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What it Takes to be a Successful International Attorney
by Andrew Ostler
To gain what I deemed was the necessary "international" experience, I chose to leave the United States and join a local law firm in Brazil. In my opinion there is no better way to truly understand the business and legal landscape of a place than to live there. Every day I advise US based clients doing business in Brazil. I could not possibly do so without having spent time there myself.
I am not an attorney, but I sometimes work with law firms in my role as principal of Syntaxis, a New York-based communication skills training firm. I have thought a great deal about jobs in multilingual settings, such as international law or nursing. Foreign-language skills are unbelievably helpful for these two roles - a great patient/client relationship management tool. Too few people in this country value such skills sufficiently.
To remedy this problem, I have dedicated the past four years to studying 17 languages on my own, along the way writing hundreds of reviews of teach-yourself language-learning resources. Those reviews are collected on my language-learning website.
Language skills make a genuine and meaningful difference in understanding people from other countries.
Words and Worlds of New York
New York, New York
Developing an international practice is easier than ever, in some ways, thanks to the internet. My website, www.InternationalChildCustody.com is a source of many leads and clients. As a legal resource for people who need information about the Hague Convention on International Child Custody it provides explanations, that positions me as an expert legal resource to desperate parents.
When providing international legal services they need to be targeted to the clientele, but you must be culturally and linguistically aware of the societal differences. For example, one of the many types of family law cases my firm handles are domestic violence restraining orders, but other jurisdictions refer to them as "spousal protection orders." There is also the cultural awareness of what is acceptable in one culture, may not be accepted practice in another. So taking the time to develop a deeper understanding of a culture is crucial to fostering the client attorney relationship, and the attorney/attorney relationship when working with local counsel.
Part of the excitement of international law is working with local counsel but it requires the ability to think conceptually since definitions are not always equivalent. One must be able to take the essence of the law you know, and listen to local counsel to find an analogue in order to move a case forward and to develop strategies. We had a case last year that involved Singapore, Thailand and the United States. Coordinating the conference calls was an exercise in mental gymnastics logistically and culturally, since the difference attitudes towards parenting and divorce in all three countries had similarities, but also some big conflicts.
Maintaining a practice requires a consistent marketing strategy, and a willingness to give up sleep. I've had days where I was on the phone in the morning with Norway, and in the evening I was talking to Singapore, so being flexible in sleep patterns is a big plus.
Doing outreach on a regular basis to foreign counsel to keep your presence known is crucial in a practice like mine, where there are not a lot of cases, but when they come along the parties need experienced legal counsel. We use traditional marketing tools such as postcards, thank yous and newsletters, along with our website to keep our name out there.
- Experience. Most international clients have very little idea about American legal system and American lawyers as a breed. They look for similar types of cases and attorney on file. As the number of international cases pile up, the confidence grows up to the point where they decide to retain you.
- Consistency. Normally, international clients (especially on criminal cases) take their time. It takes a deal of a patience and tons of free hours before this effort materialize into the signed agreement.
- Quality. You have to be an expert in international cases and do your job right. You have to assure the client is happy with your services, otherwise it won't take long before new clients choose another lawyer.
Bruce Provda, attorney
For young lawyers without a great deal of legal experience it is frankly very difficult to break into the international market. Obviously, they must be bilingual. They must also have some "hook" that differentiates them or makes them appealing to a particular international group. Such things as family ties to a foreign country, work experience in that country or experience in a particular industry indigenous to the targeted international area may help a young lawyer to land an international client it would otherwise not be able to secure.
Just because someone wishes to be an international lawyer does not make it so. Most international entities and business that are looking for lawyers are savvy enough to not entrust their legal matters to young lawyers unless the circumstances are extraordinary or the fit makes sense based on some of the above factors. Otherwise, the only way for a young lawyer to break in to this market is the old fashion way, affiliate themselves with a firm that does this kind of work and in time, after developing some expertise, effectively market themselves and pick up the work in that manner.
To become an effective International lawyer today, if we are targeting the Americas, a facility of language and a pedigree of competence in the area of expertise, corporate, litigation, etc. is essential. The market has not really changed a great deal, but there are more opportunities here in Miami than ever before.
Managing Partner of Heller Waldman
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