A Reality Check and a Word of Encouragement to the Aspiring International Lawyer

It has been eight years since my graduation from law school and business school. I started law school in the Fall of 2008 before the world fell apart . . . the last time. The reverberations of the financial crisis that started roiling the world in 2008 continued into 2012 when I graduated and started job hunting.  Now that we are in a completely different crisis – but one with such similar economic effects on the global economy – my heart goes out to law students and aspiring international lawyers who are stressed and feel stuck. I empathize with you to the nth degree, and I want to help.

Encouragement to the Aspiring International Lawyer

In the past couple of months I have spoken with recent law graduates and prospective law students who want to work in the international arena. They are talented and ambitious, and I have no doubt that they will succeed in finding their path as an international lawyer. In case you are one of them or know someone in their shoes, I offer the following thoughts as an international transactions lawyer.

Very few international lawyers become international lawyers in their first job after law school.

As a general rule, most law firms are not going to have a fast track to helping you become an international lawyer unless you had an established internationally-focused career prior to going to law school or unless you have otherwise engaged in the world (like spent a number of years growing up in a foreign country and you speak that language as well as the natives do). All law firms that are willing to hire new graduates want someone who is smart, adaptable, resilient, and knows how to work hard. If you fit that mold, then you did (or will do) well in law school. Those are the same skills you need to succeed as a lawyer at any firm. Your goal should be to find a good law firm, ideally one that already has an international practice, and learn how to be a good lawyer, after which you can learn to become a good international lawyer.

There are really only two types of law firms that have international law practices.

The first is the mega international law firms, and you will need to be in the top of your law school class or be very well connected to even get an interview with a mega law firm in this depressed economic environment. The second are boutique international law firms. Most small and medium-sized law firms (including boutique international firms) will not have the bandwidth to hire a large cadre of recent law graduates because it is difficult for them to get their money’s worth out of a new law school graduate.

When I graduated law school and passed the bar exam, I assumed I was worth a lot because I was now a lawyer. I was wrong. In reality, new business lawyers are not worth much in their first couple years of practice because they first need to read and redline about a hundred contracts before they reach the point where they can relatively quickly draft a really good contract. It takes literally thousands of hours of work experience to molding  a smart person into a great lawyer. And while you are learning how to be a good lawyer, you need to keep your eye on how you will become an international lawyer. You can make a lateral move into the firm of your dreams, but you should know what firms and lawyers practice the type of international law you wish to do, and you should start getting to know those lawyers’ work so that you can then approach them as potential mentors. Most “regular” firms will not have the expertise or the interest to have any kind of international practice. You can create your own international practice from within that sort of firm, but doing so will likely be considerably more difficult because you will likely not get a lot of support internally unless you already have a proven track record of international work.

You need to decide now whether you want to be a lawyer with broad credentials or specialized credentials.

Let me explain. You can be a general transactional international lawyer like me. I deal with all kinds of transactions, from FDI (foreign direct investment), to M&A (mergers and acquisitions), to financing (bank and investment capital). Or you can be, among other things, an international litigator, an international tax lawyer, an international trade lawyer, an immigration lawyer, an international IP lawyer, or an international employment lawyer.

If you already know what you want to do, great. For instance, if you know you want to be an international tax lawyer, then it will be helpful for you to get or have an undergraduate degree or minor in accounting, and even better if you work at a CPA firm or become a CPA prior to becoming a tax lawyer. Those credentials and experience will help you rise to your peak at maximum speed. If you do not know what you want to do within the international realm, then learn as much as you can until you start to figure out what you want to do because you will be good at it and enjoy it. I  know too many lawyers who are really good at what they do but don’t enjoy being a lawyer, and now they feel stuck because they do not have an easy way to transition to another practice area they would enjoy more.

You have to become a good domestic lawyer first.

If you have a hard time learning how to be a good litigation/tax/transactional/employment lawyer, then you are going to find it nearly impossible to be a good litigation/tax/transactional/employment lawyer on an international scale. Fundamentally, your work will not change. You will still be trying to decipher difficult questions for clients, and often there will be no perfect answer, just a range of potential answers with varying degrees of risk. When you add international laws, regulations, languages, customs, and enforcement on top of the regular knotty client questions, you add several additional layers of analysis. Some of us consider this fun – like a giant puzzle – but others get frustrated and wish things could just be simple for once. Most likely, you will vacillate between these two extremes, depending on the day or hour or minute.

Law school is hard. Being a lawyer is much better.

It’s no secret that I hated law school. I absolutely hated it. I won’t go into the gory details here, but there were some good parts, few and far between. This was not really anyone’s fault but my own. My over-healthy ego meant that I expected to excel in law school from the gate, but it took me about a year to figure out what was going on. It took me a long while to get comfortable with the pressure, the competition, the workload, and the recalibration of my brain (all with the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis weighing on my future).

I felt like I had gone from a reasonably smart undergraduate to the dumbest person in every one of my law school classes. My classmates knew more about history, politics, government, finance, and every other subject (except China and Chinese) than I did. But I was tenacious. I was not going to quit or let it beat me, even though I wanted to quit.

But guess what – being a lawyer is significantly better than being a law student. Why? For starters, you get paid to do what you were previously paying to do. You get to learn every day of your life. You get to solve puzzles. You get to be an oracle to help your clients see into the future. It is fun. It is rewarding. No matter the area of law you get into, you get to help your clients. And if you’re an international lawyer, you get to meet and work with people from all over the world and learn about their cultures, their legal systems, and their individual and national quirks. If you love learning – even if you hate law school – you’re going to love being an international lawyer.

Make yourself uniquely valuable.

In law school and at my first law firm, I studied everyone else. What were their top skills? What did they do extremely well? What did I do well? And most importantly, what skills and experiences do I need to learn to myself uniquely valuable? This takes some introspection, and you may not be able to figure all of this out on your own. That’s fine. But pay attention and keep in mind that you need to make yourself irreplaceable. For me, that meant adding an MBA degree to my law degree so that I could think and speak like the businesspeople I would be advising. (And candidly, my MBA was also my parachute in case I wasn’t going to enjoy being a lawyer.)

In retrospect, it is clear to me that no one can replicate “you,” but you still want to make sure that your skills and experiences make you stand out in some way. Recognize and build on your strengths. Do you like foreign languages? Then learn one that is difficult and is or will be important to international business in the future. Do you like people? (Not everyone does.) Build your domestic and international network incessantly so that you can draw on those people when you need them (and encourage them to lean on you when they need to). Do you like writing? Then read works from good writers constantly and hone your writing craft until you can create beautiful sentences on the first (or fifth) try.

Be willing to adapt.

Maybe you thought you were going to be a law clerk or litigator, but you end up hating the pressure and deadlines and confrontation of litigation. Maybe you wanted to be a business lawyer but ended up liking your clerkship better because you prefer to sit alone in your office rather than deal with people. Maybe you thought you wanted to work with clients but end up liking law firm marketing or management better. Maybe you decide that law firm life isn’t for you and that you would rather work as in-house counsel because you enjoy building a brand and being on a board of directors and developing international strategy for your company. Maybe you decide that you’d rather stay in your home country than travel around the world because you realize international travel is only glamorous for those who love the excitement and anxiety of feeling lost and culture-shocked. If you become an international lawyer, you’ll start to pine for some semblance of normalcy in your life, even if you love all things international. And you’ll need to be flexible even if you don’t become an international lawyer.

Lawyers (and others) at the top of their game are often willing to mentor talented, ambitious people.

I have benefited in so many ways from more mentors than I can count. Professors, students, family, friends, colleagues, and many others have answered my naïve, simplistic, selfish, and (sometimes) informed questions. The more people I meet who are at the top or on a trajectory to the top, the more I understand that those ranks are filled with good, normal people. They are smart, ambitious, resourceful, and dedicated people, but don’t believe for a minute that they are any smarter or more ambitious, resourceful, or dedicated than you are.

When you “arrive” at the top of your career, I encourage you to be one of those who remembers what it was like to have fallen on your face and lost all confidence in yourself. Keep your eyes open for those who are struggling and be the mentor they need. You will not regret the time you spend helping someone else.

I have been fortunate to have had many great mentors over the years, and I continue to lean on experienced professionals in my practice today to help me become a better international lawyer.

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