Working overseas is a rite of passage for generations of Australian lawyers. Play your cards right and you’ll be well-placed to continue a successful career back home.
With quarantine requirements removed and borders reopened, Australian lawyers are once again moving overseas in droves. Global talent shortages and the increasingly international nature of legal work mean opportunities are plentiful.
The UK, US, Middle East and Asia are among the most popular destinations for itchy-footed practitioners keen to gain international work experience and enjoy the travel and financial benefits that can come with an overseas posting.
But what happens two, five or 10 years later – or more, as is the case among many expats who stay overseas longer than planned – when these lawyers return to work in Australia? How do prospective employers view overseas experience and how easy is it to land a new role back home?
Exploring opportunities for expats
Australia’s diaspora is estimated at around one million people, and it’s predicted to grow to 1.35 million by 2030. According to a 2021 survey by Advance, a professional network for global Australians, more than one quarter of Australian expats work in financial and professional services – more than any other sector.
For lawyers, London remains a top destination owing to the size of its market, a sense of cultural familiarity and the ease of acquiring a youth mobility scheme visa for the under 35s. The E-3 visa has also made working in US hot spots like New York and California increasingly popular.
“London, New York and northern California are the main places,” says Jonathan Walmsley, owner of legal recruiter Marsden. “After that, it’s Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong.”
He says most roles for Australian lawyers are in private practice as in-house roles tend to go to local practitioners. “Within private practice, it’s pretty much anything that’s transactional: private equity, funds, leveraged finance, banking and finance, project finance, energy and renewables. The most active areas right now are funds, private equity and finance.”
That’s not to say landing an in-house role is impossible. In 2011 and with four years’ experience in law under his belt, Dane Clapson left Sydney for Geneva and a role at the International Air Transport Association. “It was for a general commercial lawyer, which was what I was doing, so I applied, and everything just seemed to fall into place,” he says.
After two-and-a-half years, Clapson moved to Singapore with the same company. The original plan to stay for another two to three years soon became eight years. “I was working in aviation for the whole time doing a lot of general commercial work, as well as some niche aviation work and aviation commercial work,” he says.
Associate Professor Penny Crossley from the University of Sydney Law School says it’s “fairly easy” to be admitted as a local lawyer in many places. “Lots of our graduates will go and get admitted in Singapore, Hong Kong, the US or the UK without very many difficulties at all. It’s a fairly common pathway.”
In jurisdictions where it’s more difficult, such as China, where Crossley worked for just under a year, there are still ample opportunities for foreigners. “I officially couldn’t practise Chinese law while living in Beijing, but I could do outbound investments from China and I could advise companies coming into China,” she says. “You tend to do a lot of outbound work.”
Lessons learned abroad
From a career perspective, working in an international environment can be a transformative experience. Dubai-based Stuart Greenland, director of the Middle East branch of DMJ, which specialises in legal recruitment, says working on larger and more sophisticated transactions is one of the biggest draws for Australian lawyers.
“In New York and London, in particular, the values and complexity of the deals that you’ll be involved with, it just broadens your experience,” he says.
“You’re working with different clients and building out exposure and experience on big transactions that you might not get access to in the Australian market. If you’re a construction lawyer, the Middle East is the hot place to work because there’s so much going on in the region.”
Walmsley agrees the size, scale and complexity of transactions are much larger than what’s typical in Australia. “In the US especially, or perhaps a US or magic circle firm in London or Singapore, the pace is picked up a lot,” he says.
“You’ll experience an accelerated learning curve because you’re doing more deals, and more deals that are more sophisticated, than what we get in the Australian market.”
Working with colleagues and clients from diverse backgrounds also benefits cultural competence, explains Crossley, who lived in the UK for four years. Learning how networking, information sharing and negotiating a contract differ across cultures are valuable skills for Australian lawyers.
“The thing I learned in China, other than the completely different negotiation style, was how Chinese people network,” she says. “It’s a very conscious way to network and build business and develop business, and seeing that in action was so valuable to me.”
Clapson says the “cross-cultural collaboration skillset” he developed, largely while working in Singapore, helped to facilitate the development of relationships.
“In Singapore we were doing a lot of work expanding into Asia-Pacific and developing business in the region, and also helping our Canadian headquarters to do business in the Asia-Pacific region,” he says.
“When you work in Asia, you learn Indonesia is very different to India. It’s a completely different way of doing business, let alone then add China or Japan.”
Most Australians who work overseas make the move in their 20s or 30s. Walmsley says the sweet spot is between four and six years’ professional experience. “That’s when you’re most marketable overseas.”
Back on home turf
Almost half of the Australian diaspora return home within five years of being away, according to a report by PwC. After more than two years of pandemic-related upheaval, a greater number of Australians are repatriating as borders reopen. Advance predicts a huge surge in top global talent returning to the Australian market.
Anecdotal evidence suggests personal motivators like ageing parents, a desire to raise a family on home turf or a general feeling of homesickness are common drivers.
For Clapson, moving back to Sydney in 2021 felt like the “right thing to do” after being made redundant, due to the impact of the pandemic on global aviation, and becoming a father.
He landed another job in Singapore and was able to negotiate part-time hours and to work from Sydney as the role covers the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, he set up his own practice servicing Australian and overseas-based clients.
“It’s a really good arrangement at the moment,” Clapson says. “It was a soft landing into Sydney.”
For lawyers without the buffer of returning home with work lined up, research shows rebuilding professional networks is the biggest challenge for returning expats, which can impede job searching. “If you need contacts and connections and to bring in a book of business, then obviously that puts you a bit behind other people who stayed in Australia,” Walmsley says.
But the good news is prospective employers generally view international experience favourably.
“The experience may even enhance your career back in Australia with the know-how you’ve gained, because employers may see you at a higher level than if you’d stayed working in Australia,” Greenland says. In fact, he says some lawyers return to their old firm with an improved skillset.
Walmsley agrees, especially if the experience is gained at a top-tier firm. “If someone has had four or five years in New York at a top-tier firm, or in a respected legal market, it’s seen as high-quality experience,” he says.
“Coming back with that kind of prestige and links to an international market and connections is a really positive thing.”
Tara Gandy, a human resources consultant at McCullough Robertson, which has more than 350 employees across in its five Australian offices, says the firm has hired lawyers with experience working in the UK, Ireland and South Africa.
Except for senior associate or special counsel roles with a business development component that rely on strong networks, she says lawyers with international experience can easily slot back into roles in Australia.
“We feel they bring in new ideas and a difference perspective and, importantly, lawyers with overseas experience help in the development of our global networks,” Gandy says. “It’s about leveraging their skills and learning from them.”
Likewise, Crossley says the international nature of modern law firms means cross-cultural skills honed overseas are in demand back home.
“So much of the work we do these days has an international or interjurisdictional component,” she says.
“On almost every transaction, they’ll be an international company involved – you might be bringing in assets from overseas or using foreign lenders – and because of that it makes the skills much more transferable.
“It means that it’s easy to move overseas, but it’s also easy to move home.”
Making strategic choices
As with most professional careers, there are fewer opportunities higher up the corporate ladder, and this issue can be exacerbated when very experienced lawyers return from overseas – especially if the experience is gained in niche markets.
“When someone stays overseas for 25 years and comes back as a really senior lawyer, it’s challenging to come back into the local market because there’s very few jobs at that senior level,” Walmsley says.
“If you’ve been working in, say, an offshore environment in the Cayman Islands for 25 years, that experience won’t be seen as as relevant as someone coming from London or Hong Kong.”
Crossley recommends a strategic approach to ensure overseas experience can be best leveraged upon returning to Australia.
“You might spend two or three years at a law firm and then go overseas for a little while just prior to mid-career,” she says.
“If you want to make partner in Australia, realistically you don’t generally move back from overseas straight into a partnership role. Normally, you have to do a couple of years back here first before you get made partner.”
Of course, life can get in the way of best laid plans, but Greenland says he “rarely finds someone who regrets having working overseas”. Indeed, Clapson jokes the only thing he wishes he did differently is, “buying a house in Sydney before I left 10 years ago”.
“The experience of going overseas can’t be beat. It’s worthwhile for anyone who’s even contemplating it.”