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After the Bar

Practice Areas & Settings

What the Rising Role of International Law Firms Means for New Lawyers

Thomas Chambers


  • This article draws attention to the unavoidable consequence that establishing a cross-border practice forces firms to come to terms with incongruities necessarily inherent to different legal educational systems, discusses the distinctions between professional law degrees and variations in grading systems and standards, and advocates for better understanding of diverse legal systems and different training methods at intake phase.
  • The withdrawal of some US law schools from national rankings prompts a reevaluation of hiring practices and a shift toward a global market for legal services.
  • Law firms, especially those with a global presence, can positively impact the legal profession by understanding and adapting to diverse legal jurisdictions, cultures, and credentials, fostering talent, and influencing positive change in the evolving legal landscape.
What the Rising Role of International Law Firms Means for New Lawyers
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Now that you’ve passed the bar, you know a little bit. That’s just it. It’s limited. In no small or insignificant way, legal training, skills, and knowledge—often painstakingly acquired after years of study and at considerable economic expense—are limited in both scope and application.

The Complexity of International Law Degrees

These limitations are largely by design as national jurisdictions and regulatory bodies superimpose a prescribed course of study that opens the door to one seeking licensure, often, but not always, within the jurisdiction that provided the professional law degree. My Juris Doctor degree, although earned in Northern Ireland, is a professional law degree in English Law (not the law of Northern Ireland), one of three legal jurisdictions in the UK. Scotland has a mixed legal system of civil and common law known as Scots Law. It is so dissimilar to the law of England and Wales that a conversion course is required for graduates with professional law degrees in Scots Law who wish to practice law in England.

Professional law degrees, even within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, offer different courses of study in different laws. Adding to these complexities, professional law degrees are known by different names as different standards of law degrees are offered, ranging from the undergraduate Bachelor of Laws (LLB) to the doctoral Juris Doctor (JD). This means some professional law degrees are subject to the undergraduate grading system scales and standards, and some are assessed at a level far above this.

France, Germany, and many other countries operate under Civil Law systems. Further, how European Union Law applies—and when—is entirely different. However, these intricacies and differentiations have not stopped the flow of business. The market for legal services is undoubtedly global, which has drawn many to pursue legal education outside their national borders.

Reevaluation of What Global Law Firms Want in Candidates

Starting in November of 2022, several US law schools withdrew their participation in the US News & World Report law school rankings. Yale was the first to announce their voluntary departure, followed by the law schools at Harvard, The University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Georgetown, and many others.

Suddenly, an influential publication seen by students and employers as a means to identify a quality legal education lost the cooperation of several prominent participants. Consequently, it has become more difficult for US law schools to point to a widely accepted national litmus test to present their form of legal instruction as elite and preeminent compared to their peers. As the merits of this law school ranking system that reached near-mythic status when I was in college are debated and examined, an opportunity arises to evaluate other industry practices to better adapt to the changing needs of the international marketplace.

This reduction in the stature of a longstanding paragon of the US national law school rankings system had the makings to trigger a forced, sudden reevaluation of what law firms seek in candidates and how quality is determined. A change like this had the potential to persuade law firms as well as law schools to consider alternatives to OCI database hiring lists and seize the opportunity to reform an outdated practice that presumes that all or most candidates qualified to practice law at the largest firms in the US have access to or were processed through these hiring mechanisms.

Despite the reticence to change this approach, law firms with a global presence have the rarefied ability to look to, and therefore selectively choose to, attract the candidates who more adequately reflect their diverse client base and seek out those with diverse experience.

Increased Demand for International Legal Services

Cravath Swaine & Moore launched its English Law practice by securing the professional legal services of two partners from Shearman & Sterling. The latter has recently confirmed it will merge with Allen & Overy, growing its international presence significantly in this same market. This activity suggests and reflects an increased demand for legal services that necessitate cooperation across national boundaries and capacity and willingness for this type of growth.

Presently, the common practice is one of the following: to take from or take over. Rather than seeking to raid from rival law firms or merge, talent can be nurtured and developed in the early stages of professional development. To do this, increased awareness and understanding of different law degrees, grading systems, criteria, and different training and assessment standards across nations and jurisdictions are essential. Beyond this, increased communication between, and coordination with, the various offices of a firm can serve to identify at early stages where talent, interest, and business needs align. This carries with it an early investment of the firm’s time and resources to attract, supervise, train, and retain young talent, but the rewards are largely untold.

In this context, law firms with a global presence, especially large international firms, can impact generations of lawyers. Legal behemoths with centuries of experience among their collective ranks of practitioners can usher in the change that the rankings systems left deflated.

By taking the time to appreciate the different complexities of national legal jurisdictions, systems, cultures, and credentials, international law firms can bring new lawyers into the fold at first instance instead of fighting over them in the future. The market is changing and expanding to meet businesses' increasingly complex and delicate needs.

International Law Firms Can Be Global Business Leaders

As the business and practice of law become more multinational and multicultural, the ability to adapt and adjust appropriately positively influences the firm and the profession. International law firms are uniquely positioned to profit from utilizing the diverse backgrounds of internationally trained lawyers to serve better and address the ever-changing business needs of an increasingly global marketplace. This creates an opportunity for both young lawyers and the profession to respond with more strength and resiliency to changes in domestic market conditions by embracing the global practice of law more wholeheartedly.