How to become an international lawyer

So you want to become an international lawyer. No doubt, you’ve thought it through carefully, and you’re sure it’s what you want to become. But let me ask you – what does it mean to you exactly? After all, if you think about it carefully, the term can mean different things to different people.

What is the appeal of becoming an international lawyer?

We’ll talk about the different incarnations of an international lawyer a little later, but first ask yourself, what do you hope to accomplish as an international lawyer? What motivates your aspirations? Is it a benchmark of achievement, or a means to achieve other goals? In what way(s) will you be different, better, smarter, more successful? What challenges do you anticipate facing and overcoming in order to achieve your goals? How will you overcome those hurdles?

That’s a lot of questions to think about, and there are no simple answers. But before we can think about addressing them, we need to start to define our goals and map out the pathway to success.

What we mean when we say international lawyer

The truth is, lawyers work in and are admitted to practise in jurisdictions, which by their nature are local. In other words, being an international lawyer is not just another type of lawyer, like an employment lawyer or a criminal defence lawyer. So what exactly is an international lawyer?

Of course, there is the body of law known as international law, defined by the International Law Students Association as:

The rules and principles of general application dealing with the conduct of States and of international organisations in their international relations with one another and with private individuals, minority groups and transnational companies.”

To a large extent it represents the meeting point of law and politics; it is a highly specialised area of law, and doesn’t seem to be what we mean by international lawyer.

Could it be something much simpler? Where the work being carried out by a lawyer does not only relate to their home jurisdiction, perhaps it should be regarded as international legal work? For example, if a corporate lawyer in Germany is advising a Japanese car manufacturer on an acquisition of a stake in a German car manufacturer, should that lawyer be regarded as an international lawyer? While the work may be limited to German law, and possibly European Union law, the parties involved cross borders, and the work requires familiarity with multiple business cultures and languages.

Or perhaps in order to be practising international law, we need to be involved in dispute resolution, such as international commercial arbitrations? That too involves parties from different jurisdictions, the forum for the dispute could be anywhere from Singapore to Paris, and the applicable law could be the domestic law of one party or another legal system entirely.

Ok, so far we’ve established that we’re not talking about international law in the strict sense of the term. We also haven’t quite settled on what we do mean, but let’s try to set out some minimum requirements for being an international lawyer:

  • Working with clients with business interests in more than one jurisdiction 
  • Working on cases or transactions that involve parties, laws or assets in more than one jurisdiction, or outside your home jurisdiction 

One other thing seems clear to those that aspire to be one: it means going beyond our current limitations and becoming a better lawyer, tuned in to the globalised nature of business and life in general. And in order to do that, we need to have a better understanding of the direction the legal profession is heading in, trends in the marketplace, and what our clients expect of us.

The discussion on how to become an international lawyer leads us to think further what the purpose of our goal is.

Why become an international lawyer?

So far, we’ve identified some of the hallmarks of what we mean by international lawyer. We may also want to think about our purpose, and what we stand to gain, learn or contribute from reaching our goal.

A large part of this is the constantly evolving business world. Globalisation of business has changed the way law firms and lawyers operate and the business model they employ. The need for lawyers with international expertise, experienced in the type of work we identified above, is ever-growing. On the other hand, this has also led to huge growth in the number of young lawyers around the world. Ambitious lawyers looking to learn the trade need to find ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. One of the best ways to do this is to develop their profile as an international lawyer.

Learn how to be future-proof

Having defined the goal of becoming an international lawyer, we turn now to the obstacles that must be reckoned with. One of the challenges to grapple with as a budding international lawyer is the ongoing reform of the profession as a whole all over the world. The nation with far and away the most lawyers, the US, has recently seen the first liberalising of the legal profession, with further discussion ongoing, while another important jurisdiction, the UK, has undergone (and is still undergoing) considerable reforms, such as alternative business structures (ABS) for ownership of law firms. And the US has also seen its share of innovative web-based legal services providers, such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, looking to take advantage of technology and market forces. A wider revolution is gradually taking place in the legal profession.

Several forces can be pointed to as driving forward the revolution. In his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, noted legal scholar Professor Richard Susskind identifies three drivers of change that will radically alter the way lawyers practise law over the next 30 years:

  1. Costs pressures: Driven at first by the global recession, they are leading clients to expect more for less
  2. Liberalisation: New forms of competition to lawyers are emerging, at different rates and in different ways in different jurisdictions
  3. New technology: Now more than ever, technology is changing the possibilities of what lawyers can do, from where, and what their clients expect of them

So, how do lawyers prepare themselves for the new reality and make themselves future-proof? Professor Susskind identifies three areas in which lawyers need to adapt their behaviours if they want to thrive in the new era.

  • Decomposing legal work: This means stripping out the tasks and processes that can be performed more cheaply and more efficiently by others, leaving the valuable work to be carried out by the lawyers themselves.
  • Embracing liberalisation: Even though the legal profession is famously resistant to change, it seems inevitable that change will come, either from above, such as in the UK, or from below, in the form of pressure from major businesses. We mustn’t run from it, but embrace it, and use it as a platform for establishing our thought leadership.
  • Legal education: Learning not just how to think and work like a lawyer, but also how the legal services market is changing, and developing new skills that are relevant for the market today and tomorrow.

Only once we have a solid understanding of the forces affecting the way we practise law today, and the direction it seems to be heading in, can we look to apply these ideas to our career development path to make ourselves future-proof, and to achieve our goals.

Part of being an international lawyer means looking at the ways lawyers practise law across the world, and trying to apply ideas and innovations from other cultures. A simple way of taking part in that process is getting involved in international lawyer associations, which are a great platform for sharing ideas around law firm management and business strategy, development of new skills to better serve changing client needs, and how the legal profession should respond to liberalisation pressures.

Another way we can look to make ourselves relevant in the new world, and incorporate Professor Susskind’s ideas, is to use modern forms of communication such as social media to communicate ideas and commentary to other lawyers, clients and business leaders. Establishing ourselves as thought leaders in the way law should be practised in the global business market, and how we can serve evolving client needs, through blogging and being active on appropriate LinkedIn groups, can help raise our profile immeasurably, and establish authority as a forward-looking international lawyer.

Practical ideas to get you going

Above, we mentioned a couple of practical tips, such as taking part in international organisations and raising our profile through thought leadership blogging.

In particular, the International Bar Association (IBA) is especially influential in shaping practice around the world, and it is highly recommended to get involved. Your local bar association or law society will likely also have an International section, and this again is a simple way to take part in the global conversation.

You should also think about joining the International Division of the Law Society of England and Wales, and the International Section of the New York State Bar. As the regulatory bodies of the two major centres for international legal work, they are highly influential in the development and leadership of international practice. You do not need to be a solicitor or a New York attorney to become a member and participate in their events.

You may also think about joining the American Bar Association’s (ABA) International section, in addition to your state or city bar association. The ABA Section’s membership of about 22,000 spans over 90 countries, where 18% of its members are qualified lawyers practicing outside the US and another 18% as non-US qualified lawyers.

There are also many organisations devoted to particular areas of practice, which may be even more influential in your area of specialism, such as the European Company Lawyers Association for commercial in-house lawyers. Which leads us to the next point: areas of practice. There are certain areas of practice which lend themselves to international work. The standout examples are:

  • Corporate/M&A
  • Commercial
  • Arbitration
  • Banking and Finance
  • Competition/Antitrust
  • Projects/Infrastructure
  • Construction
  • Insurance
  • International Trusts/High Net Worth Private Clients

By contrast, certain areas of law are highly specific to each jurisdiction and will only rarely include international elements. Examples of these include criminal defence, family law, employment law, personal injury, real estate, and wills and probate.

No less important that what you do, is where you do it. Opportunities for engaging in international work tend to be found most in large law firms with offices in other countries, or working in-house within certain international businesses.

On the other hand, many lawyers that succeed in creating a strong international profile do so within a small but successful law firm, or even working solo. This can be a good move once you have already established expertise in an area of practice and have built up a client following, but most junior lawyers will find large firms present more opportunities to get involved in significant cross-border work.

Understand business culture

Being an international lawyer means having to work with different business cultures, and finding a way to achieve client goals whilst being mindful of different working practices around the world. This cultural sensitivity is increasingly important in the modern world, and the best way to develop insight into the correct way of doing business with different nationalities is to read as much as possible about the business culture you will be dealing with. For example, the European Commission has funded a website called ‘Business Culture’ to help you learn the culture in 31 different European countries, but cultural differences can be even more important when dealing with major markets such as China and India. Issues such as negotiation practices, body language, the type of language to use, and other aspects of etiquette can all play a vital role in whether you succeed in your dealings.

Opportunities for dual-qualified lawyers

It could be said that the most direct route into becoming an international lawyer is by becoming qualified in a second (or third, etc.) jurisdiction as a lawyer, and thus being able to practise law and advise clients in more than one jurisdiction and from the perspective of more than one set of laws. The potential gain is clear: businesses are constantly looking for advisors that can take a more international perspective on their commercial goals, and dual-qualified lawyers are well-placed to provide this service. Law firms, too, benefit from offering their clients a multi-jurisdictional service, ensuring their clients do not need to look elsewhere for advice on other jurisdictions.

For the lawyer, it means the chance to work at home or abroad, to get involved in cross-border commercial transactions, and to advise clients from a range of countries.

When considering obtaining a second qualification, it makes sense to look to become qualified in the law that is most used in international business contracts and dispute resolution. Multiple research papers have found that English law is the preferred set of law for cross-border transactions, by a large margin, followed by the law of New York. The courts of England are also a popular venue for international dispute resolution, while English law and London tend to dominate as the preferred law and seat of international arbitration hearings.

With this in mind, it makes sense to consider obtaining a second qualification as an English Solicitor. This can be done by passing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which is administered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the governing body of the Law Society of England & Wales.

Your language skills are critical

One final tip. Lawyers coming out of an English-speaking country may prefer to ignore this part, but for everyone else, it can hardly be ignored that English is the predominant language of international business. If your English is not at a professional level, it needs to be. But even if you speak English as your mother tongue, learning a second or third language can bolster your career opportunities immeasurably, enabling you to work on legal matters in a variety of forums, and advise clients from outside your home jurisdiction.

So how to become an international lawyer – summing it all up

We started out asking ourselves a number of questions, to help define our goal, map out the path to reaching our goal, and think about how we would overcome the challenges that stand in our way. We defined an international lawyer (in simplest terms) as someone who works with clients, transactions and disputes that relate to more than one jurisdiction.

To reach that goal, we identified some of the trends affecting the legal services market across the world, the modern expectations of clients, and some of the practical things that can be done to help become an international lawyer, such as becoming dual-qualified, and getting involved with international associations.

Well done for getting right to the end of this article – we hope some of these ideas can help you reach your goal and become an international lawyer.

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