cannot be retrieved. To add to the misery, the attorney’s client’s funds account is overdrawn to cover the wired funds and checks start bouncing from that account. Yes, the bank originally allowed the attorney to wire some of the funds from the “official certified” check, or the attorney thought he had enough in his clients’ funds account to cover the wire. But if that “official certified” check is ultimately determined to be a fake, which could take a week or so, guess who is on the hook for the money? The attorney. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
You and your staff will never be bored: While I truly enjoy the practice of matrimonial law in general, the practice of international matrimonial and child custody law adds that much more color and excitement to my practice. It is common for me to get emails and phone calls from potential clients all over the world. It is my hope that this article may have piqued the reader’s interest in this ever-expanding area of law. I cannot sufficiently describe the incredible emotional rewards that come with taking on these kinds of cases. I will never forget the ear-to ear smile my Dutch client had on his face after coming in for hearing on his Hague petition for the return of his son, who was taken to the United States by the boy’s mother, as a baby, over a year ago. We were able to win the case and subsequently secured the child’s return to his home in the Netherlands. Then there was my Irish client who first exposed me to the expression “over the moon” when I told him that we won his Hague petition and his son was coming home. Of course, one cannot win them all. Just as important is informing a potential client if you think they do not have a viable case. I tell all of my clients that I will tell them what they need to hear and not what they want to hear.
Please consider me a resource: Should you have any additional questions or get stuck on a case, please do not hesitate to call and pick my brain. As a lawyer, I have a special interest in making sure the next generation of lawyers learns the right way to do things. I always prefer working with a lawyer who knows what he or she is doing.
1 Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, done at The Hague, The Netherlands.
2 Filing a Hague Application, the United States Department of State on Abductions, http://travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/english/from/hague-app.html.
3 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, http://www.missingkids.com.
4 Litigating International Child Abduction Cases Under the Hague Convention, http://www.missingkids.com/publications/PDF3a.
David N. Schaffer is a Fellow of both the American and International Academies of Matrimonial Lawyers, and concentrates in domestic and international matrimonial and child custody cases. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Illinois and J.D. from Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington, Indiana. His firm is located in Naperville.