How Can I Lateral to a Top US-based Law Firm if I'm Working Overseas?
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I am currently practicing overseas at the Hong Kong office of a top US firm, but would like to lateral to a top firm in New York City. I've heard that this can be a difficult transition to make even though I earned my J.D. in the U.S. and am a U.S. citizen. Can you explain why?
This is a great question, and one we get asked by many lateral associates. There are myriad factors that impact a candidate's ability to lateral from an overseas law firm to a top U.S. law firm. Some but not all factors include: citizenship/visa status, bar admissions, ties to the U.S, cross-border and U.S. work experience, academic credentials, number of years spent overseas, as well as other factors.
Prior to the downturn, it was fairly easy for U.S. citizens who were practicing abroad to lateral to a U.S. law firm. Indeed, it was relatively common for foreign associates to lateral to a top U.S. law firm even where those candidates lacked U.S. citizenship and needed visa sponsorship. In today's economic climate, however, we rarely see firms willing to sponsor visas for foreign attorneys. This is largely because firms don't want to invest the resources into bringing a foreign associate to the U.S. and because there are plenty of U.S. qualified attorneys also looking for work.
Generally speaking, candidates who have the most success lateraling from an overseas firm to a U.S. firm are (1) U.S. citizens with (2) a J.D. from a top tier law school who are (3) admitted to practice law in one or more U.S. jurisdictions. Even among such candidates, however, the ability to move to a top U.S. firm will depend on other important factors. For example, U.S. firms are more likely to interview and hire an associate currently practicing overseas if that associate also has strong U.S. law firm experience. In other words, candidates who started out in their firm's New York City office and then moved to the firm's London or Hong Kong office will generally fare better than candidate's who have only ever practiced overseas.
Another factor to consider is that the length of time a candidate has practiced overseas can impact his/her opportunities in the U.S. Candidates who have spent two or three years abroad will in most instances be more marketable than those who have been overseas for five years or more. While class level is a factor here, the bigger concern is that the longer an attorney is overseas the longer they are removed from U.S. law. Relatedly, attorneys who are working mostly on U.S. matters abroad, or those who are doing a large amount of cross-border work, will be more marketable in the U.S. because their experience is often more relevant to U.S. hiring needs.
Finally, as always, the ability to lateral to a top U.S. firm from overseas largely depends on U.S. market conditions. Corporate associates are almost always in demand, particularly in strong financial markets such as New York City. This means that associates who are currently practicing overseas and who have the right experience and credentials can often readily lateral to top US law firms. In down markets, such opportunities will be reduced and in dormant practice areas, such as litigation, these opportunities will be less prevalent. So pay attention to changing market trends and be ready to capitalize on any spikes in hiring you notice in your practice area.
Summary: This is a great question. There are many factors that impact a candidate's ability to lateral from an overseas law firm to a top U.S. law firm.
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