By Marci Alboher, L Magazine, February 2001
Lisa Krochmal knows her way around an atlas. As an undergrad majoring in Spanish, she spent a semester in Valencia, Spain. During law school, she used one of her summers to study in Israel and turned an internship at Coca-Cola into a global experience by researching such issues as the effect of U.S. laws on Coke’s businesses in far-flung places. As a fledgling lawyer, she tried a couple domestic jobs, but it wasn’t long before the wanderlust set in again. So she set her sights on Buenos Aires as a potential new home. She called everyone she knew for names of contacts, sent letters to each of them, and embarked on a scouting trip with about 20 meetings arranged. By the end of that four-week visit, Krochmal had an offer from Morrison & Foerster’s Buenos Aires office, quite a coup for someone with no prior big firm experience.
Carl Liederman also spent his life preparing for an international career, but he took a slightly different route. In college he studied languages and history, traveling abroad at every opportunity. At Yale Law he served as editor of the International Law Journal, did research for a professor of International Law, and worked as a summer associate for Shearman & Sterling in Paris. After stints at Shearman & Sterling in London, Cleary Gottlieb in Paris, and finally Akin Gump in D.C. (where he was just made a partner), Liederman has spent more of his nine years as a lawyer practicing in Europe than in the U.S. In fact, as this article went to press, he had just completed a move from Akin Gump’s D.C. office (where he had worked for nearly two years) to the firm’s London office.
For people like Krochmal and Liederman, international work was a natural choice. And they are typical of a breed of lawyers who find corporate work more dynamic when it brings them into contact with varying cultures, legal traditions, and languages.
YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
“The way the world is going, it’s likely that you will end up doing something that has an international dimension to it,” predicts professor Daniel Bradlow, who directs the International Legal Studies program at American University’s Washington College of Law. His law school certainly agrees, since its curriculum offers some 50 courses, seminars, and clinics involving international issues. In the world of international business, a lawyer’s work touches on many areas–companies expanding operations to other countries, privatization of enterprises traditionally run by the government, cross-border transactions, and more.
When Krochmal finally arrived in Buenos Aires, her firm was just building its presence in Argentina, which meant months filled with client-development activities. A typical night involved cocktail parties at embassies and chambers of commerce, networking in the expatriate community, or attending any other events where she could meet potential clients. The experience appealed to her entrepreneurial side, and she quickly realized that one key benefit of working in such a small office was that she would have a lot of responsibility and client contact. In addition to her corporate finance background, she also gained exposure to a wide range of practice areas from tax to technology–all with the resources of a firm of nearly a thousand lawyers at her disposal.
Even in a more established overseas office, the work experience can be quite a contrast from lawyering back home. Liederman emphasizes the importance of recognizing the many dimensions at play in foreign transactions. For him, nothing is more thrilling than walking into a negotiation in Italy, Germany, or Sweden, observing how people relate to one another in that culture, and figuring out what is the best approach for serving his client. “When you’re dealing with someone just like you, it’s easy,” he comments, “but in a foreign culture with different ways of doing business, it forces you to think about how to best serve the client.” In his view, juggling differing elements like languages, cultures, and legal systems is like a chess game in which you “always have to think more strategically” than you would for a purely domestic project.
PACK YOUR BAGS
If you’re deciding whether working in the global marketplace is for you, the first thing to do is some self-reflection. When American lawyers who have practiced in other countries talk about what it takes to be successful, adjectives like “adaptable,” “flexible,” and “open-minded” come up a lot. One needs to have “a reasonably healthy level of cultural sensitivity and adaptability,” says John Madden, who ran Shearman & Sterling’s Paris office in the early ’90s.
According to Yingxi Fu-Tomlinson, who runs Kaye, Scholer’s Shanghai office, people who succeed in this type of work generally have two things: the right kind of professional skills (along with a significant amount of experience working on purely U.S. deals); and a basic knowledge of the social, economic, and legal system in which they’ll be operating. She also believes it’s an advantage for the lawyer to have some connection to–or at least a strong interest in–the region where she’ll be working. Andrew Case, an American who works in-house for Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, says that lawyers practicing overseas need to have a “bit of Robinson Crusoe in their blood” and be willing to endure stressful situations. But for him, seeing the world and getting to know varied cultures outweigh the personal challenges.
Global careers are obviously not for everyone. “When push goes to shove a lot of people don’t really want to go overseas,” says Shearman & Sterling’s Chris Barbuto. Which may mean good news if you’re inclined to pack your bags. Case agrees, saying, “most firms will take volunteers to go abroad at any stage of their career. These jobs are hard to fill.”
THE SKILL SET
For every lawyer who dreams of working overseas, there are others like Barbuto, who says that an overseas opportunity just “fell into my lap” when he was asked during his third year at Shearman & Sterling to consider spending some time in its Paris office (“some time” turned into almost two years). And while the paths to an international career can vary widely, there are some things you can do to make yourself more attractive to the folks who hire for overseas positions.
Legal recruiter Helene Ashenberg offers this advice: Work on your language skills and polish them for business purposes; choose a firm with an international practice and express your interest early on in the interview process; try to get as much broad-based responsibility as you can at a U.S. firm; and, finally, if the expatriate experience is with a law firm, make sure you get back home for some face time in the home office if you’re hoping to make partner.
Years ago, the conventional wisdom was that U.S. lawyers should spend a few years getting trained in a U.S. law firm before going abroad to practice. But that is changing because certain non-U.S. offices of international firms as are well-staffed and sophisticated as the home office. Shearman’s Madden says that the level, quality, and complexity of the work being done in many of his firm’s non-U.S. offices is on a par with that done in New York, and if young lawyers are really interested, they can even start out at one those offices.
That said, many international practitioners recommend having a solid background in U.S. corporate law before making a move internationally. Gerry Hayes, who is managing partner of Baker & McKenzie’s New York office, recommends getting trained in the U.S. first, even if it’s only for a year or two, because “when you get overseas, people will think of you as a U.S. lawyer. So you should know something about U.S. law.” Kaye, Scholer’s Fu-Tomlinson says she gets a lot of resumes from young lawyers interested in China, and the key for her is that candidates have good experience in the United States before leaving to practice overseas. Fu-Tomlinson does not recommend that fresh graduates rush to an overseas office of a U.S. firm unless the office has more than 25 attorneys, because in her experience, training is much better in the United States.
During law school, if you know you’re interested in international business, Hayes says it’s wise to take as many tax and corporate classes as possible, rather than wasting valuable credits on subjects like evidence, which you need only for the Bar exam. When it comes time to interview, look at firms with a committed global presence, express your interest in international practice, and think about getting a summer associate position in a firm that allows you to spend at least part of your summer in one of its overseas offices. Also consider taking advantage of study abroad programs, which can give you exposure to another culture and its legal system (see sidebar below).
For many lawyers, however, working in the global arena involves living abroad for periods at a time, but ultimately returning home. For Krochmal, the appeal of expatriate life has yet to wear off. For Fu-Tomlinson, a Chinese national who came to the U.S. to study, it worked in reverse; her U.S. training prepared her to help guide a U.S. firm in its China market. And that really brought her home.
Study Abroad Now!
How can you tell if you’re an international type? Spend a summer or semester getting exposed to another country and its legal system–and earn credits while doing it. The ABA’s Legal Education section has approved more than 200 summer study programs.
For example, Southwestern University School of Law conducts a program in Buenos Aires which offers an immersion into Argentine culture and law through courses on the country’s legal system, plus visits to prisons, law offices, courts, and government ministries. Temple University offers a program in Israel in conjunction with the Tel Aviv University faculty of law which includes courses entitled Legal Aspects of the Peace Process and Comparative Religious Law. Typically these programs run for about four weeks, leaving plenty of time for you to work for money the rest of the summer. In Yale’s “Summer in South America” program, students work on human rights issues in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, and the law school pays their travel and living expenses.
For a more in-depth course of study, think about doing a semester overseas. American University’s law school offers programs in Paris and Hong Kong as well as a NAFTA Exchange Program in conjunction with law schools in Canada and Mexico (fluency in language isn’t necessary for Paris or Hong Kong, but is for the NAFTA programs). Once you’re overseas, you may even be able to secure an externship–something happening more frequently these days.
If you can’t find a structured program that interests you, check out the ABA’s guidelines for students who want to create their own courses of study and receive law school credits. Visit the ABA’s Web site at www.abanet.org/legaled/studyabroad.
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