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I am a fourth-year lawyer who is considering finding work overseas, especially in Australia. What are the kinds of challenges that North American lawyers need to consider when trying to find employment as a lawyer in Australia and abroad?
Congratulations on broadening your horizons! The good news is there are numerous American lawyers who find international law jobs, especially in transactional and corporate practice areas. There are also job opportunities abroad for attorneys who practice in the growing fields of international arbitration and in matters involving the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and money laundering.
International law jobs are so attractive to many American lawyers for the excitement, the chance to live and work in a different culture, and many other reasons. The ABA Journal recently profiled four Americans successfully practicing law abroad (in Mexico, France, China and Korea).
With a special focus on Australia, below we discuss some of the considerations involved in finding work overseas and relocating your practice to another country. Among the factors you need to consider when thinking about job opportunities abroad are educational and qualification requirements, immigration issues, and salary and standard of living variations.
Which Area of Practice is Best for Finding Legal Work Overseas?
The areas of practice that have attracted foreign law firms’ interest in American lawyers are:
- Capital markets
- Project Finance
- International Arbitration
- Money Laundering
The reason these areas have work abroad jobs available is that 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 law firm associates are being sent abroad as foreign companies are obtaining capital in ways that require a great deal of familiarity with the American legal system.
Given the expansion of many international law firms to locations throughout the world, one of the easiest ways to find an international law job is by seeking work at one of these law firms. While many of these firms staff local offices with local lawyers, they also often have opportunities for US lawyers who can help bridge gaps in cross-border deals and help explain to overseas clients the intricacies of US law and how it applies to their business goals. American lawyers who have been trained in the corporate and finance departments of large American law firms also have an aptitude for deal management that countries with less globalized practices appreciate. Most top international law firms limit their hiring to candidates with top credentials from US schools and firms, but if you can find one of these positions it is an excellent way to work overseas and still make your legal education work for you.
What Education Will I Need For An International Law Job?
Similar to the Bar Exam in the various states in the United States, most foreign countries have qualification requirements for those practicing law. How one gains qualification to become a lawyer in a given country varies substantially from one country to another and you will need to check the rules that apply wherever you want to work overseas.
In the case of Australia, there is no Bar Exam needed to become a solicitor (which is the term for lawyer used in Australia). However, the rules differ when it comes to “barristers” – who are specialized attorneys who handle certain matters in courts of law – and becoming a barrister in Australia generally involves passage of a Readers Course Exam.
Australia’s legal qualification requirements consist of both coursework and practical training. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of a particular Australian State or Territory has to admit you to practice. Lawyers who want to practice in Australia—whether domestic educated or American trained—are required to have academic knowledge in the following 11 areas (called the “Priestley 11”):
- administrative law
- civil procedure
- company law
- criminal law and procedure
- ethics and professional responsibility
- federal and state constitutional law
For more information about these core legal subjects, please see the Council of Australian Law Deans’ Studying Law in Australia website.
If you are an American lawyer, you may not have training in all of these areas, but it is unlikely that you will need to start your studies from scratch in order to work overseas. Depending on the State or Territory where you wish to practice, it may be possible to get exemptions from the admitting authority for some areas of legal knowledge while requiring that you attend some courses for other areas. The Australian admitting authority may recognize your American degree and experience, saving you considerable time and effort. With so many Overseas Opportunities for American Attorneys, you should be able to find a position that takes into account your training and educational differences.
For information about the application procedure for practice in New South Wales, for example, please see the Legal Profession Admission Board’s Guide for applicants for admission as a lawyer in NSW in accordance with the Legal Profession Uniform Admission Rules 2015.
As An American Attorney Do I Need a Practising Certificate to Work Overseas in Australia?
Yes - In Australia, once you have completed your education and training, you need to get a practicing certificate.
The practicing certificate covers:
- “Practical” aspects of practicing law
- Legal ethics
- Work and File Management
- Legal writing and interviewing
A legal professional issues these certificates, though they often come with a restricted period where the lawyer will need to work underneath an advisor. Continuing education is often a prerequisite for certificate renewal.
One good thing to note: there are no extra limitations or restrictions on foreigners trying to obtain a practicing certificate to work overseas, so that is great news! 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.
More good news is that Australia has recently enacted legislation to enhance mobility for solicitors who want to practice in multiple States or Territories throughout Australia. Under Australia’s new mobility scheme, it is generally not necessary to obtain a separate practicing certificate in each State or Territory. However, different admission requirements apply in different States or Territories and you should always consult the local rules and regulations.
What Post Qualification Experience Do I Need For Overseas Work in Australia?
Most law firms in Australia will require:
- A certain number of years of Post Qualification Experience (PQE)
- Experience in the field of law you’re applying to
- Top credentials in a specific practice area
In rare circumstances, a native Australian law firm may be interested in a US lawyer with no Australian qualifications. But US law firms with offices overseas tend to be more willing to consider non-PQE candidates, especially if they have top credentials and expertise in a relevant practice area.
Do Salaries Differ For International Law Jobs?
Salary and standard of living are always factors to be considered when contemplating relocation to another country. Salaries fluctuate, but relatively speaking, the pay rate for lawyers is lower in Australia than it is in the US, especially when it comes to large firms in major US markets. However, the pay scale can be closer when you look at more rural or smaller community areas, and on the whole the standard of living is lower in Australia than it is in the United States.
According to Payscale, as of April 2019, the average salary for a solicitor in Australia was AU$64,038. Total pay (including bonuses, commissions and profit-sharing) ranged from AU$45,827 to AU$100,093. The hourly rate ranged from AU$20.79 to AU$51.39.
Among the major Australian cities, the average salary for solicitors was AU$67,765 in Sydney (New South Wales), AU$61,901 in Brisbane (Queensland), and AU$68,811 in Melbourne (Victoria).
Note that Payscale data for those calling themselves corporate lawyers in Australia was slightly higher than for solicitors, with the average being AU$76,635 and ranging from AU$52,000 to AU$149,000. Payscale data for barristers in Australia was even higher, with an average of AU$97,645 and ranging from AU$49,000 to AU$240,000.
Cons Of Seeking Legal Work Abroad
In the past years, we have spoken to several American attorneys working overseas, and each appears to feel that they are having a good experience. However, it is important to note that relocating to work overseas is a difficult decision and can be 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.
Accordingly, any attorney considering job opportunities abroad should approach the situation carefully. Relocating overseas is a huge decision and a big move. You want to make sure it is something you want to commit to before packing up all of your things and moving. The last thing you want to have happen is to get there and find that the work has dried up, that you cannot speak or learn the language or adapt to the culture and customs, or that the circumstances are other and less favorable than you expected. For example, what if the legal specifications are not what you are used to or not something you feel comfortable upholding? Long story short, do your research on the country, culture, customs and legal system of whichever country you are considering before you commit to anything.
What Immigration Documents Will I Need To Work Overseas?
To work in another country, you will need:
- A work visa
- The address you’ll be staying at
- Proof of identification
- For Australia you may need to be on the Skilled Occupation List
Australian legal immigration barriers for legal practitioners are relatively low, as both barristers and solicitors are on the July 2019 Skilled Occupation List (SOL) and worth the maximum allotted for any one qualification for immigration, 60 points. Being on the SOL is a great start for lawyers wanting to work in Australia. 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 at a disadvantage over an equally qualified and credentialed Australian lawyer. But many immigration issues can be overcome with tenacity and a strategic plan. Of course, if a law firm is interested in hiring you, the firm would sponsor you to obtain the necessary visa. However, this is not something you should necessarily rely on. After all, this route is only applicable for the most extraordinary applicants and, again, all things considered, an Australian law firm is much more likely to hire an Australian.
What are the Documentation Requirements For Work Overseas?
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, as well as official transcripts and course materials. A certified copy of the passport of the foreign applicant will also be required, and in some cases, an applicant may need to pass the International English Language Testing System or IELTS (Academic) Test to demonstrate English language ability. Moreover, various application fees apply.
Finding Job Opportunities Abroad
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. 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 various 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 will not waste your time applying for positions you are not likely to get. Especially target firms that have operations in the US, as they will more likely favor your application if you can bring something to the table that a non-US-based solicitor cannot.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can American Lawyers Work Abroad?
Employers abroad require persistence, patience, flexibility, and time to do some homework before an assignment is given--ideally before they are posted.
In order for you to work legally on the local economy at your new posting, a bilateral agreement or de facto agreement must exist so that you may obtain work authorization from the host country. On the Family Liaison Office (FLO) website, you can find a list of countries with work agreements. Research the local parameters and any licensing requirements if you wish to practice law in the area.
To continue working with your current firm, they should have an overseas office, be looking to establish an overseas office, or be willing to let you telework. The law firms are generally located in large cities throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, so if these arrangements cannot be made, there are other American law firms abroad.
In terms of geographic scope, lawyers who practice public international law might have a wider choice. Many United Nations (UN) agencies and NGOs have offices in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.
Several members of our family have also secured employment with local firms. At most posts, the Consular section has a list of in-country legal services that are available to U.S. citizens. Firms from the local market help foreign firms who want to set up shop here.
Some of these practices may hire English speakers. Others have started their own businesses overseas, working with clients virtually, but from home.
Lawyers with U.S. training may expand their prospects by teaching American advocacy skills or terminology to foreign lawyers seeking work in the U.S. or becoming adjunct professors at universities directly associated with U.S. institutions. Many universities offer classes on U.S. law or comparative law (e.g. common law compared to civil law). As well as training businesses about U.S. ethics and policies, lawyers can serve as legal consultants. Additionally, there are opportunities in think tanks and sectors that can utilize your public speaking, writing/editing, research, and lobbying skills.
There might be positions in the Political section in U.S. embassies and consulates (for instance, dealing with human rights issues). Consular adjudicators research, read, interpret, and apply the Immigration and Nationality Act and the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) as part of their duties. You can learn more about the Consular Affairs Appointment Eligible Family Member Adjudicator (CA/AEFM) program on FLO's website. A contract position or a relationship with a local firm may also be available for USAID and the Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Both organizations work with the host government and civil society to build rule of law capacity. The contractor's website may be the only place to advertise some jobs.
All positions in the local economy must be approved by the Chief of Mission to ensure they do not entail giving up certain immunities or are not contrary to U.S. interests. The FLO website provides a template for requesting this approval.
Can I Work Internationally As A Lawyer?
Practicing law abroad can lead to a rewarding career that explores many different outlets. Attorneys can practice U.S. law or practice under the supervision of another attorney in Europe and other parts of the world. Here are a few things to consider when looking for legal jobs abroad:
1. Work for U.S. Multinational Companies
There may be work overseas for American lawyers working for a U.S. law firm or as an attorney for a law firm abroad, depending on the setting. The local legal representative for multinational U.S. companies may be an American lawyer. To develop new technology, American companies often create joint ventures with foreign companies. During this process, American lawyers can provide strategy, planning, and legal analysis on both sides.
2. Transactional experience is a requirement for many careers
U.S. law firms usually select their experienced associates to fill overseas posts. Transactional experience at a U.S. law firm is necessary for law jobs abroad. As a result, American lawyers are often hired as counselors at multinational companies overseas.
3. American lawyers abroad work on fixed-term contracts
Most attorneys working for foreign law firms have fixed contracts that last for two or four years. They can extend their terms, but it is more likely that they will find new opportunities as their business expands, new technologies are introduced, and mergers occur. As lawyers who return to the United States must prove their work quality overseas, it is important to remember this. If employers understand why you are working in another country, they may be more likely to hire you.
4. Practicing law abroad can be challenging, yet rewarding
Attorneys working abroad may face challenges. Due to the nature of the legal system overseas, attorneys may encounter various legal issues and business practices. Time zone differences and cultural differences in business may add more pressure to the role related to practicing law overseas. Homesickness, language barriers, and cultural differences are other factors that make it difficult.
However, practicing overseas has many benefits as well. Lawyers working abroad may benefit from the following:
- Opportunity to learn about new cultures
- Chance to work on different types of cases
- Ability to learn about the different jurisdictions
5. Burnout may occur
Working abroad can be stressful, and burnout from unpredictable workload is common. Adapting to a new culture, time difference, and being away from friends and family can be difficult during the first few months of working abroad. A mental health focus might prevent burnout, however. Exercising, meditating, practicing yoga, and going outside all promote wellbeing and prevent burnout.
6. American attorneys often find work in embassies
Consulates and embassies in the U.S. often have a list of attorneys on their websites. Attorneys who wish to work abroad can contact local embassies for foreign client assistance. Potential clients may find this useful if they need legal representation for a variety of issues.
7. Participating in international organizations can be beneficial
You can distinguish yourself from other candidates by joining international organizations. For instance, you might want to give consideration to joining organizations like the International Bar Association and the International Law Section of the American Bar Association. In addition to offering guidance on different aspects of practicing international law, these organizations support American lawyers abroad.
8. Become a dual-qualified attorney
Dual qualification is crucial for attorneys looking for work overseas due to the globalization of the legal profession. Due to their dual qualifications, several career opportunities in law are available to dual-qualified attorneys. The result is often a greater and more frequent number of transactions involving parties from different countries.
9. Business culture must be learned
In order to be an international lawyer, you must learn about other cultures and be sensitive to them. Professionals can reduce cultural barriers, improve communication skills, and make better decisions with the help of this training. The ability to lead with cultural sensitivity also promotes collaboration and connectivity by fostering understanding and empathy among team members.
10. Consider other business opportunities
The practice of law or working for a company is not the only legal job abroad. American lawyers abroad work as legal tutors, teachers, and advisors in the educational sector, which does not require them to be affiliated with jurisdiction or be licensed to practice law. Attorneys may find careers in the education sector appealing since these careers may not require certification or validation.
11. The ability to speak another language is essential
In this field, it helps to have excellent language skills, even though English is the dominant language. Attorneys often spend a considerable amount of time editing and correcting the English in locally produced documents. Building relationships at work with colleagues, clients, and potential prospects is crucial to building conversational fluency in another language. Fluency in a second or third language may improve your career opportunities and allow you to work in a variety of legal settings.
Can American Lawyers Practice In Europe?
If you are qualified under U.S. law, you will have to undergo a "conversion" process or take a course in Europe. In the opposite direction, the process is the same.
Different countries will have different conversion pathways.
Moreover, as the conversion is available in different countries, it will differ as well. Convertibility is not available in every country - so you'll have to start over again.
For converting foreign qualifications to their own, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, among others, provide an approach that is fairly straightforward and easy to understand.
Check with the national bar association or justice ministry of each country for information about recognition and/or conversion for foreign lawyers and law graduates.
Can You Work Overseas With A Law Degree?
Overseas work can seem daunting to many lawyers. The area in which you may practice law can often limit your career options, whereas many foreign economies may seem more precarious at first glance for a lawyer. The fruits of overseas legal opportunities can be bountiful for those with enough courage and tenacity.
Interested students seeking international careers should follow these tips:
1. Take as many international law classes as you want. Whenever law faculty or administration tries to dissuade you, do not be fooled. You don't have to master all key courses for the bar exam. Even if you take all the international electives you want, you can still pass the bar.
2. Take advantage of any and all international-related opportunities at your school. Attend a networking event with international practitioners or join the International Law Society. There are likely to be students and organizations at your school that are interested in international law, and your career center may offer advice on international careers. Otherwise, start a student group yourself!
3. Keep up your foreign language skills. A career in international business likely requires you to speak a second language, have traveled abroad, or have studied overseas. You should practice! Learn your second language by listening to music, watching movies, reading newspapers, and watching the news. In order to pursue an international career, language skills are essential.
4. Cast your net wide. A lawyer can practice abroad without working for the UN. Your law degree can be beneficial even if you are not practicing law. Law students have many opportunities to gain international experience while studying - from externing at an international law or policy government office domestically to interning at US embassies abroad - and recent law graduates and experienced practitioners have even more options for pursuing an international career. They have the opportunity to work on rule of law issues, anti-corruption, and transitional justice programs throughout the world during their efforts with the Department of State's Civilian Response Corps. In other words, there is never a bad time to begin thinking about and pursuing an international career!
Taking your law degree and relocating overseas can be exciting and enriching in many ways. But there are risks as well as rewards, and hurdles you must overcome to make the experience a success. The more you research the particulars of practicing law and living in your target country, the more you will be able to ascertain if making the move is right for you.
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