A Reality Check and a Word of Encouragement to the Aspiring International Lawyer

It has been eight years since my graduation from law school and business school. I started law school in the Fall of 2008 before the world fell apart . . . the last time. The reverberations of the financial crisis that started roiling the world in 2008 continued into 2012 when I graduated and started job hunting.  Now that we are in a completely different crisis – but one with such similar economic effects on the global economy – my heart goes out to law students and aspiring international lawyers who are stressed and feel stuck. I empathize with you to the nth degree, and I want to help.

In the past couple of months I have spoken with recent law graduates and prospective law students who want to work in the international arena. They are talented and ambitious, and I have no doubt that they will succeed in finding their path as an international lawyer. In case you are one of them or know someone in their shoes, I offer the following thoughts as an international transactions lawyer.

Very few international lawyers become international lawyers in their first job after law school. As a general rule, most law firms are not going to have a fast track to helping you become an international lawyer unless you had an established internationally-focused career prior to going to law school or unless you have otherwise engaged in the world (like spent a number of years growing up in a foreign country and you speak that language as well as the natives do). All law firms that are willing to hire new graduates want someone who is smart, adaptable, resilient, and knows how to work hard. If you fit that mold, then you did (or will do) well in law school. Those are the same skills you need to succeed as a lawyer at any firm. Your goal should be to find a good law firm, ideally one that already has an international practice, and learn how to be a good lawyer, after which you can learn to become a good international lawyer.

There are really only two types of law firms that have international law practices. The first is the mega international law firms, and you will need to be in the top of your law school class or be very well connected to even get an interview with a mega law firm in this depressed economic environment. The second are boutique international law firms. Most small and medium-sized law firms (including boutique international firms) will not have the bandwidth to hire a large cadre of recent law graduates because it is difficult for them to get their money’s worth out of a new law school graduate.

When I graduated law school and passed the bar exam, I assumed I was worth a lot because I was now a lawyer. I was wrong. In reality, new business lawyers are not worth much in their first couple years of practice because they first need to read and redline about a hundred contracts before they reach the point where they can relatively quickly draft a really good contract. It takes literally thousands of hours of work experience to molding  a smart person into a great lawyer. And while you are learning how to be a good lawyer, you need to keep your eye on how you will become an international lawyer. You can make a lateral move into the firm of your dreams, but you should know what firms and lawyers practice the type of international law you wish to do, and you should start getting to know those lawyers’ work so that you can then approach them as potential mentors. Most “regular” firms will not have the expertise or the interest to have any kind of international practice. You can create your own international practice from within that sort of firm, but doing so will likely be considerably more difficult because you will likely not get a lot of support internally unless you already have a proven track record of international work.

You need to decide now whether you want to be a lawyer with broad credentials or specialized credentials. Let me explain. You can be a general transactional international lawyer like me. I deal with all kinds of transactions, from FDI (foreign direct investment), to M&A (mergers and acquisitions), to financing (bank and investment capital). Or you can be, among other things, an international litigator, an international tax lawyer, an international trade lawyer, an immigration lawyer, an international IP lawyer, or an international employment lawyer.

If you already know what you want to do, great. For instance, if you know you want to be an international tax lawyer, then it will be helpful for you to get or have an undergraduate degree or minor in accounting, and even better if you work at a CPA firm or become a CPA prior to becoming a tax lawyer. Those credentials and experience will help you rise to your peak at maximum speed. If you do not know what you want to do within the international realm, then learn as much as you can until you start to figure out what you want to do because you will be good at it and enjoy it. I  know too many lawyers who are really good at what they do but don’t enjoy being a lawyer, and now they feel stuck because they do not have an easy way to transition to another practice area they would enjoy more.

You have to become a good domestic lawyer first. If you have a hard time learning how to be a good litigation/tax/transactional/employment lawyer, then you are going to find it nearly impossible to be a good litigation/tax/transactional/employment lawyer on an international scale. Fundamentally, your work will not change. You will still be trying to decipher difficult questions for clients, and often there will be no perfect answer, just a range of potential answers with varying degrees of risk. When you add international laws, regulations, languages, customs, and enforcement on top of the regular knotty client questions, you add several additional layers of analysis. Some of us consider this fun – like a giant puzzle – but others get frustrated and wish things could just be simple for once. Most likely, you will vacillate between these two extremes, depending on the day or hour or minute.

I have been fortunate to have had many great mentors over the years, and I continue to lean on experienced professionals in my practice today to help me become a better international lawyer. When the world normalizes again, if you want to sit down with me, call me, or email me and pick my brain, I’m more than willing to offer you additional insights. And I’ll provide more insights in my next post on this topic, within the next week or so.

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