The Key to Developing a Strong International Profile: 5 Reasons You Should Work Abroad as a Lawyer

The Key to Developing a Strong International Profile: 5 Reasons You Should Work Abroad as a Lawyer - By Steve D Salem

Looking back on a year riddled with uncertainty both economically and politically, we are at a significant crossroad. The United States has handed over the reins to a new President with as many controversies surrounding him as new radical shifts in policy. Closer to home, Prime Minister Theresa May has set out her plan for a clean break from the European Single Market, providing some clarity to a strategy that has been shrouded in secrecy ever since the referendum vote in June 2016.

With significant upcoming European elections in 2017, notably in Germany and France, it remains to be seen whether the anti-globalisation sentiment prevalent in the two big electoral decisions in the US and UK will subsist.

In any case, whilst Teresa May might very well negotiate a strong deal to leave the EU, there will be a period of uncertainty following the triggering of Article 50 likely to involve power struggles, negotiations and compromise – pushing the pound on its continuing roller coaster ride, and reinforcing the hesitancy that business leaders have shown over the last 6-8 months.

As such, and in addition to furthering your profile as an international lawyer, it is a very appealing time to move abroad, not only to develop international legal experience and cultural awareness but to gain a new understanding of life in another country outside of your comfort zone.

I will, in this article set out 5 key reasons why any lawyer should gain experience working abroad.

1) Learning a New Business Culture

Understanding and appreciating a new business culture is the cornerstone of developing good business relationships and can avoid any potentially embarrassing faux pas.

To give a quick example, new business deals in the west are traditionally concluded within the relative formality of the boardroom, with contracts and deals executed via pen and paper. The underlying understanding being that the provisions agreed upon within the contract are binding and accurately reflect the parties’ intentions.

Western businessmen concluding business deals with their Asian counterparts may be very surprised to discover that contracts drawn and finalised are breached with minimal regard for the provisions within. In short, new business deals in these jurisdictions are typically agreed in the more social setting of a restaurant, bar or even at karaoke. This is traditionally the setting for business relationships and more importantly, trust between business partners to be forged and strengthened.

In relocating and working abroad, one can gain a distinct appreciation and perspective on differences in business culture first hand – vital for the lawyer already engaged with internationally-based clients. 

2) Putting Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone

The next key advantage of working and living abroad is that you put yourself out of your comfort zone. Waking up at the same time, taking the same route to work, speaking to the same colleagues, and going to the same gym – we all have our standard routines that we follow, but these can become a little repetitive and provide a little too much complacency and comfort.

Immersing oneself in a foreign, new and sometimes challenging environment can fine-tune our problem-solving skills and open up new personal insights that were once unknown.

Speaking from personal experience having relocated to Shanghai myself, I can attest to the value of taking yourself out of your comfort zone. You will gain a distinct sense of achievement in meeting and surpassing the new challenges that living in a different country will bring. For me, it was getting to grips with the complexities of learning and speaking Mandarin, which was a real necessity on the streets of Shanghai!

3) Speaking a New Language

‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.’

Nelson Mandela

This brings me nicely onto the third reason that any lawyer should move abroad. Moving to a new jurisdiction where the first language is not English provides a gilded opportunity to learn a new language, and furthers one’s own understanding of that particular culture.

To give a quick example, a customary response to a compliment given in China might be to say ‘nàli, nàli (那里那里, “no, no”) or bù huì ba (不会吧 “that’s not true”). This reinforces the values of humility and modesty prevalent in Chinese culture. In fact, accepting a compliment may also be seen as rude or arrogant.

So as I found at the law firm I was working for in Shanghai, this social difference was particularly relevant to know when receiving a compliment from a superior. The natural tendency would be to accept this with a simple ‘thankyou’ but this could have easily alienated him, and in some cases caused offense. Understanding that the best way to respond was to either reject or downplay the compliment altogether was a very useful tool in developing relationships with my Chinese counterparts.  

4) Appreciating a Different Way of Life

In addition to appreciating a new business culture, gaining an understanding of another jurisdiction’s more generalised culture can be eye-opening, and provide us with a strong sense of perspective. In particular, it may instil in us a different way of looking at things and a renewed sense of appreciation for the things we take for granted.

For instance, on the ground in Shanghai, I noticed quite profoundly the extent of the investment into the city and it isn't hard to notice the glitzy skyscrapers, malls and cars over in the districts of Lujiazui and Xintiandi, but this does well to hide the underlying struggle amongst the lower/middle classes. With property and rent prices soaring, gaining a place on the property ladder is incredibly hard, and many young locals need to rely on the savings of their parents just to own a place. The rising cost of living also does not help, with some restaurant prices matching London standards.

5) Developing a New Network and Establishing a USP

Finally, gaining the chance to make a new international network, and create a bridge across borders can be so vital to establishing connections that will be with us for years to come. As the typical lifespan of the expat can be as short as 5 years, those business contacts, friends and acquaintances you might have made working abroad can suddenly span over a much more diverse territory – which in turn, can exponentially enhance your own global reach.

Steve Salem is a Consultant at Helix Associates, and having worked in Shanghai for several years at one of the leading law firms in China, he has amassed an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the legal market helping to guide candidates to their ideal positions in Asia. Steve also assists with recruitment in the Middle East, Australia, Continental Europe and the US.

For an initial discussion about international relocation options please contact Steve on 0207 421 4572 or via