Once or twice a month, a client will call or email me expressing incredulous frustration that it takes Swiss or French or German authorities two or three months to return a proof of service following a Hague Service Convention request. Or even worse, that it takes Mexican or Chinese or Indian authorities a year or two. (<– Not a typo.)

“WHY?!” they scream, silently. At least, that’s the subtext of their question– in the lion’s share of cases, subtext arising from haranguing by a grumpy judge or senior partner (or litigant) who simply doesn’t get it.

On those occasions, at least once or twice a month, I have to tell that client to “get out of your American lawyer head” (all of my clients are attorneys). Because American lawyers view service of process abroad in the same way that civilians (ie: those smart enough to not take a bar exam) view service of process here at home… they don’t understand what goes into it.

Just Google “service of process in the movies” and you’ll get the idea.* Contrary to popular belief, a defendant can’t just refuse to take an envelope from a process server and avoid service. Constitutionally speaking, all a plaintiff has to do is make a reasonable effort, so if the process server has to drop the summons at the defendant’s feet, the defendant is still on the hook.

And lawyers get that.

But what they often don’t get is the harsh reality that things just don’t work “over there” in the same way they work here. And they take longer– they just do. No amount of haranguing from a grumpy judge or senior partner (or litigant) is going to change that.

No, in most of the world, it doesn’t happen the way Hollywood makes it out. In fact, if you ask a U.S. or Canadian process server, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t even happen that way here. But in the parts of the world where the Union Jack** didn’t used to fly, service of judicial papers isn’t up to the parties. That function is undertaken by judicial officials of varying sorts, rather than by private agents.

And there is nearly always a bureaucracy involved. Therein lies the source of the delay.

* The most inaccurate Hollywood depiction I’ve ever seen is, sadly, in Woman in Gold, which chronicled a Holocaust survivor’s successful quest to recover a famous painting stolen from her family by the Nazis. It’s a fantastic film, truly one of my favorites, but they completely bungled the service of process scene. I discuss that utterly ridiculous depiction with much chagrin in Dropping docs on a desk at the Consulate… not effective, counsel. Still, I’ve had the honor of managing proper service in several Nazi-theft-of-art cases, and those efforts have been among the most rewarding parts of my career.

** I always gripe that a flag cannot fly at half mast unless it’s on a ship– it’s at half staff on land. Likewise, some argue that the Union Jack flies above the ships of the Royal Navy and various other watercraft of the United Kingdom, while the Union Flag flies on land. Buckingham Palace validates the use of either, so I’m sticking with it, despite the Palace’s confusion about masts. With all respect to linguistic accuracy, this is poetic license at work– Jack has more pop to it.