Where can an international lawyer go adventuring?

As some readers may know, Curzon is a lawyer — qualified in the US, but working first in Japan and now in Dubai. A common question that I’ve heard through my years of practice is, “How do you practice law if you’re a US lawyer in [Tokyo/Dubai]? Are you advising on US law?”

The answer to that is: no, not really. The role of many US and English lawyers working overseas is that of “international counsel.” (Why that role is generally limited to US and English lawyers is a story for a different day.) International counsel will often know or learn local law, but the biggest role for these lawyers is to “manage the deal.” Consequently, it’s not surprising that one of the core skills that international law firm say they are looking for today in lawyers is “project management skills.”

Of course, international lawyers practicing in various countries around the globe must comply with local law — and countries regulate foreign lawyers and their practice of law in a variety of different ways, which I break into four categories:

1. “Free for All”
A number of countries don’t really care what type of law you practice and what law you advise on. These countries include the UAE and Vietnam, among others — countries where, once you have a law license from somewhere (and you register it locally), there is generally no restriction on what legal advice you provide. Typically this emerges by accident — a local law allows international lawyers to “provide legal services” and local regulators are not sophisticated enough to differentiate between local law and the law of foreign countries.

Representing clients in court is a different matter — for that, in the UAE, I would have to be an Arab and speak Arabic. Most lawyers who appear in court in the UAE are Egyptian and Lebanese. In Vietnam, only Vietnamese lawyers at independent local firms can appear in court — Vietnamese lawyers at international firms and joint venture firms are prohibited from appearing in court.

2. The Global Standard
This system is the most common in the regulated, developed world, by which foreign lawyers can open their own law firms but cannot advise on local law without being admitted locally. These regimes include most states in the US, most countries in the EU, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and China.

In some countries such as the US and Japan, experience is a key requirement, while in others such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the registration is relatively straightforward. In some countries, partnerships with local lawyers are permitted, but some prohibit the practice (China) or regulate/restrict it (Singapore). In other countries, it’s quite easy to qualify as a local lawyer if you are already qualified overseas, with the principle of reciprocity applied in many countries.

This regime arguably makes the most sense, and is followed by most developed countries. Furthermore, regardless of the law, this is how most law firms operate from a risk management perspective.

3. Restrictions Apply
Many countries that are less integrated into the global economy, and which are protective of local businesses, do not recognize independent foreign lawyer offices or the practice of foreign lawyers. However, in many countries, “associations” between local law firms and international lawyers and law firms is common, together with the secondment of lawers from international firms to local associated law firm offices. Such countries include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia – countries that are important markets and where it is tolerated practice for foreign lawyers to be employed at local firms and for local firms to market themselves as being “in association” with an international firm. In some cases, the actual position of a lawyer–a partner in an international firm seconded to a local association firm–is not accurately reflected locally, where they are hired on fixed term employee contracts in order to be in compliance with local law (or be less likely to be seen as a breach by the bar association or other regulatory authority).

4. No thank you!
There are plenty of countries that are protectionist of local lawyers and do not allow foreign lawyers to practice in any capacity whatsoever. These countries include Korea, Malaysia and India. In practice, these countries tend to have the same law and regulations as those described in (3) above, but for either practical or regulatory reasons, no real associations between local firms and international firms have emerged. For example, in Korea, there are very few commercial law firms and none of them are interested (at present) in forming an exclusive relationship with an international law firm, and otherwise the country could have the same “associations” seen in Indonesia.

The inevitability of globalisation will change these countries. Korea is moving towards liberalisation, and under a free trade agreement with the EU, European law firms can open foreign law offices in Korea sometime this year. But the bar association in India is fighting liberalization hard, and the courts are tightening the restrictions on lawyers that have association offices or which fly in to conduct business meetings, enforcing penalties and taxes against any lawyer or firm they find in breach of the law.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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12 Responses to Where can an international lawyer go adventuring?

  1. Pingback: Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » Where can an international lawyer go adventuring?

  2. Joe Jones says:

    Good round-up.

    It may be worth noting that the reciprocity you mention under item 2 above is basically limited to countries within the English-speaking world. Solicitors in England, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore (among other legally similar countries) can swap their qualifications around pretty easily, and it’s also a relatively straightforward process for American lawyers to qualify in many other English-speaking countries, though qualifying for full admission in most US states requires at least a year of US law school *and* passing the entire bar exam. But there is no similar reciprocity among the many civil law countries of the world, as far as I know.

    In addition to “project management,” the big-swinging international lawyers are often called in because they know what questions to ask and what avenues to explore with the various “local” lawyers — they have an idea of all the potential local legal pitfalls and can tailor the deal so as to make all the local lawyers happy.

  3. Curzon says:

    “But there is no similar reciprocity among the many civil law countries of the world, as far as I know.”

    Well… the EU has pretty broad reciprocity, and the UK recently adapted its system to match EU requirements, so becoming admitted in the UK for a Hong Kong or Zambian lawyer is now the same as it is for a German or Greek lawyer. Much of the Arab world has pretty simple reciprocity that is based more on language than qualification. So that covers a lot of the globe.

  4. Roy Berman says:

    After the Japanese bar exam is no longer open to people who have not graduated from law school, will there be any expedited certification for those that are already lawyers in other countries, as in the case of the brief 1 year law school course in the US?

  5. yea says:

    what did curzon do to be able to get the job he has now?
    i mean, i would really love to do something like him and be an international lawyer, but … how ?

  6. Joe Jones says:

    The EU reciprocity is a bit different from the intra-commonwealth reciprocity. If you are Australian, you simply take the ethics portion of the English solicitor’s exam and you are a full-fledged English solicitor. The EU rules let you practice using your home country title in any other EU country, but you aren’t considered to be qualified under that country’s law unless you go through the cumbersome local admission process.

  7. Curzon says:

    Joe, that system — the QLTT — has been abolished as of September 2010. The new system, the QLTS, puts New York and Australian and Pakistani lawyers on the same footing — in line with the EU directive/regulations/rules/whatever.

  8. Michael says:

    Why don’t the countries with laws based on the Napoleonic Code have similar reciprocity as those based on Common Law?

  9. Gonzalez says:

    I have graduated from Law School in Europe in 2009 and would like to work in a foreign country which can accept me.

    Which countries in the world need lawyers and can easily work there?
    European countries are not an option.


  10. Curzon says:

    Singapore and China both have a high demand for lawyers. Moscow also has room for the right lawyers.

    Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and especially Riyadh are hot in the Middle East.

    There are other hidden opportunities. I know a number of foreign lawyers in three cities in Oman. Indonesia is a growing, if restricted, market and there are more and more foreign lawyers there, although many are based out of Singapore.

    There is always room for a lawyer looking to go to a “frontier” jurisdiction where there is new FDI. Iraq was such a jurisdiction many years ago.

  11. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Give me a UK, Australian or even NZ lawyer over a US lawyer for international counsel any day. US legal documents are generally like something you’d see in the pre-plain legal drafts days of the 1970s or 80s. Particularly annoying are the ALL CAPS clauses, which seem to abound in Reg 144A security offering documents. My favourite comment to make in mark up on those was “IS THIS CLAUSE MORE LEGALLY EFFECTIVE IF IT’S ALL IN CAPS? IF NOT, lower case please.” Then a US lawyer explained to me that the clause had to reflect the relevant statute exactly and the statute text was all in caps, so no US law firm dared try writing the clause in lower case.

  12. Curzon says:

    An unsophisticated jibe, my dear fellow. While I would admit that UK firms have better drafting that US law firms, you can’t fault a lawyer for following the clear form required by the US SEC.

    Generally, I would say that US law firms tend to be the most commercial and strategic, although they tend to make decisions on behalf of their clients, which I think is risky and inappropriate. British firms tend to be more technically perfectionist but less practical. (I say this having worked at both types of institutions.) I have a personal bias for Australian lawyers who I think are serve up the right balance.