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  Feature

Working Overseas - A Reality Check

October 2008
If the complexities of licensing and different legal systems make working overseas seem like an impossibility - think again. A group of American attorneys practicing in Europe and Asia give their take on finding a job internationally, and the pros and cons of an expatriate life.

If you want to make your career more stimulating, you might want to contemplate working abroad. It is exciting, or at least I have found it so.

I have always wanted to work in Japan, ever since being stationed here in the late 1960s, but I couldn’t find a job here until 2001. I have retired, and we live in a spa area in Gifu, north of Nagoya.

There aren’t that many American lawyers in this part of Japan, so in researching this article, I queried the ABA’s Solosez mailing list. The response was great. It even led to other mailing lists specifically designed for expat lawyers. God bless the Internet.

 

FINDING WORK OVERSEAS

Finding a job overseas is like finding a job back in the States. For some it is easy, and for some it is difficult.

Laura Denise Compton put together a list of desirable firms, visited their websites to determine where they had offices overseas, applied to five, interviewed two, and chose one in London.

Christina Halstead took longer. She attended an international LLM program in Salzburg, but through one of a couple of non-paying, non-housing jobs, she was signed up in a two-year internment program and became a Paris “conseil juridique,” becoming an “avocat” when the professions merged. In parallel, she taught legal English to French lawyers, basically a position where she was being paid to learn French law. Being exposed to so much French legalese, her French improved dramatically. She phased out the English teaching as she worked with French and US lawyers as an independent contractor and developed her own practice.

Chris Jacobson aimed primarily at “international” firms in the US and Japan. He sent out 150 letters, got one offer from an LA firm and three offers from Japan.

Nancy Matos went to the Netherlands, where she did an LL.M. after taking both the New York and New Jersey Bars, and ended up studying Dutch law. With a Dutch law degree and a good knowledge of the Dutch language, it was much easier to find a job and work in the Netherlands.

Lisa Nieuwveld had always intended to work overseas. She mainly targeted Spain or France, until she met her husband in college and switched to the Netherlands. She found her initial job there just like any US attorney would in the States – through networking as much as possible and suffering a lot of rejections.

Patrick O’Malley found him first legal job (in London) while working in the States. He sent hundreds of CVs, contacted various international legal recruiters, and made various telephone and in persona interviews before he found a job he liked. His previous work and study experiences in Europe and his ability in various foreign languages were keys to getting that job.

Ross Porter came to Belgium on a three-year assignment to manage and staff up a regional legal office for a multinational employer. Later he associated himself with one of his outside counsel, which gave him a taste of what a US lawyer might face who decides to move overseas without employer support: It took about twenty months and a lot of assistance from a Belgian attorney to obtain approval to operate as an independent “legal consultant.”

Richard Smith found his initial job through his language studies. The school was looking to attract more international students, and to form partnerships with foreign schools. He took a job as “international contracts director” and tried to help out on both efforts.

I had given up looking for a job in Japan because of the severe restraints on foreigners practicing law in Japan at the time, but decades later the restraints changed and I found an ad in the AIPLA Journal.

 

WORKING OVERSEAS

Work in a foreign country is different than in the States, and those differences (both good and bad) vary from country to country.

In Japan, S. McIntire Allen found that there is less feedback about work and, while one is expected to do what one can, those who don't pull their weight are not derided. Also, there is less creative thinking about how to solve problems, and people aren't as willing to pick up the phone and just ask a question. Japan is a safer place to live, where women do not have to worry about being out on a street late at night. On the other hand, the Japanese seem to thrive on keeping foreigners apart from them.

In France, Christina Halstead found that that there is much less access to information and sharing of knowledge and expertise. However, work is slower paced, and the court system is much more “real” and not a media production room as it has become in the States. People have a better sense of reality, have a stronger sense of family, appreciate nature, and are not as much into consumerism. On the other hand, there are very high social charges and bar dues based on income.

In Switzerland and other parts of Europe, Christopher King found the working environment is much healthier, since there is less “political correctness” and fear of lawsuits in the workplace. He also found that there is less aggression in the legal work there than in the States. It is rare for him to stay up all night in a negotiation because of posturing or to have to listen to personal attacks or attacks on his professional competence as a negotiation technique, though both of these were common in the States.

In the Netherlands, Lisa Nieuwveld found that there is more variety and interesting work, a great CV builder, and a fabulous opportunity to travel and immerse oneself in another culture. On the other hand, most countries in Europe pay attorneys less than the States, which means that going abroad involves a severe pay-cut.

Also in the Netherlands, Nancy Matos found a more relaxed work environment due to the importance the Dutch place on maintaining their work-life balance.

In England and Italy Patrick O’Malley found a stimulating career, in which he isn’t pigeonholed in a single practice area. On the other hand, it is easy to lose touch with US law developments and practice points if one does not make a conscious effort to keep one’s feet firmly planted in BOTH the US and host country legal/business milieu.

In Denmark, Gregory Smith found that the Danish lawyers work fewer hours and have a lower level of support services available to them. While Americans are very skilled at integrating newcomers into a group, Danes are horrible at it. Also, Danes have difficulty hearing new ideas and giving them careful consideration. It is difficult to get them to step outside of the comfort and safety of their routines and assumptions. Finally, there is not the same sort of ethic of group success in Denmark as one would find in the US.

In the Ukraine, Richard Smith found a slower, more relaxed quality of life. On the other hand, he missed having drinkable tap water.

I found that Japan has great health care, team culture, and socialization outside office hours. The Japanese really know how to party. On the other hand, it is hard getting CLE credits needed for US state bars, the Japanese language is difficult to learn, and management styles tend to be paternalistic. In one speech to our firm, the chairman recommended that the staff vote for a particular candidate in the mayoral election. His candidate lost.

 

THE NATURE OF EXPATRIATES

We expats have much in common. Most of us had some contact with the country where we live before moving there. S. McIntire Allen studied Japanese as part of the JET Program in a rural area of Japan. Christina Halstead did a semester in France. Christopher C. King was an exchange student in Europe. Patrick O’Malley studied Spanish in Spain. Richard Smith studied Russian in Russia. John Sturgeon was stationed in Germany while in the military.

Also, many of us have married people from the country in which we live. That has the side benefit of making integration into the culture easier, but that is not why I married my wife.

One thing that surprised me from the responses is that most expat lawyers seem to have more limited contact with their expat community than I do. I belong to a writers’ group and a Macintosh Users group that are both in English, so I often see fellow expats two or three times a month.

Christina Halstead commented that she has more contact with the expat community now that she has a baby so that her son will have a balance of the two cultures, her husband being French.

 

FRIENDLY ADVICE

S. McIntire Allen advises that you enjoy people and treat them with an open mind; be kind; and pay it forward.

Laura Denise Compton warns that moving overseas can be incredibly stressful. Carefully consider exactly what the firm will pay for and arrange on your behalf, e.g., packers, movers, travel agents, housing brokers, temporary housing, initial real estate payments, mortgage and down payment assistance, etc. Even so, there are still a thousand details to attend to that the firm cannot do for you.

Christina Halstead advises that the key is living and working in the country so you can master the language, culture, and the law. She also advises that you take anything that comes along. You may feel you are going off the path or taking things “below” you but you never know where that will lead.

Nancy Matos advises that you make an effort to learn the local language, customs, and legal systems, since this makes a significant difference in your experience abroad.

Lisa Nieuwveld advises that you not be discouraged. However, getting a couple years experience in your own jurisdiction will make you more attractive and help the firm with getting your work visa. Knowing the different visa options your targeted country offers can help sell yourself to a firm wanting you, but who are unsure about the work visa issues. Also, pick a targeted country, culture, and language; and start learning everything about it: language, social skills, and interviewing skills. In the end, though, having a connection to the country (like family, friends, etc.) will make you a safer investment.

Patrick O’Malley advises that if you do want to practice abroad, you probably have to do so as a US attorney. Becoming an Italian, Spanish, or Japanese attorney probably means starting law studies from scratch with 18-year-old first-year local students, being paid significantly less as a new practitioner, once you finish the four or five year course of studies and unpaid training period, and for a long time being looked upon as a fish out of water.

Gregory Smith advises that you go with clients, if at all possible; possess a readily-identifiable skill-set that is highly relevant to the foreign market; and know precisely what you are getting into in terms of cultural differences.

My advice is to learn the language; learn the customs, culture, and history; and then go out and explore and enjoy.

Some expatriates eventually go back home to live, some remain expatriates indefinitely, and some even change their citizenship.

I retired here three years ago. Last year we decided that we are going to spend the rest of our lives here, keeping our American citizenship.

During our last trip to the States, I loved the big bookstores filled with English-language books, but I missed the jazz, the good service, the safety, and the civility of Japan. When we got back to Gifu, it was nice to be home.

Maybe your true home is waiting for you overseas.

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About the Author

Ernest Schaal, is a retired intellectual property lawyer living in Gifu City, Japan who has been active in the ABA Law Practice Management section.  He can be reached at eschaal@mac.com.

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