As an American Attorney, How Can I Find a Job Overseas?
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Legal Jobs >> Legal Articles >> What The Pros Say >> As an American Attorney, How Can I Find a Job Overseas?
  • What The Pros Say

As an American Attorney, How Can I Find a Job Overseas?


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Question
I am a fourth year lawyer who is considering working overseas or possibly in Australia. What are the kinds of challenges that North American lawyers need to consider when trying to find employment as a lawyer in these countries?

Answer

Congratulations on broadening your horizons. There are some things you need to consider before moving to Australia or any other country to practice law. First of all, you need to think about the following:

Area of Practice

As an American attorney, how can I find a job overseas?In recent times, the increasing amount of privatization and the ease of capital transfer globally have driven much of the demand for American lawyers overseas. Many foreign companies are obtaining capital in ways that require a great deal of familiarity with the American legal system. Accordingly, the areas of practice that have attracted foreign law firms' interest in American lawyers overseas are project finance, M&A, debt/equity, capital markets, and generalized securities and derivate work. Given the differences in law between the Australia and American system of jurisprudence, it is very difficult for non-transactional lawyers, i.e. litigators and regulatory attorneys, to have success with firms in Australia.

While finding employment at an Australian law firm would be incredibly difficult with an American legal education, there's no reason why you can't seek out work at American law firms with offices in the country. This is an excellent way to live abroad and still make your legal education work for you.

Note that overseas law firms or American law firms with offices overseas are seeking American attorneys with strong academic records, degrees from top American law schools, and solid transactional experience with a major recognized American law firm. In short, don't plan on moving abroad unless you have some serious résumé chops.
All lawyers who want to practice in Australia, domestic educated or American trained, are required to have academic knowledge in the following areas:
  • administrative law

  • civil procedure

  • company law

  • contracts

  • criminal law and procedure

  • equity

  • evidence

  • federal and state constitutional law

  • property

  • torts
However, depending on the State or Territory where you wish to practice, it is possible to get exemptions from the admitting authority for some areas of legal knowledge given your existing legal training while requiring that you attend some courses for other areas. Many Australian universities offer these courses specifically designed for American-trained lawyers wishing to work in the country. For a list of accredited institutions in New South Wales, for example, you can refer to the Second and Fourth Schedules of the Legal Profession Admission Rules 2005.

Qualification

While Australia and America share the same foundation in common law and democracy, qualification requirements differ greatly between the two countries. Similar to a Bar examination in the various states in the United States, most countries have certain qualification requirements for those practicing law. How one gains qualification to practice law in a given country varies substantially from one country to another. Australia's qualification requirements are unique. There is no bar examination in Australia. In Australia, a regulating authority approves undergraduate courses of study and graduates of those programs are entitled to undertake practical training and can then be admitted as lawyers. Hence, the first thing you must do is find out what the qualification requirements are to practice law in Australia and see if you meet those requirements.

Education

If you wish or are willing to obtain legal education in Australia, there is a very specific set of procedures you need to go through. Legal qualifications vary at State and Territory levels but there is a growing consensus nationally. A few things you need to know:
  • Law societies are for solicitors.

  • Bar associations are for barristers.
To become a lawyer in Australia, the Supreme Court of any given State or Territory has to admit you to practice. From there, you'll need a practicing certificate. To accomplish this you need the prerequisite education, experience, and reputation.

For those without a previous degree, they'll need a four-year degree. Those with a previous degree only need a three-year degree in law. The course schedule involves 11 areas of legal-specific information. An American education won't cover these same areas, so if you're serious about working in Australia as a lawyer, you should apply for an education at a school listed in Studying Law in Australia. Any of these institutions will cover the aforementioned 11 areas of legal knowledge.

There is some good news for you, however: An admitting authority in the country may recognize your American degree and experience, saving you considerable time and effort. In short, it's highly unlikely that you'd have to start over from scratch if you already have a law degree in the States. Expect to take some courses in Australia, however, to bridge the knowledge gap between American and Australian law. You would need this before you're approved to practice.

Training

Following your education, you will need to obtain practical training in law in Australia. Again, some of your experience in the U.S. may overlap here, but only an Australian admitting authority can tell you for sure what qualifies and what doesn't. Typically, the training period lasts between six months and one year and involves a training course or a clerkship.

Practicing Certificate

Once you've completed your education and training, you need to get a practicing certificate. A legal professional will issue these certificates, though it often comes with a restricted period where the lawyer will need to work underneath an advisor of some sort. These unrestricted certificates are rather difficult to obtain and often require a 24-month period of supervision before they are administered. Continuing education is often a prerequisite for certificate renewal as well.

One good thing to note: there aren't any extra limitations or restrictions on foreigners trying to obtain a practicing certificate, so that's great news for you! So long as you meet all of the admission criteria and have completed the training, you will receive a certificate just as an Australian would.

If you wish to practice law in multiple States or Territories throughout Australia, you'll need to get a different certificate for each area. Usually, all this requires is submitting an application, which is then reviewed and you'll be approved. Thanks to increased national laws, this may very well be a rule that disappears soon.

This is good news for people that like to travel across the country and don't wish to pay registration fees every time they switch Territories or States. As someone who will be new to Australia and the practice of law there, however, this isn't something you're likely to need to worry about just yet.
Aside from legal education requirements, the Australian system requires practical experience, what most Americans would call on-the-job training. It usually takes several years for an Australian-educated law graduate to get enough experience to warrant a practicing certificate. However, an American-trained lawyer with at least 5 years of experience as a general practitioner will likely be exempted from this requirement. Those with little or no practical experience will mostly be required to undergo a clerkship of up to one year.

Post Qualification Experience

In addition, most firms in Australia, Asia and Europe require certain years of Post Qualification Experience, or "PQE," for lateral lawyers, meaning they expect you to have worked as a qualified lawyer in the subject country for a period of time before they would consider hiring you. Thus, even if you have the requisite experience, PQE might limit the chances of you obtaining a position in Australia. Certainly, in rare circumstances, a native Australian law firm would be interested in a US lawyer with no Australian qualifications. On the other hand, US law firms with offices overseas tend to be more willing to consider non-PQE candidates. However, whether a given foreign office of an American firm may have a need for American attorneys is a product of the type of work performed by the firm. Just because a firm is based in the United States doesn't mean it has a need for American attorneys.

These exemptions are not automatic and have to be applied for by a Statutory Declaration with the admitting authority (The Supreme Court in South Australia) for the specific State or Territory you choose.

Pay

Determining whether or not moving to Australia to practice law is the right move for you will depend largely on the pay. For starters, the pay rate in Australia is somewhat lower for lawyers than in the United States in large metropolitan areas, but it's on par with more rural or smaller community areas.

Based on years of experience, the standard hourly rate for attorneys in Australia according to PayScale.com is:

Years Experience

Hourly Rate

1-4 years

AU$20.00-$60.00

5-9 years

AU$34.00-$45.00


The average salary for lawyers in Australia has a wide range. Add in bonuses and profit sharing and that range gets even wider:

Salary

Bonus

Profit Sharing

Total

AU$44,622-$105,671

AU$0-$11,720

AU$0-$509

AU$44,834-$110,435


Additionally, the salary range breaks down further by state and province. The following is data taken from PayScale.com:

State/Province

Salary

Victoria

AU$43,510-$98,513

New South Wales

AU$46,439-$113,790

Western AU

AU$44,690-$119,195

Queensland

AU$49,267-$106,436

South Australia

AU$39,322-$126,045

ACT

AU$50,472-$108,562


At the moment, an Australian dollar is worth $0.95 of 1 U.S. dollar.

Risk

In the past years, we have spoken to several American attorneys practicing overseas, and each appears to feel that they are having a good experience. However, it is important to note that relocating overseas is a difficult decision and can be very risky. When a country is prospering, lawyers with experience in a needed practice area can be in high demand, but work in an economically volatile or depressed region can dry up very quickly and American lawyers may be the first to be forced to seek out new positions. Additionally, the average salary for Australian firms (including the Australian offices of U.S. firms) generally is less than the salaries in, for instance, New York City.

Accordingly, any attorney relocating overseas should approach their search carefully. This is a huge decision and a big move. Literally, it'll be the longest flight you'll ever take, so make sure it's something you want to commit to before packing up all of your things and taking your American law degree overseas. That last thing you want to have happen is to get there to find that the work has dried up or that it's not what you expected. What if the legal specifications aren't what you're used to or aren't something you'd feel comfortable upholding in a court? Long story short, do your research on Australian law before you commit to anything.

Immigration

Legal practitioners are currently in high demand in many areas in Australia; in fact, it is in the Skilled Occupation List (SOL) and worth the maximum allotted for any one qualification for immigration, 60 points. This is a clear indication that there is a paucity of trained lawyers as of the moment, and relocating to Australia may be easier than before. However, there are other considerations that will determine your qualification as an emigrant to any State or Territory in Australia.

Issuance of a visa to work in Australia is solely a decision for the relevant Australian government authority. Immigration is one issue that places you in a disadvantage over an equally qualified and credentialed Australian lawyer. But immigration issues have been overcome numerous times by the candidates we have placed overseas. Of course, if a firm if is interested in hiring you, they would sponsor you to obtain the necessary visa. However, this isn't something you should necessarily rely on. After all, it's only applicable for the most extraordinary applicants and, again, an Australian law firm is much more likely to hire an Australian. That's just the way things are.

Documentation Requirements

Accreditation is based on the papers that an applicant can provide to the admitting authority. These include certified true copies of all relevant degrees, certificates or diplomas duly notarized by the institution that issued them. The official transcript of records or academic records as well as the course syllabus and materials for each degree or training course submitted must also be present. This will be the basis for the admitting authority to assess the qualifications of the applicant, and what additional education and/or training will be required, if any. A certified copy of the passport of the foreign applicant will also be required.

All applicants for accreditation will have to pass an International English Language Testing System or IELTS (Academic) Test unless the applicant had acquired his or her secondary and tertiary education in a country where English is the native language. American-trained lawyers who did not complete their secondary education in the US may still be required to take and pass the IELTS (Academic) Test.

An application fee of A$110 (regular processing) or A$220 (rush) may apply. Each State and Territory will have their own forms and additional documentary requirements.

Admission as a Solicitor in Australia

The Australian legal licensing system is by state, so an American lawyer would have to get licensed in the state where he or she wants to practice, and may not practice in any other state unless a license is first obtained in that state. This is similar to the US system, so that’s no big deal.

The good thing is there’s a significant demand for lawyers in Australia. As of July 2012, solicitors and barristers are included in the Skilled Occupations List. This means that lawyers with experience currently have an excellent chance of being granted a work visa provided they meet other criteria. But being on the SOL is a great start for lawyers wanting to work in Australia.

Anyone can take the bar examination in Australia regardless of education and practical experience; in New South Wales, however, there is no bar examination at all. Anyone who meets the education and practical experience requirements can be licensed to practice law in New South Wales.

Steps for American lawyers to Obtain a License to Practice Law:
  1. Obtain an exemption for the Legal Practitioners Admission Board by providing transcripts of records and other notarized educational documents; additional coursework may be required, especially for Australian constitutional law and real property. These courses may be taken through online courses or correspondence.

  2. Any U.S. trained and licensed lawyer with at least five years experience as a legal general practitioner can get an exemption for the practical training requirement. A statutory declaration of law-related employment must be submitted by the applicant, accompanied by testimonials from former employers. In some states such as South Australia, there may be additional requirements. This includes a minimum of two references of good character from legal practitioners or persons of good repute who have known the applicant for at least two years. Applicants may also be required to work under supervision for a prescribed period before gaining admission as a solicitor.

  3. File a formal application to take the board examinations, or in the case of New South Wales, actual permission to practice law. Licensing fees will apply.
Getting your license is the first hurdle to practicing law in Australia, but it may not be the hardest. That would be looking for a job in the state where you have your license. You can start by joining the state bar association and doing some strategic networking. You can also send out your resume with a persuasive cover letter to some law firms.

As in most things, doing an online search is the easiest way to get connected. Look at job boards for opportunities, narrowing your search to your area of expertise. Apply only to positions that fit your educational background and experience so that you won’t waste your time in positions you are not likely to get. Especially target firms that have operations in the US; they are more likely to favor your application if you can bring something to the table that non-US-based solicitors cannot.




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