Become a Versatile, Nimble, Flexible–and Exceptional– International Lawyer

For tips on how to Become a Versatile, Flexible, Nimble–and Exceptional–International Lawyer, read my latest article for the international column of The Complete Lawyer online magazine.

Become A Versatile, Flexible, Nimble And Exceptional International Lawyer
Adjust your international practice to meet market demands.

Become A Versatile, Flexible, Nimble and Exceptional International Lawyer

International lawyers need to spot issues that arise both across jurisdictions and outside their expertise

By Janet H. Moore

Click these links for a specific section or read the entire article below:

  • Be Versatile, Flexible and Nimble To Succeed In International Law
  • Gain Exposure to Different Legal Systems and Jurisdictions
  • Spot Critical Issues
  • Adjust Your International Practice To Meet Market Demands

Exceptional international practitioners realize that remaining versatile, flexible and nimble benefits their practice. This versatility helps them resolve client inquiries even though clear-cut answers across legal systems are often impossible to find.  Good international lawyers know how to handle this uncertainty by drawing on their wealth of experience when advising their clients. They are able to notice and analyze important issues in complex international matters, and track down the requisite answers from foreign counsel, original legal sources and other resources.

Law firms are beginning to acknowledge the benefit of such versatility. According to David Morley, Worldwide Managing Partner of the London-based Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy, “we need to develop versatile lawyers capable of working in more than one discipline. So when a partner has career discussions with an associate who wants to experience other practice areas, we must encourage that where we can.

Gain Exposure To Different Legal Systems and Jurisdictions

How can international practitioners enhance their versatility?  Gaining exposure to legal issues in different geographic areas, under different legal systems (such as Sharia and civil law, as well as common law), and in a variety of legal disciplines, will broaden a lawyer’s experience.
As Gerard Meijer, a partner with the Benelux firm NautaDutilh who specializes in international commercial litigation and arbitration notes,  “As a litigator, I have become versatile as I have acted in a wide variety of disputes. In fact, Gerard’s international practice has exposed him to clients and issues across the world.  “We represent a Dutch insurance company in an investment arbitration against the Republic of Poland regarding the Republic of Poland’s refusal to comply with its commitments to transfer shares in a Polish insurance company to our client. We also act for a UK defense company regarding the setting aside of an arbitral award between our client and the Iranian Ministry of Defense.  At the moment, I also sit as arbitrator (inter alia in a matter regarding the distribution of professional skates in Korea).”

Like Gerard, many international practitioners handle matters involving a wide variety of jurisdictions.  Looking for opportunities to become familiar with the laws of various jurisdictions, and to get some real world experience in those venues, will increase an international lawyer’s effectiveness and prepare him or her for whatever arises.

Salli Swartz, a partner in the Paris-based firm Phillips Geraud Naud & Swartz, often works on complex border transactions involving multiple jurisdictions. As an American trained attorney who now lives and practices in France, Salli specializes in assisting foreign companies investing or otherwise doing business in France. During one transaction she found herself “drafting and negotiating in the English language when I was the only native English speaker present: the others were from 6 different countries with 6 different languages and at least 3 different legal systems and all of them thought that their English was better than mine!! For one simple sentence there were 6 different interpretations of the meaning.”  Having an understanding of the laws of these different jurisdictions helped Salli handle this situation with aplomb.

Spot Critical Issues

Becoming versatile as an international lawyer does not mean becoming an expert in multiple fields.  No practitioner can master and keep up with the countless legal specialties that exist. However, an international practitioner should try to amass enough knowledge to be able to identify critical issues on a client’s behalf.
Sebastien Savage, who practices in the Montreal office of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, may face hundreds of different issues in any given month, which makes his work challenging and exciting. Sure, it is stressful, he says, “but I firmly believe that staying flexible and versatile as an attorney has enhanced my practice, both in terms of the number of clients and in terms of the quality of services delivered. Sebastien also stays informed about his clients’ businesses: “I find that the more I know and the better I understand the businesses of my clients, the better equipped I am to face the requirements of evolving in a global economy.” Lawyers living and working in foreign offices particularly need to be able to spot issues.  Rather than remain isolated from the wealth of knowledge in their home offices, these foreign-based attorneys must sharpen their issue-spotting skills so that they can raise red flags when needed.

Once an international attorney spots an important issue outside of her expertise, she must then know how to resolve it.  Sometimes this requires bringing in foreign counsel, and perhaps most important, knowing the right questions to ask in order to get a clear response. For example, asking a civil law lawyer questions while using purely common law concepts and lingo will confuse the situations and may result in an inaccurate or unclear answer. Salli Swartz notes the particular challenge of “trying to explain to American/Anglo Saxon legal systems clients the differences between consequential damages under U.S. law and direct damages under French law.”

Many successful international lawyers improve their understanding by digging into the original legal sources”even those written in foreign languages rather than relying on secondary translations. Using a dictionary, and comparing an original legal text with multiple English translations of it, can give a lawyer critical insights about what a foreign law really says and means.

Adjust Your International Practice To Meet Market Demands

Sometimes a lawyer plans to develop a particular international specialty, but client and market demands cause the lawyer’s practice to evolve in a different way. A versatile international lawyer is well positioned to respond to these changes. As Ed Lebow, who practices in Haynes & Boone’s Washington, D.C. office, explains, “My college concentration was in Japanese language, history and culture, and that set me up to handle antidumping cases for Japanese clients into the middle 1990’s.  However, with the changes in the Japanese economy and the decreasing number of new US antidumping cases brought each year, particularly against the Japanese, I needed some flexibility.  For me, that has meant a subtle shift in both my subject matter and geographic emphasis. While I still do handle antidumping and countervailing duty reviews, much of my newer work is in the much more active area of ITC Section 337 investigations that address imports that allegedly infringe US patents. And my clients are now more likely to be located in India (dumping and countervailing duties) and Taiwan (Section 337) than in Japan.”

Having the flexibility and versatility to respond to market changes, as Ed does, helps an international practice thrive even when the market shifts.

In other words, versatility makes a lawyer more attractive to clients. As Gerard Meijer explains, I really get the impression that clients appreciate that I have been involved in a variety of disputes, which gives the client the confidence that I can make myself familiar with their case.

After all, that’s what all lawyers strive for: a client’s confidence and satisfaction.


1. “We Listened to Associates.”  Now Partners have to Do Their Bit”,, 23 October 2006.

Comments are closed.