Spencer McMullen in Mexico: Unlikely Events, Being Able to Help Out, and a Problem With Names

Spencer McMullen Legal Commentator on Good Morning America – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingI’ve led an interesting life here in Mexico.

I had been doing mortgages in the US for over 15 years and started coming to Mexico when a lot of the US lenders had just started programs for Americans buying in Mexico. I thought, “Wow, I kind of want to get in on that.”

I started to get my papers in Mexico so I could work legally in the northern part of Mexico while still living Santa Barbara. At the time, I found the property in Chapala that I wanted to buy. I started taking more classes with banks geared towards Americans purchasing vacation properties in Mexico while still living in the US.

About that time, the mortgage business was tanking so I decided to switch to study law.  Studying law was an interesting opportunity to study in a foreign country and have to go through their procedures to be able to study. For example, I brought my college transcripts to the admissions people who told me that they didn’t care about college transcripts; they wanted to see my junior high and high school transcripts.” The reason is that here in Mexico you go right from high school to your technical training, where you get your degree such as in law school or medical school.  It’s not like in the US where you finish high school, you do four years to get a bachelor’s degree and then you move on to the other degree.

Spencer McMuillen at Wine Tasting Event with Jalisco Goverrnor – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingWhen I went to a translator to get my transcripts translated, he asked me why I didn’t just do it myself. They had known me for a few years and that I was bilingual.  “I’ll just review your work and you translate,” he said. So that started me on the translator route which I had never really given any thought to.
Many people ask me how long I have been living in Mexico, because I started coming down in 2004 for just a few weeks and successively added more and more time until 2010, when I moved pretty much permanently. In 2011 I stopped renting a house in Santa Barbara because I figured, “Why am I renting a house to rent rooms to a roommate just to store all my furniture?”

Also in 2011 I started renting another house in Guadalajara because going back and forth between Chapala and Guadalajara for school was tough. I saw a lot of bad accidents on Chapala Highway. There’s loose livestock in the middle of the night.  I would see a car flipped over with the police and a cow or horse nearby that was hit. I always tell people jokingly that the narcos are not going to kill me. If I’m going to be killed it’s going to be as a result of livestock in the roadway in the middle of the night.

I started taking the law classes in 2008 and I finished in 2011.  At the end of 2011 I had to take a test. There are different ways to get a law degree in Mexico.  You can earn your degree via excellence, which is by grade point average over 95%, but I only had Spencer McMullen law office picture – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingan 89%, so I had to take a test.  One test was multiple choice covering all of the law, for example, Roman law, business law, and criminal law.  I didn’t like those odds and having to study three years of classes to test via random questions. I decided to choose 5 subjects, go to a seminar, and be tested on all the 5 subjects. That was a good choice for me, because I received the highest score of anyone in the class, but I didn’t get honorable mention because it probably would have been a little slap in the face to have a gringo get the highest grade when everyone else in the class was Mexican.

In 2012, I did my swearing in, which is kind of funny because in Mexico for any position, you swear in by holding up your hand in a way similar to the “Hail Hitler salute. You swear to uphold the Mexican constitution and to fulfill your duty to the society. I did that and received my temporary Jalisco state attorney license. I had also enrolled in a Master’s degree program in the best university here in Guadalajara in 2012.

I’ve been kind of an education junkie. Foreigners will often show up in my office to refer a client who is American or Canadian, or there will be a Mexican who will come who has a problem with the IRS or has a problem with a birth certificate or who needs other documents from the US. As a result, I had to brush up on international law and become quite the expert in getting birth / marriage and death certificates and apostilles, which are certifications from all 50 states as well as the US federal government.  I have also been to request court judgments, which can be a case from many different counties including adoption judgments and divorces from all Spencer McMullen with US Consulate General – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingover.

In 2011 or 2010, I was working at the courthouse when the judge said, “Spencer, you should be an official translator.” Then he added, “I’ll give you a recommendation letter.” So I did that.  I took tests in English and Spanish. When I asked what kind of test I should take I told them that I was an American, to which they said, “Oh, you should take test in Spanish.”

“I’m a Mexican attorney, I’m finishing law school.  Here are my grades.”

“Oh, hmm, maybe take the test in English.”

I said, “My English is perfect. My Spanish is perfect.”

They said, “Well, take both test to be safe.”

So I took 7 hours of tests. The funny thing is I did a little bit better on the Spanish than in English because the test in English was in more of a British English than American English. So then I became a translator, which works well with a lot of cases I do because, as a translator, I work in the courts, and I get to see a lot of things. I accompany the court on many cases where the opposing attorneys would be there. I would merely be the interpreter between the court officials and the parties, appear at the hearing or to serve them papers or to seize property, etc., which has been incredible learning experience because I can combine the theory I learned from my law studies with how I see how, in practice, the law is done.  I also get to see the attorney’s strategies. I learn every time and improve over the years. Now, even my level of translation has improved.
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In Santa Barbara I had a lot of self-employed wealthy people as clients, and many who were elderly, a good portion who were gay, a many who were Jewish, and I have a slightly different demographic here in Mexico with the majority of my clients being over 60 and with a sizeable gay population. I’ve been sort of a civil rights advocate here in Mexico on some nice landmark and precedent-setting cases here, which I never thought would happen. It’s kind of a good feather in my cap, being a new attorney while fighting cases that are establishing precedents. I never would have predicted that. If you were to ask me 15 years ago “Do you think you’re going to be a civil rights attorney down in Mexico winning cases?” I would say, “What? You’re crazy. Live in Mexico? What? Attorney on civil rights? Those are the long haired pony tailed hippie guys driving Volvos!”

With me, it’s a little bit funny because I’m a member of a prestigious bar association here in which everyone dresses in suits and drives Mercedes and I’m kind of the different guy, besides being a gringo. I’m a little more casual, informal in my dress, and I’m “the Chapala guy” because I work and litigate in Chapala while everyone else is mainly from Guadalajara. They know Chapala but few litigate or do their work out there. I’ve got extensive training in tax law, intellectual property law, and in corporate law; all these other things that aren’t necessarily compatible with things that are done in Chapala because there’s not a big market for it there. The other attorneys in the association work for companies like Honda or other big national companies doing all their corporate work. I’ve still got this conservative corporate training but I’m still out there and taking on cases where I think, “This is wrong.  This person is getting a raw deal.” I want to right that wrong. It’s not about the money; it’s about the principle.

Here I have the opportunity to do some work for principle because if the issue involves foreigners, it’s probably going to come across my desk, so I’m going to have the opportunity to see it to be able to fight it, whereas in the US, everyone’s an attorney. In the US, they wouldn’t look to me to fight some landmark case. And here, I still like to learn. I take a lot of cases for the love of it. If they are interesting and if the person needs to be helped, I can take it. I don’t like injustice, so I’m going to take some of those cases.  I prefer not to take cases of people who are in the wrong, which is a luxury that I can afford here.

I got very lucky with the property I found in Chapala. It’s huge, it’s located well and I bought dirt-cheap. When I bought it everyone was making fun of me. “Why are you buying a property in Mexico?” they said. “I’ve got 5 houses in the US and all the prices are rising here.” I said, “I don’t see prices rising further.” Now these people have lost everything and I’ve got a large property in Mexico that is free and clear. I’ve got a place for guests to stay, I’ve got a place for me to live, and I’ve got room for offices, right in the heart of Chapala.

The location of my property is interesting as well because I grew up in California where it’s a car culture; you drive everywhere. Here, we walk everywhere because everything is 2 to 4 blocks away. Who needs to get in the car? Why would you want to get in the car to drive 3 blocks to start trying to find a parking place when you just walk? I’ve weened myself off cars to a degree. I don’t drive when I’m in Chapala. There’s no need to. The municipal market with fresh fruits and vegetables and the butcher that cuts the meat right there for you is a block away. All the banks are a block away. There’s no reason to get in my car.  Sometimes, I open the garage door to get my car and then close it because it occurs to me that it’s easier to walk. It’s not like I’m going to be dealing with walking in the rain or the snow or a hundred degree weather or freezing cold.  The weather is very pleasant here.

You always hear about crime in Mexico. When I first came to Mexico, wherever I traveled I wouldn’t take my wallet. I would put my ID in one pocket and one bill in one pocket, another bill in another pocket, and one in another pocket. The reason is if I get pick pocketed they’re only taking one bill and my wallet is still going to be there. After a couple of years I found that no one had their wallet stolen, so I decided I was going to carry my wallet with all my IDs.  Still, I have have never been pick pocketed. I had an irrational fear and unfounded worry, at least for the place where I lived. I would travel and a lot and hear stories of something that happened in a bus when someone’s travelling in Bolivia or this scam or that scam. I’m still waiting for the famous person who pretends to be a gringo to approach me and say, “Oh sir, they stole my papers and I need money to go back the US. My baby’s waiting for me.” That stuff hasn’t happened.

I could only say that a lot of it is luck, a lot of it is where you live, and a lot of it is you. I told the consul when I had lunch with her, “Some people, just due to their personality seem to always have a problem with people.” You know, they have a dark cloud following them and they just seem to rub people the wrong way or get into problems, while other people don’t. It can be controlling your environment or being smart to lessen your likelihood of having a problem. I consider myself cautious and I try to be smart about things but I don’t have problems with people; it’s really rare. I just don’t give off that vibe.  I try to be pleasant to everybody and be nice as well as not leave myself open to be in poor or risky situations.

One funny thing that happens is whenever I go to a court for the first time or go to a prosecutor’s office and I say I’m looking for my client, they always say, “Really? You’re their attorney? Well, here in Mexico to be an attorney you need to have what’s called a cedula and you can’t practice unless you have one.” I imagine a lot of foreigners come in there and either lie or say they are an attorney but not in Mexico. When I say, ”Here is my state cedula, here’s my federal cedula, and here’s my court translator ID,” their eyes always go really big and then they say, “I’m sorry, attorney, how can we help you?” The reason is because I look so gringo.

To this day, they switch my names around because I’ll put “Spencer Richard McMullen” and you don’t know how many certificates I have where they put “Richard McMullen Spencer” because they think Spencer is the last name or they think that I wrote it wrong and someone put it wrong and they know better. I use the Anglo system where we use a first, middle and last name and they use first, middle, paternal last name and maternal last name.  The name Spencer isn’t common so they assume it is a last name and Richard is my first name. I’m looking at paperwork right in front of me that states my name as “Spencer Richard McMullen” and “Richard McMullen Spencer.” I just picked up a certificate the other day and that has “Richard McMullen Spencer.” I’m used to it.

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Pictures, from top:
  • Screen shot of Spencer McMullen as legal commentator on Good Morning America for a case in Mexico.
  • Spencer at a wine tasting event with the Jalisco state governor.
  • Spencer’s law office picture.
  • Spencer with the new US Consulate General 

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