Ask Janet: Choosing Between US and European Firm

Question from Joshua: I wanted to inquire as to whether you could answer some concerns I may have in taking an international legal position. I am currently in my final year of law school. I have received an offer to practice law at a major international law firm in the US, as well as at the German arm of a major international law firm in Munich. In Germany, I would be on a German track, i.e. German pay scale. I was told that foreigners have difficulty making partner in Germany, and that the firm, should I want to be a partner, would expect me to move back after 4-5 years to be on a US partnership track. I do not necessarily know at this stage whether I want to be a partner or not.

My concerns are twofold – First, if there is any slowdown in work, is an American lawyer more likely to be fired and second, will I have difficulty either in returning to the US as a mid-level associate or in the event of a downturn that results in the position no longer being open.

Any thoughts you may have would be helpful. I think that the safe route would be to take the US opportunity and then go abroad after a few years; but I also think the Germany option presents a great opportunity to start a career in Europe.  


Response from Janet:  Nowadays, very few lawyers stay in any one job for a long time. Even those who make partner often transition to other law firms.  Thus, you might view your next career choice as a good stepping stone for the future; perhaps you will remain at this same firm for the rest of your career after making partner, but more likely not.

You might weigh the two opportunities to determine which will provide you the best training and experience early in your career.  You can’t go wrong with a major international law firm, whether it is located in the US or abroad.  You are lucky to have both choices. 

You might create a chart to help you evaluate the pros and cons of each.  Do you have a sense for the kind of work and the amount of responsibility you would have at each place?  Do you know how associates are treated and valued?  Do you know any of the partners with whom you would be working, and if so, do you like and respect them?  What is the culture like at each firm?  What kind of training and professional development programs do they offer associates?  What are the billable hour requirements? If you don’t have a sense for the answers to these questions, see whether you can chat with some current associates off the record, or search the Internet for entries on some of the law firm associate internet chat forums.

 I would be less concerned about potentially being laid off as a US lawyer in a European firm.  It’s impossible to predict that outcome, and I wouldn’t base my career decision on that, if I were you.  Further, in case of layoffs, being an American might actually work to your advantage; because you would offer unique expertise as a US trained lawyer, you might be the last to be laid off!

Rather, I would make sure that you choose a firm in which you will be happy working, at least initially, because you are bound to be working long hours at either.  Second, I’d focus on the training that you will get, making sure that you will be working from the beginning in the kind of practice area you desire.  You don’t want to find yourself stuck in an unappealing or uninteresting practice group.  Once a lawyer has practiced for several years in one area, it’s sometimes challenging to switch. Good luck!

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