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Planning For A Legal Career Overseas (Part II): Language Skills, Caveats, And What You Can Be Doing Now

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).

In the first part of this series, I discussed picking the right practice area and picking the right firm to optimize your opportunities for working overseas.

In this second part of the series, I will touch on the importance of language skills for various regions and practice areas. I will then discuss 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….

How important are language skills?

For certain overseas opportunities, you must be fluent in a foreign language; for other opportunities, proficiency may suffice or no language skills may be required.

  • Europe: If you want to move to London, English may suffice, though knowledge of another European language (especially French or Russian) will be a big plus. For corporate work in other European capitals, fluency or a very solid proficiency in the native language is essential. For international arbitration work, the language skills are not as necessary (unless the group is bringing you on for a specific matter), but you will be much happier if you have enough of the local language to get by in the office and in the new city in general. You will also be expected to take the local bar exam if you want to stay long-term, and that will require fluency.
  • Latin America: Expect any opening to require fluent Spanish or Portuguese.
  • Middle East: Arabic is of course a big plus, but generally foreign language skills are not required.
  • Asia: English will suffice for Singapore, but Mandarin is required for almost all job openings in Mainland China and even in Hong Kong. Korean is required for Seoul, and/or sometimes Mandarin if Chinese work is done out of the Seoul office.

What does fluency mean? While business fluency is a big plus, you will not be expected to know all the industry terminology upon arrival, just as you inevitably take some time to learn those terms in English when you first start at a firm in the U.S. It’s also quite common in the legal and business worlds to hear a mix of the local language and English. In Paris, for example, franglais was the lingua franca. Never will you hear even a French lawyer discussing a conférence téléphonique. It is always referred to as “le conf call”.

Caveats about working abroad as a U.S. lawyer.

There are pros and cons to working overseas. Generally, the overseas offices are smaller offices and hence there may not be as developed training and other mentoring structures as in the larger home office. They may have fewer support staff and you may not have that junior associate to delegate work to anymore!

Smaller offices may have a smaller variety of work, and certainly the work for U.S. associates may be less diverse. It is easy to get pigeonholed and not gain the same level of experience and professional development that you would gain in the U.S.

It is hard to come back to the U.S. if you spend too long overseas. At least on the corporate side, your skills for domestic-based deal work may not be as sharp. If nothing else, your skills may be perceived as less sharp. Even if you are returning to the same firm’s U.S. office, you should expect to be deferred for partnership consideration if you have spent more than a couple of years overseas or if you return past your 6th year. If you want to just do a 1-, 2- or 3-year rotation overseas, go fairly early (once you feel you can more or less run deals on your own). Come back to the U.S. before you are too senior (unless you want to stay overseas very long-term).

Keep in mind that interviewing is hard from overseas, if you are looking to move back to a new firm in the U.S. Given the choice between scheduling interviews with you and an equally qualified candidate living in the same city, a firm will choose the local resident.

Despite the drawbacks to working in an overseas office, there are of course huge benefits: the experience working with smaller teams, learning a new legal system, developing your language skills, learning about a new culture, allowing yourself the personal challenge. Just know what you are signing up for before you commit! Talk with other associates from your firm who have worked abroad. Have a conversation with the partners about the implications (positive and negative) of you moving overseas and their short- and long-term expectations for you. It’s a huge commitment for a firm to move you overseas, so it’s in their best interest as well to be sure that everyone is on the same page.

What should I be doing now to best position myself for going overseas?

There are several things you should start doing early on if your goal is to make it overseas as a U.S. lawyer.

First, get the right experience. It is extremely hard to rebrand yourself and switch practice areas once you have started your legal career. But if you are going to try to make a switch, it is usually much easier to move practice areas within your own firm than to find someone willing to hire you as a lateral associate into a new practice area. Remember, the lateral market is not the same as the market for summer or first year associates. Being smart, interesting and personable is no longer good enough. You will only be hired if you have the right skills and experience.

Keep the timing in mind. You should give yourself a solid year or preferably two of training in the U.S. before you go overseas, but you also do not want to head overseas too late in your career. If you need a visa to work overseas, factor in that this process could add a few months to the timeline.

Tell your firm early on about your interest in potentially going overseas. Put yourself on the appropriate partner’s radar.

Brush up on your language skills if they will be relevant. Be prepared for interviews in the local language of the new office.

Finally, remember that recruiters can be a great source of information on firms, the latest regional trends and requirements for working overseas. Any good recruiter will be happy to share their knowledge even if you are not looking to move firms imminently. But be sure to do your research. Work with a recruiter who knows the particular market you are interested in, or who works in conjunction with a colleague or team of colleagues who know that particular market.

Previously from Lateral Link:

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