Associates Opting for Assignments Abroad

By Marci Alboher, The New York law Journal, December 22, 2000

U.S. LAWYERS ARE more commonly finding themselves practicing law in a country other than the United States these days ó a trend fueled by the globalization of business and the booming world financial markets, as well as a demand for the pragmatic approach offered by U.S.-trained lawyers.

And while paths to an international career vary widely, many U.S. lawyers who have spent time overseas view it as a valuable career move, despite challenges that may exist along the way.

The American Lawyer magazine, which dedicated its November issue to the theme of globalization, reported that “at least 20 American legal firms now have more than 10 percent of their lawyers stationed in overseas offices.”

New York-based recruiter Helene Ashenberg has seen this trend firsthand: Lately, she said, one out of every three searches she has been retained for seeks the placement of an American lawyer overseas. That compares with about one search every three months in 1996 or 1997.

She said that her clients, mostly multinational corporations, tell her they are “not just looking for a good brain,” but also for someone who knows how to give advice: a trait for which American lawyers are known.

U.S. lawyers are also valued for their training in a common law system that “encourages them to think outside the box,” according to Carl Liederman, a partner with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLPin Washington, D.C., who has spent more time practicing abroad than in the United States.

In Europe, the increasing privatizations and the opening of capital markets mean that companies are raising capital in ways that require familiarity with U.S. law. John Madden, who managed Shearman & Sterling’s European offices in the early 90s said that this means a great deal of work for U.S. lawyers. It also explains why Shearman’s European offices swelled from under 60 lawyers in 1991 to almost 250 today.

Morrison & Foerster LLP has seen a similar expansion. Zane Gresham, MoFo’s partner in charge of the firm’s Latin America practice, notes that the 47 U.S. lawyers it has working in its offices in Asia, Latin America, and Europe represents an increase of more than 100 percent since the end of 1998.

This surge in overseas expansion means more opportunities, both in-house and at law firms, for American lawyers with a travel itch or cultural curiosity. For Lisa Krochmal, a mid-level associate with Morrison & Foerster in Buenos Aires, practicing in a less developed market has meant a chance to work in an entrepreneurial manner with a high level of responsibility. She likens the experience to working in a small firm, but with the resources of a firm with almost 1,000 lawyers.

And working in a satellite office has also given her plenty of exposure to the firm’s management, much more than she would have received as one of many in a typical class in one of MoFo’s domestic offices. While she said it is a little early to tell what it will mean for her career in the long run, she thinks the experience has made her a better lawyer. “It’s so easy to miss international issues and assume that U.S. law applies everywhere. It just doesn’t.”

The biggest advantage of going overseas, according to Ms. Ashenberg the recruiter, is the ability to jump into more responsibility, because smaller legal departments generally allow expatriates to immediately assume a leadership role. As an example, she cites lawyers who have gone from being one of five deputy general counsels in a large legal department to serving as a general counsel in a foreign office.

Developing Expertise

Developing an expertise in international deals is also a way to stand out and enhance your marketability, said Akin Gump’s Mr. Liederman. After all, there are thousands of competent transactional attorneys but just a handful of those with international experience. Mr. Liederman saw this himself when he completed a four-year stint in Paris and returned to New York after a two week vacation to find more than two dozen voicemail messages from recruiters looking for a lawyer with international experience and a foreign language.

Ms. Ashenberg added that more and more of her clients are looking for someone who has experience overseas and a familiarity with another culture.

Along with increased responsibility and honing new skills, there is also the appeal of being paid ó often at a premium ó to travel and experience working life in a foreign culture.

Some lawyers are even willing to shoulder a bit of career strife for the experience. For example, while a country is prospering, lawyers with an expertise in that region are in high demand. But work in an economically volatile region, such as Russia in the early 90s, can dry up quickly, forcing lawyers there to look for new jobs.

Ms. Krochmal, however, said that developing overseas experience is always a plus, and that it is “definitely transferable” from one region to another.

Going Home

Getting back to the U.S. and moving up in a firm or company’s hierarchy are also challenges. According to Andrew Case, a lawyer with Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, the real danger for young lawyers overseas is that they are “off the track.” This supports the conventional wisdom that it is difficult to make partner without spending significant time in the home office in the years leading to partnership. But that is changing.

Yingxi Fu-Tomlinson, who runs Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler LLP’s Shanghai office, agrees that attention from the firm’s top management is critical to success at a foreign office, and stresses that if an overseas office is not important to the firm, then its lawyers will not be noticed.

Nevertheless, she made partner after working in Kaye Scholer’s Hong Kong office and opening their Shanghai office, and without ever working in one of the firm’s domestic offices.

Those who have worked overseas are quick to say that the experience is not just about the work. Mr. Liederman of Akin Gump has seen some attorneys go abroad solely because they thought it would make them more marketable, but in his view those moves never work out. Success in an overseas assignment requires a good measure of what he calls “cultural empathy and receptivity.” And those Americans he met who began each sentence with ‘in the U.S.’ were not cut out for the experience.

A move abroad can mean being completely uprooted from the U.S., and as Ms. Fu-Tomlinson said, it helps for lawyers to have a connection or at least a strong interest in the country where they are working, since “the work itself isn’t enough to make a person happy.”

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