GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2006
Practicing U.S. Law in Another Country
I have had the opportunity to practice U.S. law in both Germany and England, and I know other attorneys who practice in Germany, Japan, France, and Italy. None of us work for “international” law firms, all of us have our own niches, and we all made the move for different reasons. But no matter how you get there, practicing in another country has its own rewards and opportunities for great stories, hair pulling, and a whole other way of experiencing life.
Making the Decision. For me it was easy to take the plunge. I’d been in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps and decided to “get out” (military-speak for leaving the military). I was already living in Stuttgart, Germany, and my husband was still on active duty. I’d interviewed with some German law firms, but upon further research, it became clear that if I did work for a German firm, I would never be able to become a partner. With my husband’s emotional (and financial) support and help from a German-speaking friend, I was able to set up an office in Stuttgart. A few years later I moved my office to England for two years and then back to Germany.
Reasons to move or remain in a foreign country are varied. Some U.S. lawyers overseas make the decision to move based on extended family, because they fall in love with someone from another country, because they fall in love with the country, or because their spouse is being relocated to an overseas location. I know one attorney from Chicago, Illinois, who decided to move to Stuttgart because he found himself standing on a medallion in a sidewalk in Stuttgart that pointed to, among other cities, Chicago.
If you are not already living in the country or being transferred by a large organization, researching the culture is a priority. There are many books that will provide the nuts and bolts of living in, as opposed to visiting, a foreign country. There are also online forums that can be helpful. Be prepared for a slower pace of life. European countries, especially, are not open 24/7. This is a major adjustment for most Americans and the biggest area of frustration. If you don’t believe me, try it for a couple of weeks. Most Americans are surprised to discover that immigrating to a foreign country (particularly a European country) is actually much easier than immigrating to the United States. Many times, you can live in the country while you are applying for a visa. All Americans can live in a European country for three to six months, depending on the country, without having a visa.
You are not required to be admitted to practice law in the foreign country. Indeed, with the exception of England, where a U.S. attorney is allowed to take the bar examination and become an English lawyer, most European countries will not allow you to become a member of the bar. You will be allowed to practice “foreign law” in the country. Germany, for example, does not require any documentation at all. They really just want to make sure you pay your taxes. In England you must be accepted by the Law Society, which requires a formal application.
If you have a non-attorney spouse who wants to work, you will have to apply for a work visa for him or her. If you have children who either are or will become school age, you have to decide whether or not you will place them in a local school or an international school. If the children are young, the foreign school will be a little daunting at first, but they will quickly pick up the language. If you make the move with older children who do not already speak the language, an international school may be the better choice.
What Kind of Law to Practice. Deciding what kind of law to practice should probably factor into the initial decision to practice in a foreign country—but I’ve found that it usually does not. For most attorneys who have asked me about moving overseas, it is an afterthought. Many areas of U.S. law will easily transfer to an overseas location. I decided to begin a general practice focusing on the military. Gradually, my practice began to focus on family law, and now I practice family law exclusively. I know American lawyers who practice products liability, immigration law, tort law, U.S. administrative law, and transactional law for small and medium foreign companies, just to name a few practice areas.
Opening Your Office. My only experience in opening an office has been in Europe. I’d had a law office management course in law school, so I knew that I would need equipment and software. My major source of information was a new (in 1996) ABA online forum called Solosez. The lawyers on Solosez already been in private practice and had lots of advice to share. Opening an office in Germany and England was not much harder than in the United States; there are differences, however. And I understand that Italy is another story altogether. Germany requires a one-year notice to vacate the property; this information is statutory and not in the lease. If you break the lease or fail to give the proper notice, the landlord is not required to minimize her or his damages by trying to find a new tenant. England taxes you on the appraised value of your rental property, not the rental amount. I highly recommend that before you sign any lease you have it translated and reviewed by a local lawyer who speaks English and can tell you what the local authorities will expect.
You may have to charge a value-added tax to the fees you charge clients. You also will need to consult a tax adviser for your business and personal taxes. Bear in mind that, as an American citizen, you also will be required to file U.S. taxes every year. If you plan to hire a secretary, you also will need to know the employment laws.
Telephones may take a much longer time to have installed than in the United States, and they may not be quite as advanced. When I first opened my office in Germany, multiple-line, boxless telephones were on the market in the United States. In an effort to obtain the telephones in Germany, I made the mistake of trying to explain the telephones to the German phone company. After being transferred to several different offices and having their technicians express amazement that the telephones were on the market in the United States, whereas they were only being shown in tech shows in Germany, I decided that the conversation with the telephone company had become so off-course that I had to make a new call to the telephone company and just arrange for the regular phones.
Marketing will be another decision you must make. You may or may not be allowed to advertise in the local yellow pages; you actually may not want to. I advertise in the military newspaper in Europe and I am listed at the U.S. consulates. Because my target clients are military and people who work for the military throughout Europe, advertising in the local yellow pages does not meet my needs. Consulate listings, listing with the International Better Business Bureau, and websites are advertising options that can be used to reach your target client base.
I also recommend having a VOIP telephone and a fax system that will allow you to receive your faxes in a PDF format via e-mail.
Maintaining Your Legal Expertise. You will need to check with your state bar about how to maintain your license while you are overseas. I recommend you fly back to the United States at least once a year in order to attend CLE conferences, even if you are not required to do so. Not only will it help you stay up-to-date on the law, you will have an opportunity to commune with other American lawyers. Sometimes, it can be a little lonely being the only one in town practicing U.S. law.
At the End of the Day. This article is just a starting point for a move overseas to practice law. It is a move I can highly recommend. Even if you do it only for a year or two, you will have the opportunity to experience a different way of life, different food, and at least a little of another language. You will sometimes feel like an outsider looking in and then like an insider looking out, and you will never look at the world in the same way again.
Marion J. Browning-Baker is an American family law attorney practicing in Stuttgart, Germany. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.