GPSolo Magazine - September 2006
My legal practice is similar to that of many sole practitioners—except that I have an associated office in France and am an accredited attorney to the French Consulate in Chicago. Two to three times each year, I take a business trip to France. I really do conduct business there, but I have great fun while doing it.
New and not-so-new attorneys often ask me how I got to this point and how they can do the same thing (albeit, not necessarily in France). The answer is simple: (1) work for a large firm with international clients; or (2) speak a foreign language, network with people from that country or culture, and develop expertise in areas of need to these people.
The first approach speaks for itself. The second is achievable, but it will not necessarily happen immediately.
An international legal practice is more than jetting between countries putting together deals, and it may never be that for you. Starting with my last suggestion first, you need to have legal skills in a practice area needed by the people you wish to work with. Look carefully at what these people need. Immigration is one area; another is real estate. There is little need for French-speaking criminal defense attorneys in the United States. However, French people do business here, and Americans buy houses in France. Trade and intellectual property also could get you transnational work. If you are clueless about what practice area to develop, look for information from the U.S. State Department, chambers of commerce, and trade organizations.
Be competent and make sure that your fees are reasonable. People in a community talk among themselves about their problems and how to solve them. Once you get your first case, your reputation will circulate within your target group. Speaking a foreign language does not allow you to be incompetent or expensive, at least not with the second client. Unless you speak Urdu in Omaha, you will likely have competition that also has foreign-language skills.
You need to speak and write the language of the group you wish to work with. I am not talking about the high school equivalent of the language. Nor am I talking about being able to write a thesis in that language. I am talking about being able to write and talk with someone sufficiently fluently so that you can communicate.
Do not think that you can slide by with a translation software program—they can be misleading, and I would worry that they might cause you malpractice problems. Using a secretary or a spouse to translate is not communicating with a client and will only help if you are the only attorney available.
You need to be culturally sensitive. If you speak well but do not understand a culture’s nuances, you can have miscommunication and even offend your clients.
Know something about the legal background from which potential clients come. France has a civil law code system. I know that French clients do not understand stare decisis and case law precedence, despite all of our law-related TV shows that they might have watched. Some countries have different legal standards for divorce and inheritance, depending on a person’s religion. Be prepared to explain the differences between our legal system and theirs.
Be cognizant of the difference in the time zones between you and clients in another country. Be prepared to make yourself available when they are in their offices.
The next aspect to developing an international practice is to network. This is not merely passing out business cards. Many attorneys speak two or more languages. There is competition. At various events I see a lot of attorneys who come with cards and an attitude. You need to plant the seeds in the fertile field of your target group that you are competent, easy to work with, and conversant in the language and culture.
Join chambers of commerce and social groups. Let people in bar associations know that you have something unique to offer. Let attorneys in the large firms with international clients know that you could handle a matter that is too small for their firm, and that you can be trusted not to steal business from them. Let your friends and family know that you are providing services to a certain language group.
Provide pro bono services or give speeches to groups that represent your target population. I am the free attorney for three of these. I occasionally learn things from working with these “freebies” that help with my corporate clients.
Take classes. The way I met the French lawyers with whom I am associated is through taking a class in business French at the Alliance Française. One session was taught by a French attorney temporarily in Chicago. She provided an introduction for me to attorneys she knew well in Paris.
Sell the idea that, as a solo or small firm attorney, you can efficiently and less expensively handle the issues that the big international, multinational firms cannot or will not do, absent a large retainer.
Make sure that you look beyond local work and always keep your eye on the connection with the other country. There are quite a few competent attorneys in Chicago who fluently speak Spanish, Italian, Czech, Greek, Serbian, Lithuanian, German, and any number of other languages. They can get saddled with the immigrant community’s local needs and never reach the transnational work.
When you are known, people think of you. Just make sure that they think well of you.
Lynne R. Ostfeld has been a sole practitioner in Chicago since 1991 and affiliated with Allain Kaltenbach Plaisant Raimon ( France) since 1993. Her practice areas include probate and estate planning, civil litigation, business law, and agribusiness. She can be reached at email@example.com.