Working Abroad in the Legal Profession

Working Abroad in the Legal Profession

Working Abroad in the Legal Profession

Even before the recent economic downturn caused many U.S. law firms to shift their attention to overseas markets, American-trained lawyers had several avenues for international opportunities. Major law firms have operated for years in China, Japan, and Western Europe, but the expansion of the European Union and the new globalization of conventional law practice have opened doors for expatriate lawyers in other areas of the world as well.

In the huge oil-rich country of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, a University of Houston Law Center graduate practices energy law with the American firm of Bracewell & Guiliani, L.L.P. In India, two University of Pennsylvania Law School grads co-founded Pangea3, one of a multitude of legal outsourcing firms that appear to have sprouted overnight (and whose continued success is now shadowed by the massive fraud at India’s Satyam Computer Services). In Munich, where a branch of the European Patent Office is located, a Fort Lee, N.J. native runs her own international patent law firm. And in Australia, a lawyer from California recreated his legal career from scratch in a small town outside Brisbane.

These expatriate lawyers offer different reasons for making the move – capital and career opportunities, a post-9/11 yearning for connection in a changed world, simple wanderlust.

For Nick Bonarrigo, working abroad was the serendipitous result of a series of international work assignments that landed on his desk. In 2007, Bonarrigo was a young lawyer in the Pittsburgh office of Reed Smith L.L.P., barely four years out of Washington & Lee University School of Law. In his first few years of law practice, he worked on assignments for a client with active global interests, providing him with experience in international law. That experience led to an opportunity to transfer to Reed Smith’s then newly opened office in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. Within several months of agreeing to the transfer, Bonarrigo, a self-described “Italian kid from Queens” who had never before traveled outside the United States, found himself living in the Arabian Peninsula, meeting regularly with Arab lawyers and businessmen.

Why did he choose to go to Dubai? Bonarrigo’s short answer is, “Have you seen this place?” His longer answer is that he was intrigued not only by the opportunity to live and do business in a Muslim country, but also by everything that Dubai has to offer: nice weather, terrific expansion, tourist attractions, and a central location for other travel, as well as a rich community of expatriates. He also says that his experience working abroad will immeasurably help his career advancement, if and whenever he decides to return to the United States.

While the expatriate experience can be rewarding, the transition is not easy and often requires years of specialized experience or preparation. The most direct route to living and working abroad is the one taken by lawyers like Bonarrigo: a transfer to a U.S. law firm’s international office. A year or two ago, most major U.S. firms were rapidly expanding their overseas practices, making these kinds of opportunities more available than ever. In the current economic downturn, overseas opportunities still exist, but a big-firm lawyer looking to become an expatriate must be more strategic and flexible.

But what if you don’t work for a major U.S. law firm or have years of international law experience? Shelley Wieck was a 39-year-old family lawyer in South Dakota when she decided to make the move abroad. At the top of her game and owner of her own small firm, she treated herself to adventure travels through Nepal, Patagonia, Chile, and Peru. She believed she had “finally achieved the epitome of success to be able to spend holidays traveling to exotic places around the world.” But she felt a pull to do something more. “I began to realize that it wasn’t enough to simply tour through a country with my backpack and Sherpas carrying my bag, but that I really wanted to live in these countries, learn their languages, and try truly to understand their peoples’ lives and the challenges they face,” she says. In December 1999, while in Peru watching the sun rise on the new millennium over Machu Picchu, she made the decision to change her life.

The decision was made in an instant; however, the process of changing her life took three years to implement and is still continuing. Wieck sold her house, phased out her law practice, struggled to explain her decision to her worried parents and, in 2003, joined the Peace Corps as a mid-career volunteer. After one year with the Peace Corps in the small Southeast Asian nation of East Timor and another two years there in a paid position with Avocats Sans Frontieres (Lawyers without Borders), Wieck became the country director for the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) in the Eastern European nation of Ukraine, where she has lived and worked for the past three years.

In her ROLI position, she works in the areas of anti-corruption, counter-human trafficking, criminal law reform, law enforcement reform, legal education reform, bar association development, clinical legal education, and institution building involving advocacy non-governmental organizations – a far cry from South Dakota family law. While her career in international legal development is a work in progress, she says she doesn’t miss practicing family law or living in the United States (except for her family and small luxuries such as drugstore pantyhose). “I entered this new career path with incredible idealism, hope and optimism,” she explains. “I was open to wherever this new path would lead and for the first time in my life did not have a five-to-10-year plan that I was trying to implement. The challenges and struggles encountered along the way are all part of the wonderful adventure that I have been on.”

Such “wonderful adventures” are often accompanied by a steep learning curve, as much in acclimating to a new culture as in adjusting to the new job. A growing number of web sites, including Expat Women, Expat Exchange, and Transitions Abroad, are specifically designed to help ease the transition for expatriates.

At least one lawyer, Janet H. Moore, has even used the globalization of law to create her own niche as an international lawyer coach. After practicing international business law for 15 years, Moore hired a lawyer coach and found the experience “transformational.” So she got training and became a coach herself. Now she coaches, consults, and trains on global law practice. Some of her clients seek her help in customizing and implementing a global rainmaking strategy at their firms. Other clients include in-house and government lawyers who want help with career issues such as moving up the career ladder, transitioning within or outside the law, or breaking into an international practice. Many of their challenges, she says, are the same as those faced by U.S. domestic lawyers: how to develop more clients (especially with the global recession) and how to be effective leaders, managers, and communicators.

But U.S. expatriate lawyers face other challenges as well, mostly having to do with cultural differences. They may grapple with different legal regimes and with different cultural expectations from clients and co-counsel about productivity and work product. “For example,” says Moore, “American lawyers usually communicate directly and prefer fast-paced negotiations; they may feel frustrated by people who communicate indirectly and negotiate slowly.” She says that in some countries and contexts women still face resistance to or even limitations on their participation. And of course, it’s also hard for lawyers to work across time zones, living in one zone while working with people in another zone back in the United States, which can also wreak havoc on family life.

Sanjay Kamlani agrees that different cultural expectations in the U.S. and India have been one of his biggest challenges as co-founder of Pangea3, the India-based legal outsourcing firm. Kamlani was born and raised in Miami and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1994. His grandfather, Shewakram Kamlani, was an Indian lawyer and business entrepreneur, originally in Sind and then in Mumbai in the 1940s and 50s. His father is a successful Miami entrepreneur. After law school, Kamlani wasted no time flexing his start-up muscles, first by creating his own U.S.-India practice group within PricewaterhouseCoopers, then co-founding his own firm, Office Tiger, which outsourced word processing services for U.S. law firms and investment banks to India. That experience was a natural segue into the growing legal services outsourcing industry, and in 2004 Kamlani, along with fellow Penn law grad David Perla, founded Pangea3. He now lives full-time in India. Even though Kamlani often traveled to India during his childhood for extended family visits, he says he still finds it difficult to bridge Western and Indian culture. For example, he notes, the different priorities that Indian and Western professionals place on family, religion, culture, and career can be difficult to navigate in an industry focused on cost-effectiveness and to-the-minute responsiveness.

Hurry-up capitalism was the last thing on David Huntsman’s mind when he decided to move to Australia. Huntsman, a native Californian and graduate of Southwestern Law School, decided with his wife that they wanted to raise their newborn son away from the sprawl and busy pace of Los Angeles. They were jittery after 9/11 and seeking a new place to shake off the complacency that they felt had characterized their lives. Huntsman had spent seven years working as an employee benefits lawyer, a practice area that he knew would not likely transfer beyond U.S. borders. So he quit his job, and his wife, a psychologist, quit hers. The family moved to a tiny town outside of Brisbane, Australia. He soon learned that in order to work in the legal profession in Australia, he would have to start from scratch, effectively becoming a law student again, taking exams, and working in a firm as a law clerk for a year before becoming eligible to take the barrister’s exam.

Despite those difficulties, Huntsman says he doesn’t regret the move. He now works at a major firm and plans to build his own legal and consulting business to help expatriates navigate their complicated tax and visa issues. His wife is working at a local university. And Hunstman says they have found their small Australian town to be a “fantastic” place to raise their son, a kind of Maycomb Down Under. (Maycomb, Ala., is the fictional setting of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Huntsman was drawn to Australia because he had often vacationed there. That’s consistent with the reasons given by many expatriate lawyers for their move abroad: they became interested in a particular country or region based on family connections, vacations, or undergraduate study-abroad experiences.

Thomas Canty, who graduated from Boston University School of Law, practices intellectual property law in the Frankfurt, Germany, office of the U.S. firm of Darby & Darby. According to Canty, his interest in living abroad was sparked by a college semester he spent studying in Vienna, along with four years he worked in Munich following graduation. He says that his goal upon graduating from law school was to find an IP law firm with a presence in Europe so he could have the option of returning there someday. He found that option at Darby & Darby. After several years in New York, he has been practicing in the firm’s Frankfurt office for the past 10 years. His biggest challenge? Adapting to the different cultures and ways of doing business, which is also the most interesting part about it, says Canty.

Like Canty, Sandra Pohlman, formerly of Fort Lee, N.J., practices international patent law in Germany, and she also became interested in living abroad after spending a college semester in Europe. Pohlman had a long held interest in Germany: She minored in German in college and was fluent in the language. She married a German. But even with her compass pointed always in that direction, she says it still took her several years and focused efforts to establish a practice in Germany.

After graduating from The George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C., she set about becoming an expert on U.S. patent law, a skill she knew would be valuable to European clients. She worked as a patent lawyer for a firm in D.C. in the field of biotech and pharmaceutical patents, regularly making outreach to German companies asking if they were interested in hiring a U.S. patent attorney. She finally got a positive response from the pharmaceutical company Schering AG in Berlin, then moved to a patent firm in Munich, where she now runs her own patent law firm.

As Pohlman points out, it is not easy to transfer legal skills, and there are many obstacles in local laws and admission requirements. But her perseverance and creativity have paid off and she is now exactly where she wants to be: serving her own clients as head of a hard-won practice, raising her children in a world-class city with excellent public schools, and experiencing a work/life balance that she does not believe is achievable in the United States.

Becoming an expatriate lawyer takes a lot of work. But then again, so does a practice here in the Untied States. It doesn’t take much to be inspired to live and work abroad, just a globetrotting soul and the exhortation of that old quote by Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Amy Montemarano is the assistant dean of career and professional development at Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law in Philadelphia.  She joined the school in its inaugural year after teaching legal research and writing, serving as a career federal judicial law clerk and practicing law in Philadelphia.  A regular runner and traveler, she developed an interest in the studies of lawyers working abroad by finding expatriates to run with when she visited new cities.

A growing number of web sites, including Expat Women are specifically designed to help ease the transition for expatriates.

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  1. KrisBelucci June 1, 2009 at 7:48 pm

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