Editor’s note: The full-service law firm DivinaLaw recently had its activities in the world of immigration, particularly as this relates to the corporate world, recognized as the best in the region by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The Daily Tribune (DT) understands this year was the first year such an award had been bestowed on an individual or entity for singular work in such a complex field as immigration. We sat down with DivinaLaw Managing Partner Nilo Divina one recent afternoon when the telephone in his 8th floor Makati City office would ring every so often. Here’s a snapshot of what happened.
DT: Would you give us snapshots of the kind of business that lawyers such as yourselves do in the field of immigration, especially as these relate to the corporate world?
Divina: As you know we have a corporate office in Singapore, we have foreign clients likewise from the Asia-Pacific region, some from Europe and some from USA and some of them have immigration concerns, or requirements. One of our new clients, which is (one of) the biggest banks in (the region) was allowed by Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas to put up a branch.
DT: One of the biggest?
Divina: Yes. They were allowed to put up a branch in the Philippines. Obviously, they will have immigration requirements, so we attended to these requirements. But, I think we got the award because of our creative and innovative ways of addressing the problems of our clients — finding solutions, not de-kahon type of lawyering. We always get it done. Usually, we are asked to provide work output. We submitted three, as required.
DT: By work output, you mean what?
Divina: These are specific transactions. We handle quite a number of these cases for individuals but mostly for companies that have immigration requirements before they may do business in the Philippines. Without disclosing the names of the clients because that’s not allowed. For example, one is a Singaporean married to a Filipino and how we work so she can make her stay here in the Philippines more permanent given that she’s a Singaporean national. So instead of going to Singapore to get the copy of the marriage certificate to prove that she’s married to a Filipino, we simply asked the marriage certificate to be authenticated by the Singapore embassy here in the Philippines, in Manila. So, you know, that’s the simplest and more creative way of solving the problems of our clients.
DT: So immigration lawyering in this case has a lot to do with speed?
Divina: Speed, efficiency, creativity, dynamism, yes. It is not the traditional way of addressing problems.
DT: If I were that kind of lawyer…and I…don’t go through you, would it be different?
Divina: It will take time. Others who have no experience in immigration, for example, will go the usual, traditional route. In that case, as I said, probably a lawyer not steeped into immigration practice will simply go to Singapore, get a copy of the marriage certificate to prove the marriage. But someone with experience, someone with know-how, with creativity, as our immigration department does, would work out the process smoothly and quickly with the least amount of delay.
DT: Can you guys do it…how short?
Divina: Substantially shortened, like two days.
DT: Otherwise that will be two weeks, maybe more?
Divina: Longer than the time we normally allot for such transactions.
DT: So, you guys work with utmost efficiency.
Divina: That’s right. Also because I am very fortunate. The guy who heads our immigration practice is a former commissioner, no, former officer, official in the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation. So, he knows many routes, the ins and outs of immigration.
DT: In this field, does it matter that one has connections?
Divina: It matters that the one in charge is steeped in the practice, has knowledge, has competitional experience and know-how of the bureaucracy and how it works. Of course, he is assisted and complemented by efficient, hard-working lawyers who share the same vision and passion as the department head and the entire law firm.
DT: How would an award like this help you?
Divina: That award will obviously be very helpful in the sense that it confirms and affirms our brand of dynamic lawyering, how we do things and, hopefully, likewise encourage clients to come to us for their legal requirements.
DT: Can you give me a sense of how large the business is? I mean, as an aspect of lawyering, how large is that in terms of pesos on an annual basis perhaps?
Divina: Quite a lot of us locals do the practice and globally it’s a very big business. The practice is fueled by a simple concern. For example, getting an employment permit for foreigners. As you know, employment permits cannot be granted to foreigners if there’s no Filipino, if no Filipino is able or competent to take on the job. That’s one. Then, the different kinds of situation — tourist, permanent residence, how to be a citizen in the Philippines, all of them have specific requirements and there is no single formula that works for all of these problems or situations. You have to have a solution tailor-fitted for a particular transaction.
DT: I see.
Divina: In terms of income, if you ask me, it can be very lucrative.
Daily Tribune: How lucrative is the industry itself, not just your practice?
Divina: There are law firms that specialize only on immigration and naturalization and fees could vary vastly.
DT: Is the fee on per hour basis? That’s the standard?
Divina: It can be per-hour, per package, per project basis…not just by retainer. Per private basis. For example, we were able top fix the visa problem of this client for an x amount. The fee depends on the request of the client, but it can be lucrative.
DT: I’m thinking, that’s a lot of money because…
Divina: Yes, because the Koreans are here; the Chinese have all come to us. There are so many foreigners coming to the Philippines.
DT: The Chinese are the latest to…
Divina: Before there were the Japanese and then the Europeans although not at the same numbers as the Chinese and the Koreans. But they all come here.
DT: If you are to take a picture of the kind of immigration business that goes on in Southeast Asia, and if all of those guys total 100, how many actually go to the Philippines?
Divina: I have no specific data, but judging from what our clients… based on anecdotes, most of the condominium units have been snapped up.
DT: They’re pushing prices up?
Divina: They’re pushing prices up. But, as you know, there’s a limitation because, because foreigners cannot acquire private land in the Philippines. Foreigners cannot own all of the units in the condo…
DT: What’s that all about? Foreigners cannot own even a condo unit…?
Divina: Foreigners can own condo units, but the condo cooperation, to be validly organized, at least 60 percent of the members are Filipino citizens. Its operations is managed by Filipino citizens. It means that foreigners have a maximum number of that allowed of foreigners…
DT: I understand you won the Thomson Reuters Foundation Award on the first year…for labor? What was that all about?
Divina: Employment and labor law firm…basically, employment issues like…claims and benefits owing to employees, collective bargaining agreements, proceedings of the labor arbiter… We’ve been very lucky because, I think we won 99 percent of our labor cases…if not 100 percent. The one time that we lost, we were able to have it reversed by the Court of Appeals… Lucky in the sense that our cases are meritorious, and we work very hard to ensure that clients are being ably represented.
DT: What kind of labor problems are represented…?
Divina: Many, like how do you solve problems of employees who want to go on strike. How do you address the benefit claims of employees if you know the demand is based on legal ground. And then, CBA negotiations, for example. When you get sued for illegal dismissal, what are the defenses available to you? Especially issues under our labor laws when all doubts have to be dissolved in favor of labor. It’s difficult to represent management given the rule that doubts, if any, in the interpretation of labor law, should be resolved in favor of labor. But despite that presumption, we’re very fortunate that we have won most of our cases.
Daily Tribune: What was that single…what was that case?
Divina: The arbiter ordered the reinstatement of an officer. A client terminated the employment and the person filed a case for illegal dismissal. We won at the labor arbiter but later reversed and the client was ordered to reinstatement the officer. But eventually we got the Court of Appeals. We filed a petition and we were able to get a reversal of the resolution. That’s the one.
DT: In terms of clients…what is the profile of your clients in the immigration practice?
Divina: We cannot say that the bulk of our transactions or cases are on immigration but our clients, some of them have immigration concerns and requirements. So, we render services holistically. So, there’s client A B C as we are not limited to arbitration only, not limited to immigration. It has corporate concerns, legal advisory issues…the whole gamut of legal services. Immigration is just one of the components of services for the client. That kind of service is…it is built in to the overall requirements of the client. Whether you have a branch, or business in the Philippines, especially if it involves employment of foreigners.
DT: How does that work? If one were to hire you, do you have to take note of the time…?
Divina: You can either get us on per-hour basis, by retainer, or you can allow us to charge you per private basis, or it can be a combination.