Barrister and Registered Foreign Lawyer in Spain
Based in Nerja, Málaga, Spain
Hi Sandra, can you describe De Cotta Law?
We are a Spanish & English law firm established in 1983. We have four offices and work throughout Spain, the Canary Islands and the Balearics. We are 5 partners with 24 staff, lawyers and administrators. We have 10 different nationalities in our team. Our core language is Spanish.
What work do you perform in your organisation?
I am a partner and specialise in Conflict of Laws. This is a broad area which means I can deal with Insolvency, Commercial, Jurisdictional, Family and general civil work. I deal with the majority of first enquiries that are not property-related or Personal Injury. Many instructions come from British law firms and Insolvency Practitioners.
What is your educational background?
I obtained a Degree in Arts from the Open University in my 20’s and have an LLB from London University. I studied for this while living in Spain.
When did you qualify?
I passed the Bar Exam in 1996
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The variety of work I do and meetings with clients, particularly when it involves more than one party in a negotiation.
After more than 20 years working as an English Barrister in Spain, I really enjoy solving problems in cross-jurisdictional matters.
Describe your typical day? Wake up and bedtime times?
My alarm goes off at 6.30 so I try and read if not too tired from travelling or work. When I am working in one of our offices I leave around 8am and return around 8pm. I don’t have too many typical days as I can be at one of three different offices and I travel to the UK and elsewhere quite frequently. Bedtime around 12am to 1am with an audible book or podcasts.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Definitely trying to explain the delays in Family proceedings in the courts in Spain. We have had clients waiting for more than a year simply to set up contact with their children. There are no dedicated Family courts and you are simply in the queue with mortgage repossessions, civil debt claims, property matters etc.
What is the most memorable case you have worked on?
A major English insolvency involving Spanish property, Spanish state and tax debts, Trust Law and Conflict of Laws.
What is the most embarrassing thing to have happened to you as a lawyer?
A potential beneficiary quite literally throwing herself at my feet and clutching my knees in a public hospital when she realised the – now deceased – testator had not changed her will in her favour before she died!
What would your clients say about you?
Hopefully that I am approachable but give clear advice even when it is not what the client wants to hear. Also, that I am persistent as Conflicts of Law cases can take a long time to resolve.
And what would your competitors say about you?
Hopefully that they also think I am persistent and perhaps a bit of a battleaxe! At 62 that doesn`t worry me.
What have you found to be the greatest myth about being a lawyer?
That the law has no grey areas. Sometimes I think it is all grey.
What advice would you give to your pre-law school self?
To start the career late and do some other things before the law, and if you cannot do that then maintain other interests which can help to keep things in perspective.
Do you have any tips for handling difficult clients?
Explain the legal position in as much detail as you can to give them confidence that you have dealt with every aspect of their case. Tell them honestly if you know they will fail in a claim or have been badly advised before.
What’s the longest day you’ve ever done?
11 hours travelling and 11 hours work in 24 hours with 2 hours sleep. Prepared during the day and was driven by my son from Málaga to Seville for a 9pm meeting, drove to Madrid which takes 6 hours, 2 hours sleep and flew to a London meeting for 10am. That sounds romantic but I can assure you it wasn´t.
Do you have any advice for lawyers just starting out?
I would say getting along with your colleagues is a priority and courtesy towards your opponent often gets better results than being aggressive. Also don’t underestimate the importance of procedure which can sound boring but rarely is!
Do you do any volunteering/pro bono work etc?
Yes, as honorary legal adviser to the British Consulate in Málaga I work on hardship cases when legal issues arise, and our firm does pro bono work for some charities and foundations in Spain. I also run fundraising events for a local residential home for the elderly and our local church.
What has been your worst day in the job?
Ask any English lawyer practising in Spain and they will often say their first Notary appointment. If you don´t know the Notary, and have difficult officials, it can be a real baptism of fire. A Spanish notary is an official of the state and the notarial system has many advantages, however, on my first visit I had to abort the signing of a will as the modifications requested by myself and the clients were not acceptable to the notary.
What has been your best?
Achieving a successful outcome between my clients and two other parties – all of whom were sure that we would not reach agreement about a commercial transaction in Spain.
What do you consider to be the secret to your success?
A good education in Conflict of Laws from John de Cotta who founded our firm and a good sense of humour shared with my colleagues.
Have you always wanted to be a lawyer?
No – my ambitions have been bus conductor at 8 years old, brain surgeon at 12, art historian at 16, finally lawyer – and I still have an ambition to be a football pundit.
What would you say is the best tool you have at your disposal?
Experience of people from many differing backgrounds, nationalities and walks of life.
Which key skill is most essential for your success as a lawyer?
The ability to explain the difference between legal concepts in English and Spanish law.
Which experiences have been most significant in forming you as a lawyer?
Working with John de Cotta who established the firm. He was an English barrister and Spanish abogado and taught me how to deal with Conflict of Law cases.
Who is the lawyer you most admire and why?
Justice Mumby. Working in a jurisdiction where Judges do not practice as lawyers before entering the profession, I think hearing a Judge prepared to stand up for wronged individuals is impressive.
What makes a brilliant lawyer?
Preparation and persistence.
What’s the most amusing anecdote you have about the law?
When I realised that, unbeknown to me, my 12 year old son had inserted the following sentence into an opinion I had prepared and sent to an experienced lawyer client – “……………When I was little I wanted to be a snail – but now I am a boring lawyer……….”
What would you say is your greatest achievement?
The beginnings of creating a garden and working on our properties with my husband and sons over the years. From a Somerset cottage to a rambling old property in rural Spain.
Sandra at home
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Still doing some part-time work for our law firm, working on reforming my very old Spanish property in the country, gardening, still learning Russian, reading, listening to audible books and music and hopefully travelling.
What is your morning routine?
I try and read or learn some Russian with the early morning tea. I am a great believer in breakfast! Then get ready for work and, as I often have a long drive, listen to some music or podcasts when I am driving.
What is your bedtime routine?
If there has been any football on, I always catch up with it before bedtime, then tea, audible books or podcasts and bed. I am sounding boring now!
What do you do to keep healthy? What are your habits regarding exercise and nutrition?
Working on the house and the garden which is heavy physical work. I like swimming and walking. For nutrition plenty of vegetables, marmite and real ale.
If you weren’t a lawyer what would you be?
A radio interviewer (which I did for a short time), but I would prefer being a football pundit.
What do you believe that nobody else believes?
That prisoners should not have books in jail. Oh no, sorry that was Chris Grayling……
Is there a quote which defines you?
My husband once described my driving as “risky but competent”. That would be a nice epitaph and I think you have to take risks in expanding a law partnership.
What law would you change and why?
I would bring in a law to define the matrimonial economic regime in England so that, as in most other countries, a couple would know what the financial split would be on divorce.
Which book have you found most influential?
It may sound a bit predictable – Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. He understood pity and redemption. I think pity, in the broadest sense, is seriously missing in some of the world’s politicians.
Who do you admire most and why?
Sir David Attenborough, to maintain your enthusiasm for the world and have so much to contribute throughout your life and into your 90`s is truly admirable. I think we forget how much impact he has made in the rest of the world, not just in the UK.
Do you have any political aspirations?
No – other than to persuade people to reduce plastic in the world which my son persuaded me of before the very great Sir David told the whole world.
What 3 things would you take with you on a desert island?
Pen & paper – I hope that is one only?
My favourite gardening mini-hoe.
Photos of my family.
How do you think practising law has changed you as a person?
It has given me a wider understanding of people’s motivations, both admirable and not so admirable.
If money was no object, how would you spend your time? And would you still be a lawyer?
I would still like to work in Conflict of Laws but would want more time for travelling, go to watch more football around the world and undertake decent reforms to my old house, as opposed to the current make and mend.
What is the step/change you are most glad you’ve taken in life?
Marrying a man 27 years older than me. Despite all prognostications of disaster, we were married for 33 years before he died at 85.
What is the most beautiful/inspiring thing you’ve ever seen?
A performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontious, at Wells Cathedral.
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘lawyer’?
What does a lawyer represent to you as a concept?
A bridge or go between.
What is the best lawyer joke you’ve heard?
They are all too predictable, I would love to hear one that wasn’t about money! Perhaps the managing partner who said the position was like being the only lamppost in the street of a thousand dogs.
How do you balance home and family life with your job?
By enjoying the company of my colleagues when I am working; making time to work on my house and garden; keeping close to family and friends; and letting rip at the ref or the opposition at a football match, which is a great way to lift work stress.
Thank you very much for your time, Sandra.
To find out more about Sandra and her work at De Cotta Law. Visit the De Cotta Law website.