Advice for Lawyers on Working Abroad

I recently received a message from an American lawyer interested in working abroad. In this post I share part of my reply, together with some additional comments. While this post is China-focused, most of what I say applies to other countries. It’s also important to note that much of what follows is moot at this moment, as far as China (and some other countries) go, with COVID restrictions very much still in place. But hopefully there’ll soon be better days.

As far as degrees or license, that will depend on what specifically you want to do overseas. However, in my experience, most of the opportunities available for U.S. lawyers abroad don’t require anything special. But of course, there are credentials that could help in a particular jurisdiction. 

For lawyers or aspiring lawyers who have a view to working abroad, there are of course certain things you can do to increase employability. Languages are an obvious place to start. Let’s say you want to work in the legal field in China. At a minimum, learning Chinese won’t hurt. And while it’s unlikely that anyone will hire a laowai to draft contracts in Chinese, there may be opportunities that are only available for someone with at least some level of Chinese. For instance, there may be a small firm in, say, Wuxi that could use a native English-speaking lawyer to help with foreign clients, but that would need that person to communicate with staff who only speak Chinese and/or be able to generally understand Chinese documents without needing a translator. By the same token, going from basic to intermediate to boss level will open further doors. And professional considerations aside, speaking the language will help increase your quality of life in all sorts of ways.

On that note, language studies can also be a good way of easing into life overseas. While there are probably admission restrictions in place at this moment, there are many institutions in China (and elsewhere) that offer very affordable language programs. In many cases participants can reside in dorms or other accommodation offered by the institution. They can also sponsor students for visas, which can be a problem if you’re looking to be somewhere like China for a longer period of time without a job.

An academic deep dive into a country’s legal system can also be helpful for those with interest in working abroad. Even after working in China for half a decade, I still benefitted greatly from my LLM program in Chinese Business Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Today, my understanding of the Chinese legal system is indelibly shaped by the education I received there. Many potential employers will appreciate the fact that you are somewhat versed in their legal system. Even an introductory law school class can provide an edge; if none is available, check if your school allows students to self-design a course.

Just as importantly, don’t dismiss the value of bread-and-butter legal experience in your home country. As an American lawyer working abroad, chances are you’ll be largely using some lawyering skills that can be honed at just about any U.S. firm, such as statutory research, contract review, and client relationship management. UK and other Commonwealth lawyers are even better placed in this regard, since they could potentially end up working in a jurisdiction whose legal system closely resembles their home country’s.

Everyone’s situation is different, but having a strong interest in a particular country or region is very helpful. This will give you that added motivation to accept professional opportunities that are not ideal, but which may provide a useful platform. For instance, many Americans in China start off by teaching English. That then gives them a chance to learn the lay of the land, improve their language skills and network. 

Those who seek opportunities working abroad should be clear about what it is they really want to get out of their experience. This will help when it comes time to make certain important decisions that may entail significant tradeoffs.

In an ideal world, you’ll get to work for a firm or company you like, with bosses and colleagues you like, in an office space you like, and in a city you like. But that’s not easy in your own country, much less overseas. Keep in mind that, as a foreigner, you’re pretty much always at a disadvantage when it comes to the job market. In my experience, this is true in every country, to varying degrees. It’s certainly true in China.

If you’re interested in exploring opportunities working abroad, be ready to eat bitterness, as the Chinese say, at least for a while. Teaching English in a provincial Chinese city is probably not an appealing prospect for most law school graduates, but it may be the gateway to exploring opportunities in the country (though you don’t want to stray too far from the international cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where most of the jobs are). And if you’re doing this legitimately, your employer will likely take care of your visa and may even help with housing. Meanwhile you’ll have income and a platform from which to network. This all said, be very careful about offers you accept to teach.

Similarly, if staying in a certain place is your bottom line, then make your peace with that reality and act accordingly. A particular job may not be that inspiring, but it may be OK in the grander scheme of things. I once met a Canadian lawyer who worked for an immigration consultancy in Guangzhou. Back in Canada, he had been a corporate lawyer at one of the Seven Sisters, and he did not find immigration law interesting. At all. But overall he was happy in South China, and it was in the immigration field that his credentials as a Canadian lawyer had the most value in that setting.

At the same time, you should be realistic about what each place has to offer. While I’ve always loved Hong Kong, living in South China I knew more than one foreigner who wasn’t particularly keen on the city, but over time ended up relocating there. The bottom line is that, from a professional standpoint, Hong Kong has and will probably continue to offer more opportunities than the Mainland for foreigners (even if the pie is getting smaller). Places like Hong Kong and Singapore may lack a certain energy present in nearby countries, but may ultimately offer a more sustainable lifestyle. Don’t lose sight of the fact that one day you might have or want to go back to your home country, in which case having worked in an advanced economy could make a big difference, in terms of savings, skills portability, etc.

Again, as long as the pandemic rages (and perhaps even for longer than that), much of the above will not be actionable, at least not as far as China goes. But there are a lot of other places around the world where lawyers from the United States and elsewhere can find opportunities.

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