Many lawyers want a ‘global career’. Will it ever happen?

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Working overseas features high on the wish-list of many a UK lawyer. But  can law firms ever really deliver a truly global career?

Some are trying. ‘Firms are increasingly looking internationally for growth, so lawyers with aspirations to work abroad are in the profession at a good time,’ says Rachel Brushfield, a career strategist and coach, and director of EnergiseLegal.

To back this up, she cites Winmark’s Looking Glass Report, 2012. ‘In the next two years, 60 per cent of managing partners predict the marketplace will change through more firms developing international capability’, she says.

The opportunities such expansion offers are obvious. In recent years, the Asian market, particularly Singapore and China, has proved buoyant. Australia too has benefited as a perceived gateway to growth across the region.

With new offices come new staffing needs. Many UK lawyers have been flown out to help resource or even head up these new operational bases.

Nor is it just experienced lawyers who benefit from such growth. Trainee secondments in Brussels, Paris, Milan, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong are now not uncommon.

And the list is growing, with leading firms including Hogan Lovells and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer recently announcing new trainee posts in locations such as New York, Moscow and China.

Small world, small chance

So far, so well-travelled. There remain challenges, however.

Language barriers and the transferability of legal training and qualifications are just a couple of the obstacles wannabe legal globetrotters might face.

And global growth comes with global competition. ‘There is a dearth of UK talent, as well as hungry-to-develop, well-qualified and probably cheaper-to-recruit legal talent from the BRIC countries,’ says Brushfield. ‘So anyone with aspirations to work for the best firms needs to be outstanding.’

Consolidation among the top firms will also only increase such competition too, she adds, as an increasingly global focus widens the talent pool for a smaller number of top jobs.

In the long run, local lawyers may always take precedence too. An executive manager at a leading international law firm explains the process. ‘International growth for a UK firm might typically follow a route of expansion to a jurisdiction where it can practice English law, such as Hong Kong, or an area of law, such as competition law in Brussels,’ he says.

Such expansion would be followed by ‘a rolling programme of two-to-three year secondments to these ‘outposts’ to help integrate a new office into the firm and its culture’. But in the meantime, local partners could well be hired.

Planning is key

How many posts this would leave for UK lawyers following a new office’s integration is less certain. And with sophisticated technology supporting virtual meetings across international offices, there might be little need for long-term or permanent relocation.

With the ongoing recession in the Eurozone, many firms are expanding into more far-flung destinations. But real long-term opportunities for UK lawyers to relocate to such distant locations may remain relatively limited, given cultural and jurisdictional constraints.

For those who wish to travel, the right career planning will be key. ‘Individuals can maximise their chances by investing in their language capability, diversity and cultural training, and in an international MBA,’ suggests Brushfield.

Graduates can also benefit from the growing rivalry among leading firms to attract trainee talent by offering the best and most exciting overseas placements. Get in early with such a firm and the world may just have a chance of becoming that much-coveted oyster. CP

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