How American Attorneys Can Make a Local Practice outside of the United States

By James A. Nickovich

Many American law students dream of working in Europe. Seasoned attorneys crave for a few years in Asia. A spouse’s career may necessitate an international move for the family. Practicing abroad is a romantic proposition, but few American attorneys make the move because there is no riskfree path. But if you are willing to be there, be flexible, and give, it can be done.

Be There

Countless attorneys would love to live in Zurich (or Rome or Buenos Aires) and express their interest by e-mailing local firms’ hiring partners, to no response. If you knock on that hiring partner’s door, you will get more attention. There is no substitute for presence; having mastered a few basic local phrases and with a letter of recommendation in hand.

Be Flexible

It is unlikely that you will be admitted to the local bar in your new home, foreclosing aspects of your prior practice (e.g., pleading in court), but this can be an opportunity to learn something new. Many litigators have happily crossed into arbitration, never to return to court.


Substantive Knowledge

The U.S. attorney-client privilege impacts foreign lawyers, though most know little about it. Civil law attorneys can be puzzled by America’s voluminous discovery obligations, and have less experience conducting cross-examinations than American practitioners. Make a presentation on such topics to everyone in your new firm. Not only will this lead to opportunities for you inside the firm, but it can also open doors for you to provide similar talks to firm clients and external groups in your new country. While you may not feel like an expert, as the American in your new firm, you are the American legal expert. And you will earn that title. Few tasks develop competence quicker than explaining complex new concepts to a room full of lawyers.

Language Skills

Law firms abroad all conduct at least some business in English and you may be the sole native speaker in your new firm. When there is a lot on the line requiring the perfect English phrase, sentence, or contractual clause, everyone in your firm should feel comfortable running drafts past you.

Intermediary Abilities

While you will be the “American” in your new firm, you may also be the only American attorney that your former U.S. colleagues know where you now live. This means reduced competition for particular types of matters. Your foreign firm may need to refer matters into the United States and look to you for leads or managing such referrals, while your former U.S. co-workers may need guidance on an issue in your new land. Instead of the typical model of competing with countless similarly situated attorneys in the same hometown, under your model as an American attorney practicing abroad, you are the natural—and perhaps only—intermediary for matters that touch both of your “two worlds.” Step into this role and work on the cases you can handle, while taking advantage of the introductions and referrals you can make. Your colleagues from both worlds will appreciate it.

James A. Nickovich

Jim Nickovich is counsel for VISCHER AG, based in Zurich and Basel, Switzerland, focusing on international arbitration. He previously spent a decade with two law firms in San Francisco litigating in state and federal courts across the United States. He participates in the Section’s International Arbitration Committee and International Anti-Corruption Committee.