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May 04, 2015 Asked and Answered

So you want to practice overseas? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Have you ever daydreamed about having a career abroad? Before saying bon voyage, you should know what’s involved. In this month’s Asked and Answered podcast, moderator Stephanie Francis Ward will speak with an attorney who’s done it and get his tips and advice on developing a practice beyond U.S. borders.

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Many Americans dream of living in Paris. Jonathan Wohl, a partner with McDermott Will & Emery is actually doing it. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and on today’s Asked and Answered, Jonathan’s joining us by Skype from Paris to tell us how he built his career there, and discuss how the job market has changed for U.S. lawyers who want to work abroad.

Now Jonathan, I know you fell in love with Paris as an undergraduate and you purposely planned out your career so that you could eventually be there, starting with actually practicing in Hong Kong, which is kind of a roundabout way. Could you tell us about how your plan went in the early stages?

Jonathan Wohl: Well, I guess I proved the world was round because I was practicing in New York after law school and I decided I really wanted to come to Europe after having experienced what it was like as an undergraduate. My first opportunity was really to join Coudert Brothers in Hong Kong. I knew Coudert had a very substantial Paris office and I went to Hong Kong on the understanding that if something opened up in France, I would be able to join the office here. And that’s what in fact happened.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. And what is the focus of your practice now?

Jonathan Wohl: The focus on my practice has really evolved over years. I started out as a finance and—international financial transactions lawyer and then I moved to doing M&A for banks. And then I worked generally in M&A, becoming more specialized in media. So it’s a very general corporate M&A practice, also dealing with major contracts.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Based on some pieces that I have read, it seems to be that it’s more common for the U.S.-based law firms with offices in France to hire French natives as opposed to bringing over U.S. lawyers. So if you are a U.S. lawyer who wants to practice in France, given that bit of information, what is your advice?

Jonathan Wohl: First of all, you’re absolutely right. Most of the American firms here—and there are many, many American law firms in Paris—the great substantial majority, if not almost the total legal staffing, is done by French trained lawyers, French nationals. This has changed from when I started here because so many French law students have done LLMs in the United States, have been exposed to the U.S. way of doing legal business, have become extremely fluent in English, and are totally able to act on international business transactions for foreign and American clients as well as French clients. So the environment has changed totally.

If you are an American lawyer and you’re looking to work in Paris, there are basically two routes. If you’re already established and practice, it’s going to be very difficult to join an American firm in Paris because there are restrictions on who can practice law in Paris. Basically you have to be admitted to the Paris bar, and that is not necessarily an easy task unless you are absolutely fluent in French and you are able to spend some time studying for the French bar.

So in that case, it’s perhaps better to see if you can—if you’re already working with French clients, there are some American lawyers here who are in-house, have very responsible positions in house with French corporates. If you’re a younger person, on the other hand, there are more avenues; because for students, for example, there are joint LLM JD—French LLM USJD programs which then you can use to—you have gained a certain amount of knowledge of French law which will enable you to pass the French bar—the Paris bar exams—more easily. And that would be an easier way of doing it if you start young.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you know with other European countries, is it maybe a little bit easier to practice law there as an American, or is it all pretty much—it’s pretty locked up right now?

Jonathan Wohl: No, I think the other European countries in major jurisdictions are different. It’s easier to practice law for an American in a place like Belgium or Germany because they allow foreigners to practice their own law, even though they are resident lawyers in those particular jurisdictions. And they don’t have to become qualified under the local law. So that is a definite advantage. And I think in the U.K. it’s something similar. So I think those three jurisdictions at least are somewhat more hospitable to American lawyers looking to work in Europe than would be France.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you think, just like you went to Hong Kong first, you may not get to the country you want to get right away? But you can go to a different country and work your way there if you have a plan that makes sense?

Jonathan Wohl: That could be a possibility. You’ll at least be closer. Well, in my case it wasn’t closer but…it depends also if you’re joining a large firm that has offices all over the world including Paris, then of course there’s a greater chance for you to get to Paris by making it clear to that firm that that’s where you want to end up being.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think for young lawyers, or perhaps law students who would like to work in Europe, is it best for them to go with a big firm? Or maybe they should do some sort of outreach program or something when they start their career?

Jonathan Wohl: I would think the best thing is to try to get trainee positions in the offices of large firms, because that provides the best training, a greater exposure to international kinds of transactions, more work in English—which is still going to be easier for most U.S. lawyers or law students. So I think that would be a good way to start. I know that, for example, we take trainees on a short term basis who are in fact students in a double JD LLM program here with one of the Paris law schools.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious. When you first started practicing law in Paris, were you already fluent in French legalese or did you pick it up more so after you got there and started working?

Jonathan Wohl: I was not fluent in French legalese but I definitely was fluent in French. And of course that is a sine qua non of being able to operate successfully and to live enjoyably in France is to speak French. Although far more French people—including especially young people and under 50—speak reasonably good English, you can’t really enjoy life in France unless you speak French. In terms of legalese, no, I really didn’t know any French legalese when I arrived here. But after some years I became more comfortable with French legal terms and by osmosis learned quite a bit of French law.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Mentioning the language, are there significant cultural differences between life as a large firm lawyer in the United States and life as a large firm lawyer in France? And if so, what are those differences?

Jonathan Wohl: I think it really depends on the extent to which your firm is integrated. There are some firms where the offices are run rather independently, and others where they are pretty much integrated into the overall firm. I think the—obviously there are cultural differences because you are dealing with people, and you are living with people and working with people who aren’t American. They’re predominantly French with a few other sprinklings of other nationalities. I think the cultural difference is basically a cultural difference not so much in the practice of law. There used to be an enormous cultural difference in the practice of law, but over time that has really been reduced. Now it’s just the culture—the difference of living in a foreign culture.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And I think that maybe leads to the question probably everyone wants to know. I have the impression there’s quite a bit more vacation time in France than in the States. Does that work at your firm as well, or do they tend to follow United States vacation time trends instead of France’s?

Jonathan Wohl: The young lawyers generally take substantial amounts of vacation, although not as much as employees in a commercial enterprise or an industrial enterprise or a bank would take, no; far less. But certainly the partners don’t leave on the long vacations that France is allegedly famous for. I think most of our partners don’t leave for more than a week or two at a time in the summer. So I don’t think it’s—those vacation rules are, in practice, not applicable to successful lawyers.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. I was also curious, because I know you’ve made a couple of moves as a lateral partner in your career—somewhat recently. Do you think in terms of negotiating your next career move and negotiating with the firm you might be joining, when you are in France and that firm is based in the States, do you think the negotiation process to make a lateral partner move is different than if it was all domestic in the U.S.?

Jonathan Wohl: First of all, I’m making no more moves in my career. Secondly, my own career moves were a little unusual because the firm that I practiced with for 25 more years actually went out of existence so it was a particular kind of move. But I see it more now in terms of the laterals that we’re bringing in because our office has grown from only 13 lawyers when we opened up in 2011 to 45 lawyers today. And I’ve been involved in a lot of the lateral recruiting. And it’s certain that American law firms have far more rigorous recruitment standards and recruitment procedures for lateral partners than would a local French firm.

So that it does require more time, there’s much more analysis of potential candidates than would be the case if you were joining a smaller French firm. It wouldn’t even necessarily take more time, on the other hand.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So when you’re working in France, is it hard to get your work visa for lawyers there, or is it a pretty easy process?

Jonathan Wohl: When you come to France, as I said if you’re an established American lawyer and you want to come to France, then there are really two ways. You have to either be with a firm that has an office in France, or join a firm that has an office in France. But then when you come, unless you pass the bar—which is not an easy task—you can’t really stay for any length of time. If you join a corporate as an in house counsel, then they will obtain, if they can, a work permit. Work permits and putting the aside the ability to practice law, but the work permits really depend on—in a corporate situation would depend on how unique your capabilities are compared to what is found in the French job market otherwise.

For law firms, on the other hand, you can bring people over but if they’re not authorized to practice law, you can’t practice law in a Paris based law firm. So for youngers, it’s a little bit different. Younger lawyers would start out on a student visa. They would then maybe start working as a trainee in a foreign firm and then pass the French bar, and then eventually convert their student visa status to a normal resident visa. But it is not necessarily an easy process. I think in some other jurisdictions it’s much simpler.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. You mentioned the French bar. Do they have the equivalent of BARBRI in France, for studying for the French bar? Is there anything like that?

Jonathan Wohl: It’s the Paris bar. Most lawyers who are practicing international law or in big firms are either members of the Paris bar or a bar just outside of the locality just outside of Paris.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, I see.

Jonathan Wohl: And I believe there are courses but not nearly as well established as BARBRI is. That’s why many of the people who successfully take the bar exam that can be taken, for example, by—if you have a U.S. bar, you’re registered as a U.S. lawyer and you’re admitted to the bar in one of the jurisdictions in the United States, you can be allowed to apply for a membership in the French bar. You have to take an exam. It’s a little bit more simple than the regular Paris bar exam, but you still need to know a substantial amount of French law. So most of the people who take that exam, most of them are students who have had a chance to study law here.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. So it sounds like really your best bet if you’re interested in practicing law in France as an American is to go there and study.

Jonathan Wohl: Yeah. It’s better to start as a young person rather than try to move here as an established lawyer. It is certainly more simple. And one thing that you also would want to consider is to go into a practice area which leads itself to more international type of practice, whether it’s finance, arbitration, competition law; that opens up more possibilities in terms of really being able to practice in a manner that doesn’t require an absolute in-depth knowledge of local law.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. I think that’s everything that I wanted to ask you today. Did you want to add anything else?

Jonathan Wohl: Paris, it’s still a very beautiful place to live and I certainly can understand why people would want to at least visit if they can’t set up shop here.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. Thank you so much for joining us. And listeners, thank you for joining us. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and you’ve been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

[End of transcript]

Updated on May 8 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Jonathan Wohl is a partner with the Paris office of McDermott Will & Emery. Wohl, a Harvard Law School graduate, is a corporate law attorney who advises both international companies doing business in France and French companies engaged in cross-border transactions and projects.