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Planning For A Legal Career Overseas (Part I): Picking The Right Practice Area And The Right Firm

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Abby Gordon is a Director with Lateral Link’s New York office. Abby works with attorney candidates on law firm and in-house searches, primarily in New York, Boston, and Europe. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Abby spent seven years as a corporate associate with Cleary Gottlieb, focusing on capital markets transactions for Latin American clients in New York and for the last five years for European clients in Paris. A native of Boston, Abby holds a J.D., cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in government and romance languages, magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. Abby also worked with the International Rescue Committee as a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain. She is a member of the New York Bar and is fluent in French and Spanish (and dabbles in Portuguese and Italian).

If one of your career or personal goals is to work as a U.S. lawyer overseas, you need to start preparing and positioning yourself very early on. In this two-part series, I will first discuss picking the right practice area and picking the right firm to optimize your opportunities for working overseas, keeping geographical considerations in mind.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss the importance of language skills for various regions and practice areas. I will touch on the potential downsides and sacrifices involved in working overseas for a portion of your career. Finally, I will talk about what you can be doing now to best position yourself for a move overseas….

Which practice areas are most conducive to working abroad as a U.S. lawyer?

The most important factor in picking a practice area is your level of interest in the work. It is extremely difficult to switch practice areas once your career has begun. So I strongly urge you to choose one you can see yourself enjoying over the long haul.

If, however, multiple practice areas appeal to you and you have a desire to work overseas, or you need to move overseas for personal reasons, there are better and worse practice areas to choose. Note the geographical differences and trends:

  • Capital markets/securities law: This is your best shot overall at working overseas. U.S. lawyers rotating to foreign offices in Europe (for example, London, Paris, Milan, Frankfurt, Madrid), Asia (Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul) and Latin America (Mexico City, Buenos Aires, São Paolo) are more likely than not securities lawyers. These securities lawyers are expected to have experience with a variety of types of deals (debt and equity, IPOs, tender offers, issuer’s and underwriter’s side) and more and more often we are seeing requests (particularly in Europe) for associates with high-yield debt experience. However, capital markets practice for U.S. lawyers is virtually non-existent in the Middle East.
  • Project finance: Not as sure a bet, but project finance is on the rise, especially in Latin America for associates with fluent Spanish or Portuguese, and to some extent in London.
  • M&A/Private Equity: Once in a while you will find these openings for U.S.-qualified lawyers in London, or very infrequently elsewhere in Europe and in Asia. M&A is on the rise now in the Middle East, however.
  • Real Estate Finance: We are seeing some of this work now in London and in the Middle East.
  • International Arbitration: If you are not interested in corporate law, we do see international arbitration positions in London, Paris, Dubai, Geneva, and Singapore. There are virtually no U.S. litigation needs overseas. The difficulty in positioning yourself for this practice is that very few associates in the U.S. are able to practice international arbitration exclusively; for an international arbitration post overseas, the firm will expect some solid years of international arbitration experience.
  • FCPA, Anti-Money Laundering, Internal Investigations, OFAC, Antitrust, and Compliance: This is a growing field in the U.S. but also in Europe and in Asia (particularly in China). We are not seeing too many openings for U.S. lawyers right now, but it’s a field sure to be on the rise in coming years.

I have listed a number of practice areas above, but again, capital markets is still overwhelmingly the most likely practice area to send you overseas. And while not the only option, starting at a large firm in New York is the best way to gain this experience that may set you up for a rotation overseas.

What should I look for in a firm if I would like to work abroad?

Not all firms allow or encourage their associates to work overseas, even if they have overseas offices. Some overseas offices are staffed exclusively with local lawyers. Do not rely on the firm’s promotional materials targeted to potential clients when determining the strength of the firm’s international platform and possibilities for working in a foreign office. You need to dig a little deeper and ask around.

As a general rule, prestige does matter. The majority of firms with overseas offices (and moreover, overseas offices that actually employ U.S. associates) are the top international firms overall. These are usually the firms with the greatest share of cross-border work. And in a foreign city where only the very top U.S. firms have any name recognition, prestige will carry extra weight.

It goes without saying that you should look to work at a firm that is very strong in the practice areas conducive to U.S. lawyers working overseas, with a strong platform in the U.S. to complement the overseas deal work. As I noted above, this usually means a strong capital markets practice with significant high-yield debt (or at a minimum investment-grade debt) work and a strong cross-border deal footprint. On the non-corporate side, it usually means a firm with a strong international arbitration practice.

Keep in mind that a firm might have a strong international practice but no overseas/local office if work can be handled from another office. For example, a number of firms with a strong Latin American practice do this work entirely out of New York or Miami. Certain firms work on a number of deals involving French issuers but conduct all of this work out of their London office.

Find out if the firm has a rotation system only for U.S. associates, and if so, what is the expected length of stay. Would you be able to stay long-term if that is your hope? Would you have to return to a U.S. office to be considered for a promotion to counsel or partner?

Previously from Lateral Link:

The Top 5 Reasons Attorneys Move
5 Tips To Maximize Your Lateral Compensation Package
25 Things All Young Lawyers Should Know In Order To Not Screw Up Their Legal Careers
The 2014 Lateral Partner Market Seems To Be On The Rise, Especially In Los Angeles
Don’t Let Firms Window-Shop Your Résumé And Book Of Business

Lateral Link is one of the top-rated International Legal Recruiting Firms. With over 14 offices world-wide, Lateral Link specializes in placing attorneys at the most prestigious law firms in the world. Managed by former practicing attorneys from top law schools, Lateral Link has a tradition of hiring lawyers to execute the lateral leaps of practicing attorneys. Click ::here:: to find out more about us.

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