Everything you should know before moving to work abroad
Working abroad as a lawyer is now a perfectly sensible option – provided you prepare well and avoid unrealistic expectations.
Academic and professional preparation
To compete for an overseas position, you need a strong academic record and a degree from a top university. While it’s not impossible to land a position without both of these attributes, a strong academic record is essential. In terms of course selection, try to focus on courses related to transactional law – contracts law, corporate law, M&A and the like. Your options will be greatly limited unless you qualify as a solicitor, because overseas options for barristers are few, and they are more or less confined to Commonwealth nations.
A near-universal requirement for a quality overseas position is a few years of quality transactional experience in your home jurisdiction. Don’t imagine you’ll obtain a quality position as a local hire in some overseas jurisdiction straight after qualifying as a lawyer. You may land a position, but it will probably be a low-paying, dead-end job that will provide you with experience that’s useless back home.
Overseas licensing requirements
Overseas jurisdictions impose various licensing restrictions on foreign lawyers. Few if any will tolerate you practicing local law without a local qualification. Many jurisdictions, such as Japan, require you to be licensed as a foreign lawyer even to practice UK law there. Licensing requirements typically include full qualification at home as well as two or three years of home-based experience.
Some jurisdictions will allow you to participate in transactional work governed by local law (contract drafting, for example), as long as a local lawyer signs off on your work. A few jurisdictions don’t impose special licensing requirements on UK lawyers who practice UK law there, as long as they are qualified to practice in their home jurisdiction.
There are four major pathways to an overseas legal position.
- The overseas branch of a UK law firm
- A local hire in a foreign law firm
- In-house counsel for a multinational company
- A local hire as in-house counsel for a foreign company
These aren’t the only options – you might be picked up by a branch office of an American law firm located in a third country, for example.
In terms of work content, you’re likely to be engaged almost exclusively in transactional work. Although the popularity of various practice areas varies by jurisdiction and over time, current hot practice areas include project finance, M&A, debt/equity, capital markets and securities and derivate work.
The following are a few of the pitfalls you need to avoid, gleaned from the stories of former overseas lawyers who found their experience unsatisfactory:
The glamour trap: The essential character of the legal work that you perform is going to be similar to what’s available at home. Additionally, the inside of a law office looks more or less the same no matter where it’s located, no matter how many nice beaches are nearby. Think carefully before setting your sights overseas and don’t let the glamour of the idea cloud your best judgment.
The “English language editor” trap: If you land a position as a local hire at a foreign company, whether it be with a law firm or as in-house counsel, you may end up spending most of your time editing poorly written English-language legal documentation. This state of affairs is especially likely to occur if you lack transactional experience at home.
The foreign-language-skills trap: You may have targeted a particular country, and you may have developed impressive foreign-language skills that will help you on the street there. In most jurisdictions, however, your foreign-language skills will be useless at work unless you speak, read and write at a native- or near-native-speaker level.
Experience working overseas will broaden you personally, socially and professionally. It is also likely to help your career back home, as long as you don’t stay gone for too long. It’s not for everyone, however, and the more you know what to expect, the better decision you are likely to make concerning how to prepare for your relocation, or whether to relocate at all.