Lawyers must plan carefully before packing their bags

ASURVEY by Laurence Simons, the legal recruiters, recently found that 67 per cent of lawyers would consider relocating abroad as their next career move. Reasons included a tightened job market in London and a perception that practising law in emerging markets, in Dubai, in Russia or Australia would prove lucrative, both monetarily and for future career prospects.

Recruiters may talk of consistent demand for legal talent in the world’s buoyant economies, but lawyers must think through any foreign move before committing. International relocation isn’t always easy.

Lawyers must ask themselves how far a foreign move is lucrative, and in what context. How will relocation improve prospects on return to London? Most importantly, does he or she have sufficient awareness of what is needed from an English-qualified lawyer abroad?

Expatriate life can sound enticing. An advert for a senior associate in Dubai described the benefits as “tax free earnings, world renowned entertainment and sporting facilities”, on top of a $250,000 (£155,000) salary, plus bonus. Phil Jepson, chairman of Jepson Holt Consulting, says money can “make the decision easier”.

But what place should money have? Guy Adams, director and head of private practice Europe at Laurence Simons, advises caution. Complications can arise. “Base salaries tend to be comparable, no matter where you are.” A posting abroad won’t necessarily prove an immediate monetary boon. “There can be extra money as part of the package around your salary – pretty significant housing allowances, for instance – but my advice is for lawyers to get a feel for the total expense and benefits involved.”

One complication can be cost of living. Life in the Middle East “can involve significantly higher costs.” Another can be highly-lauded tax advantages. Although Singapore, the Middle East and Caribbean tax havens can offer lower (or zero) tax bills, lawyers must decide if they are willing to put up with restrictions on returning to the UK or requirements to work abroad for a defined period.

Few lawyers will see a foreign posting as an exotic jolly. But they should be careful to put their move into the context of a return to London, and how any improved skills or networking contacts can advance their career development. An overseas posting should be structured to improve longer-term career prospects.

Jepson says that “working overseas will make you attractive and marketable.” It “gives you access to a range of contacts and clients you wouldn’t necessarily get in London.” These contacts, whether clients or those who will introduce you to future clients, can be “kept going from a distance” and benefit your work in Britain.

Adams warns, however, that a client base “is not 100 per cent transferable.” He suggests that a position abroad is more useful for transferring skills and knowledge. “It’s all about building your CV.” Knowledge of sharia compliancy garnered in the Middle East, for instance, is “a real selling point when coming back to London.”

It can also improve a lawyer’s chance of internal promotion. Adams says that firms “often need English-qualified lawyers for various reasons and can’t necessarily get people to go out there.” A lawyer willing to spend a certain portion of their life abroad will win kudos from partners.

Jason Daniel, corporate partner and Japan head at Simmons & Simmons, the international law firm, has been at the firm since 1996 and spent seven of those years in Tokyo. He studied Japanese at university “so it was in the stars that I’d spend part of my working life there.”

He says, however, that language, or excellent legal skills are not all he needed to be successful abroad. “It’s all about bridging the cultural gap. When you’re overseas you can’t assume context.” Being easily understandable is also essential.

Daniel emphasises personal cost. “Being out of touch with family, particularly when you’re on the other side of the world could lead to resentment.” Personal resilience and self-reliance are important, but he credits working for a global firm, with internal support, for assisting his move. He also has “a route back home.”

At its heart, therefore, the decision to relocate internationally is not as simple as reaching out to grab the tax-free earnings or extra cash. A position abroad requires skills and personal strength, and the decision could backfire without sufficient assistance from your firm, or a sustainable path back to London if it all goes wrong.