Travel sick

March 27, 2015

What happens when foreign placements go wrong

Travel doesn’t always go smoothly. Photo: Shutterstock

Taking your career abroad has never been more attractive for UK lawyers. According to TheCityUK’s Legal Services 2015 report, the largest UK law firms now have between 45 and 65 percent of their lawyers based outside of the UK – compared to US firms which typically have fewer than a quarter of their lawyers based overseas.

PWC’s 2014 Annual Law Firms’ survey also states that international expansion remains a strategic priority for all top 50 firms, with Asia, the Middle East and Africa the preferred locations. It’s great news for those whose aspirations match those of their expansionist firms.

But are global roles really everything they’re made out to be? What if, instead of ending up on your own form of The Grand Tour, you actually find yourself and your career up the proverbial creek?

Take, for instance, news earlier this year that Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson is to close its Hong Kong and Shanghai offices and pull out of Asia by end of June 2015. This was followed up more recently by news that Lathams would be closing its offices in Abu Dhabi and Doha – following what appears to be over-rapid expansion in the Middle East.

These firms are not alone in recent times in rapidly reversing what you might call experimental growth strategies. Throw in some cash, mix in a few willing partners/associates and run away fast when the whole thing blows up on you. (Or, in more diplomatic spin, you realise you lack confidence ‘in the long-term prospects for international legal business in Asia’, as Fried Frank chairman David Greenwald put it).

For the Asian team at Fried Frank, it’s pretty depressing. The firm has been in talks to relocate the four partners and around 10 lawyers to other offices, but most are likely to leave the firm, according to reports.

For Lathams, Middle East staff are to be relocated to the Dubai office. But even that is hardly great news for expats. You’ve already uprooted your life once, now you’ve got to do it again, but this time with seriously shaken confidence in your firm’s regional strategy.

So, with this in mind, what risks should you be considering before you flee old Blighty?

  1. If your own firm can’t offer you a placement overseas, then there are plenty of job posts advertising roles in emerging/growth markets. But be wary and do your research. If a firm (or your own) is opening several offices all at once in a new region, then they better have a very sound rationale/investment plan. Otherwise, expect a suck-it-and-see approach that may well not pan out for the firm or for your shiny new job.
  2. Think long term. Corporate, banking and finance associates of three or more years’ PQE may well have their pick of overseas jobs. But this may also be the time when you want your partnership potential to shine. Finding yourself in one of your firm’s outposts may not be ideal – even if it is super sunny.
  3. Ensure you get full clarity on the role you will be expected to perform. A new venture in a smaller office overseas will be a wholly different proposition to working in the firm’s established headquarters, both in terms of internal responsibilities, working processes, and exposure to clients.
  4. Consider the cultural implications of a shift overseas. Okay, we all know that kissing in public in Dubai is a massive no-no. But in a liberal UK, in which no fewer than 10 law firms feature on Stonewall’s Equality Index of the 100 most gay-friendly workplaces, it might be easier to forget that being gay is illegal in 78 countries and punishable by death in five. No one should have to hide their sexuality, but you may have to if you want to work in some of today’s growth markets.
  5. In relation to the above, be sure to check the support your firm can give you, beyond simple finances. Okay, your firm can’t flout the law of any given country, but it should be willing to support you through cultural shifts, including helping with language barriers and local laws/customs. If you are relocating with a family, carefully consider too how your firm will help to ensure their smooth settling in. Because if they’re not happy, you won’t last.

There are many personal and CV-boosting reasons for UK lawyers to embrace one of a growing number of overseas opportunities. But for those who look before they leap, the rewards will no doubt prove considerably longer lasting. CP

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