Being a lawyer in… Colombia
Mr Rafael Palencia
Is legal education organised in your country? What are the barriers faced in gaining access to legal education?
The majority of Universities in Colombia, both public and private, have a Law School. But in Colombia, the aspiring lawyer must face those challenges (economic/financial, logistics, mentality…). The costs, considering the unemployment and subemployment rates and the work in the informal economy in the country, are a huge limitation to the access to university education not only in the legal training but for all university degrees. This could be considered a structural problem among the Colombian society, since it impedes the access to university to the majority of the population. On the other hand, most universities are private and those which are public have been increasing their fees as a result of their budget constraints and the insufficient funding they receive from the State, which has become a real privatization process.
Most universities that offer legal training have problems in the logistics scope – mainly the private institutions -, such as universities which do not have the necessary infrastructure, the adequate faculty, the libraries or the investigation programs and publications that are needed.
Is it easy to find a job as a lawyer?
No. The real market is very narrow, even though it has huge potential. For example, in the area of criminal law, there is a considerable group of the population who is currently in detention or subject to limitations in their freedom of movement. These persons are normally part of the most depressed groups of the population, who recourse to common delinquency but do not have the resources to hire the services of a professional to defend their case and therefore resort to the Office of the Public Defender, whose attorneys are often informal and their services insufficient.
As to teaching at university, it is generally required to have a post-graduate degree, such as a Masters or a Doctorate, which also have very high fees. The practice in the area of Labor Law shows difficulties since most of the employment in Colombia takes up non-regulated forms of labor which, given the abuses carried out by the employers who permit this kind of relationship, makes it very hard to practice in this area of Law. Studies indicate that more than 90% of the lawsuits filed in favor of the employees before the Labor Courts do not prosper, which turns the work of defense attorneys into something illusory.
Please explain how the Bar is organised in your country
I do not know many Bar Associations and their membership is always voluntary. I only know two: CONALBOS, which is nationwide, and a local one in the city of Cali: COLEGIATURA DE ABOGADOS LITIGANTES DE CALI. I am not aware of their internal structure, functioning or number of affiliations but I get the impression that they are not very numerous.
In a few words, how would you describe the operation of the legal system in your country?
The Administration of Justice in Colombia is irregular. Its independence is interfered by a number of factors: the executive power, the illegal armed groups, corruption, legal instability, partiality, and hierarchical superiors. The trust in Colombian Justice on the part of the population is relative.
Is the legal profession valued in Colombia?
The recognition lawyers obtain from the population in general is partial: the perception that dishonest lawyers exist is very common.
It is hard to establish a standard on lawyers’ revenues. In Colombia, the general differences in revenue are accentuated and lawyers are not an exception. There are lawyers who are prestigious advisors and consultants for large companies and consortia or State institutions that have extraordinary earnings. Also, independent lawyers who have become prestigious do have a good economic status. However, in general it is hard to make a living out of being a lawyer and many have to resort to other activities such as teaching or commercial activities.
It is not easy to practice law independently. Throughout my career as a lawyer I have not only felt threatened but attempts have been made on my life and I have been persecuted by the State.
What attracted you to the legal profession?
I wanted to become a lawyer so I could contribute to the fight for the protection of labor rights for workers. I have achieved my goals in terms of intervention in the defense of these rights, with relative success in that area. In general terms, there has been a setback in the protection of the rights of the population in the country.
- Capital: Bogota
- Official language: Spanish
- Population: 44 205 293
- Life expectancy at birth: 73,4 years
- GDP per capita (PPP): 8959 USD
- Mean years of schooling: 7,4 years
- Classification HDI* : 0,689 (79th of 182)
- Government: Republic
* HDI = Human Development Index, used to rank countries, composed from three dimensions: health/long-lived (life expectancy at birth), knowledge and education (adult literacy rate), and standard of living (GDP per capita in PPP).