Lawyers Wanting to Work Abroad

The following article just appeared in The Complete Lawyer.

So You Want to Work Abroad?

There are many opportunities to work overseas;
the more you plan, the more success you’ll meet

By Janet H. Moore

As international lawyer coach, I get many email inquiries from lawyers who are interested in working abroad.  Some want to gain a particular legal expertise by practicing abroad. Other lawyers are being or want to be transferred abroad by their employers.  Still others simply seek the thrill and adventure of practicing law in a foreign country.  Whatever the reason, lawyers face many challenges as well as exciting possibilities when contemplating an international move.
Plan Well

Attorneys wishing to relocate abroad should examine their real motivation and formulate clear strategies for doing so.  According to Nicholas Rumin, founder and principal of New York-based Rumin Search Consulting, an integral part of this process is being clear about why you are moving, what exactly you want to achieve, and whether your plans are realistic.  He notes that lawyers with a clear vision of their goals move forward more quickly.

Rumin, who practiced law internationally for many years before becoming a legal recruiter, recommends significant market research to understand the opportunities, trends and challenges in a given market.  After analyzing the foreign market, lawyers need to strategize carefully before taking the plunge.  Those who are well positioned (such as those with stellar international credentials, or those poised to move with an existing employer) need to weigh the professional and personal realities of starting over in a new land.

Lawyers who are not well positioned for such a move, such as those without top-notch credentials or “in demand” expertise, face an additional hurdle:  how to make themselves marketable to foreign employers.  These lawyers must figure out which talents or expertise they currently have or can obtain to make them employable abroad.

Rumin also suggests that lawyers honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses, and how those will impact their success abroad.  The analysis could be straightforward, such as whether a lawyer has the requisite language skills to build a strong network of local business relationships. Or, he says, the analysis might be complex, such as: How can I market my technical expertise and existing business relationships in structured finance so that I can be immediately relevant to the current practice needs of a law firm in Beijing, and also be perceived as a practice leader in my area of expertise within the capital markets bar?

Michael Ellenhorn, who heads the international division of London-based Longbridge Search & Selection, helps many law firms launch offices abroad or expand existing foreign offices by acquiring practice groups.  In this capacity, he works with many lawyers who want to work abroad.  He recommends that such a lawyer start by talking to prospective employers close to home about their ability and willingness to post you overseas. Moreover, lawyers must make sure that they communicate their desire to work abroad to the right decision-makers.  Ellenhorn, a dual-qualified US lawyer/English solicitor living and working in Europe as a search consultant, also suggests that candidates become qualified to practice in a foreign jurisdiction.  Foreign languages, if written and spoken at a business level, are also helpful.

A lawyer’s level of seniority further impacts the analysis.  Ellenhorn advises younger attorneys to focus on developing their key legal competencies. “For partners’ focus on the clients.  Culture and personal fit are, of course, important, but start your thought process by analyzing your clients, the work you do for them, the price point for that work, and your core skills sets.  Examining the possible synergies (of a different platform) with an experienced international consultant can take you a great distance in both testing the viability of your practice in the market and finding the right fit.”

Network At Home And Abroad

When I coach attorneys wanting to move within or into the international field, we formulate and implement a networking plan almost immediately. Organizations such as the international law sections of the American Bar Association or an attorney’s local bar association are good places to connect with international practitioners. The London-based International Bar Association, foreign chambers of commerce and a host of other international bar groups (conveniently listed by Hieros Gamos at hg.org), also facilitate connections.

Networking with members of these organizations, as well as former clients and employers, can be fruitful. According to Rumin, In my experience, the best business and in-house opportunities arise as a direct result of a positive existing client or business relationship.

Once living abroad, lawyers must establish relationships within the local business and legal community.  Building contacts abroad is critical because most lawyers relocate to a new market without any significant existing contacts.

Once again, speaking the local language becomes critical to creating a successful practice.  The foreign languages most in demand at the moment are, according to Ellenhorn, Mandarin, Arabic, and various dialects of Hindi. Rumin concurs: “With the tremendous economic growth in China, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and potentially the Indian subcontinent, the prospects of these attorneys, particularly where they have local language skills,will continue to grow brighter every year.”

However, for any given lawyer, the most important foreign language to learn is certainly the local language. The sole exception to this, notes Rumin, is the lawyer with a particular technical expertise and/or English language drafting skills where the expertise or the language skills are needed in the new office over and above every other criteria.

Opportunities  Exist, Even  For Lawyers Without Top Tier Credentials Or Experience


Because hiring attorneys to work abroad is very expensive, employers generally do insist on hiring those with top credentials and experience.  Rumin advises lawyers who lack these to “think more creatively about entrepreneurial options to use your specific skill set with your chosen market or else choose a less popular market where some legal employers might be more flexible as to their hiring criteria.”

According to Ellenhorn, several things can help to counteract unimpressive credentials, including becoming qualified in a foreign jurisdiction, earning a foreign LLM certification, and publishing articles and papers on international law topics.  Both recruiters strongly recommend getting practical legal experience.  Says Ellenhorn, “Experience counts; get involved in cross-border deals and develop a meaningful track record.

Some lawyers may have success finding international positions with the government or various NGOs through websites like www.state.gov <http://www.state.gov/>  or www.usajobs.gov <http://www.usajobs.gov/> . Checking job websites like www.monster.com <http://www.monster.com/> can also be fruitful.

Lawyers Face Real Challenges Working Abroad

When I was a young international lawyer, I was seconded to a large Mexico City-based firm. Although delighted by the experience, I had to adjust to a very different legal practice.  Not only was I working in a civil law jurisdiction, but I also faced different cultural norms and expectations about work differences in punctuality, client responsiveness, research techniques, support staff and the like.  Grappling with these differences far from home, and without my trusty paralegals and assistant, made some days difficult.

Recognizing that lawyers who relocate abroad face such challenges, Rumin discourages them from moving overseas unless they have at least 2-3 years of significant legal experience.  After all, most lawyers will be expected to “hit the ground running without additional formal training.”  He notes, “The smaller size of offices in many overseas jurisdictions and the often unfamiliar levels of support services (as compared to a what one is used to in Manhattan or London) make it essential that the lawyer have a level of maturity sufficient to deal fairly independently with the uncertainties and changes that go with practicing law in developing markets.”
Lawyers face still other challenges after they return home. Some are well positioned, having developed a unique expertise that they can leverage with their old employer or a new one (such as an existing client.) In my own case, having worked in Mexico City as a visiting attorney proved invaluable years later when I moved to the legal department of a Fortune 100 company to focus on Latin American business transactions.  Similarly, many of my coaching clients find that their expertise gained during stints abroad gives them added credibility and overcomes shortcomings in their academic transcripts and the like.

Other attorney clients of mine have had to retool when they return home.  Not only do they face the culture shock that hits any expat upon reentry, but also they find that their work environment has changed.  Perhaps office politics have shifted, or their old niche has now been filled by others. Perhaps they feel unappreciated or out of synch with co-workers.  As Rumin describes it, “You can’t go home, and any lawyers who think that after two years working abroad they can return to their old firms and simply take up where they left off will very likely be sorely disappointed.”

However, these lawyers return home with fresh skills and heightened experience.  After the initial shock of reentry, most such lawyers learn to use these skills effectively in a thriving career with the same employer or another.

Excitement, challenges and rewards await lawyers who thoughtfully strategize before relocating abroad. Says Ellenhorn,  “International opportunities can arise from any direction. You just need to be attuned to identifying and going after these opportunities as they present themselves.  And for adventurous attorneys willing to work in developing countries, tremendous opportunities exist.” “The great thing about developing markets is that virtually no idea is out of the question,” Rumin concludes, “as long as you have a practical plan to make that idea a reality.”

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