This is part of a series 15 Things I Wish I ‘d Known Before Moving to Panama.

We lived in Panama for 18 years and for the most part had a wonderful time and loved the Panamanian culture and people … except for most lawyers! The folks who are helping you relocate to Panama will likely disagree with me and tell you they have their own stable of reputable lawyers for you to use. My view may be colored by my own experience in being ripped off by a dishonest lawyer. But before you move to Panama you should take a hard look at Panamanian law, the legal system, the training of lawyers and their responsibilities to their clients. Life everything else …. TIP … or “This Is Panama” and it is different. When it comes to Panamanian law and lawyers assume nothing.

We were never the kind of people who used, or needed lawyers. Yes, we had someone draw up a will and a family foundation in the States, mainly when our kids were young and we needed a plan if something happened to my wife and I, and for tax purposes. We didn’t sue people and we were never sued. We had travel agencies for 20 years and had a lawyer on retainer, but we never needed to use him. We took excellent care of our clients, when necessary battled the cruise lines on behalf of our clients, and had a good legal preventative strategy. I pastored churches in New York, Wisconsin, Colorado and California, so worked with lawyers who helped us out pro bono but I really didn’t get involved. When I directed a drug rehabilitation program I would get guys in prison whom I felt could benefit from our program probated to our program, so I worked with courts and probation. And I did get involved in a high profile murder case against a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when another kid committed a murder, but my guy was caught up under California’s Felony Murder Rule which was in place at the time, and that case involved a lot of lawyers. The criminal side of law, at least in the US, has always seemed to me like a convoluted Kabuki dance which isn’t so much about justice as it is about keeping a whole lot of people gainfully employed. And I sweated through business law doing my MBA,

All that being said, I do have a very healthy respect for the “rule of law” in society, which I realize although imperfect at times, is never-the-less a vital part of our attempt to provide “liberty and justice for all.”

Not so in Panama. I know that now, but I didn’t going in.

US law is based on English common law. Courts create common law by trying different types of cases and establishing a precedent for rulings in such cases. The judge is bound by precedent unless that precedent is determined to be unconstitutional and in error.

Panamanian law is based on old Spanish and French law where cases are decided by judges without considering precedent, which, in a largely corrupt society, opens the door for all kinds of payoffs to judges to get the verdict you want. Lawyers in Panama know where to go and who to talk to when they need to purchase judicial influence in a case. Rather than showing up in court with a bag full of cash for the judge, influence usually bought in a clumsy attempt to hide the cash, like giving a judges favorite nephew a million dollar penthouse overlooking Panama City. The Panama news is cluttered with judges being investigated and sometimes themselves sent to prison.

Of course Codes of Ethics abound in Panama. Every Supreme Court Judge who ends up in jail had a code of ethics. Every new Presidential administration in Panama spends much of its time investigating the payoffs and malfesence of the previous President, while at the same time stuffing as much government money as they can in their own pockets.

If you are thinking about moving to Panama you really should sign up for the free daily Panama news highlights from Newsroom Panama. It’s in English and will give you an idea of what’s going on and the challenges to the rule of law in Panama: an overview of stuff you should want to know if you are thinking of making the move.

It’s different. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

Words don’t always mean the same, take “agency” for example. “Agency” is a big item in the US. When someone represents you as your agent in the US it means that they are representing your interests, not their interest or someone else’s interest. Not so in Panama. They will tell you they are representing your interests, but it doesn’t mean anything.

The requirements to practice law are very different.

In Panama all you have to do to become an Attorney and practice law is to  take the required law courses in college (usually 3 years) That’s it. Now you can practice law. NO BAR EXAM NEEDED, There is a Panamanian bar association but membership is only required for the practice of litigation, not for the general practice of law.

Compare that the the US for example, where you need a pre-law undergraduate education and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in order to can gain admission to an American Bar Association approved law school. Upon graduation from law school (usually 3 years full time) you will become eligible to take the bar examination in the state in which you wish to become a licensed lawyer/attorney as long as you meet all of your state’s other bar admission requirements, Most states have continuing education requirements for maintaining licensure. Much of the study and preparation for the bar exam in the US involves understanding and being able to cite prior cases, since US law is based on precedent, which is not the case in Panama where each case is decided by a judge without regard to previous cases and judgements.

It helps to know what you are dealing with. “TIP” This is Panama and it is different! In every way. Know that and go in with eyes wide open and you will have a much better experience.

In Panama you will need to work with attorneys on almost everything which of course involves fees. Although those fees are nothing like what you’d pay an attorney in the US, they do add up. Anything to do with the government, even simple stuff, you’ll need an attorney especially if you don’t speak Spanish with some fluency. Anything to do with property, wills, powers of attorney, corporations … everything needs to be submitted in the proper form, in Spanish, appropriately notarized with the required amounts of rubber stamps.

You should also know that nobody, well almost nobody, does anything for free in Panama. Referral fees by whatever name or means are a way of life from the office of the President of the Republic right down to the guy down the street. Sometimes it’s money, patronage, or just remembering that the time to pay back will come, formally or informally, over or under the table. It may not be actual cash, but just favors owed.

Some folks working with expats will make referral suggestions, which can be very helpful. Regardless of the disclaimers, referrals produce chits which add up.

You can’t get too many recommendations. You want to look for a lawyer who is recommended over and over again by people you know. Amy old lawyer generally isn’t what you are looking for. Just like in the states, there are lawyers who specialize in certain areas.

We found a couple of good lawyers who served us well, which we needed, because our original lawyer turned out to be a crook. In a later post I’ll tell you our experience with athe first lawyer who took my money without my knowledge or consent to invest for his own benefit and almost succeeded in stealing our property outright. He had all the “right” political connections, was a loudly Bible-thumping so-called “Christian” whom our subsequent lawyers called a dishonest crook. So we paid more lawyers to get our property back. Fortunately after about five years we were successful and although our new lawyers agreed the dishonest guys actions were “criminal,” they advised us that our cost of pursuing charges against him would result in a costly case that would go on for years and in the end we’d just be out a lot more money and the crooked lawyer would just keep on doing what he does.

A crook’s biggest defense in Panama is “So, sue me!” knowing that you won’t live long enough or have enough resources to win in any Panamanian court.

Knowing this stuff BEFORE moving to Panama willl help you to know what to expect and what to avoid.