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Far from Home: Foreign Lawyers in the United States

Jasmine Zhee

Far from Home: Foreign Lawyers in the United States
10'000 Hours/DigitalVision via GettyImages

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I was admitted to the New York Bar in January 2020. During the admission ceremony, I stood up proudly when my home country, Singapore, was called. I was admitted to the Singapore Bar in 2011. At that time, I could not have predicted that my legal career would eventually take me to the United States for a variety of professional and personal reasons. This journey to the United States is shared by countless other lawyers who were educated and practiced abroad.

Each foreign-trained lawyer has a unique story; many chose to come to the United States to work on international transactions and cases. I spoke with three friends to understand why and how they secured employment here:

  • Luisa Gutiérrez Quintero, a Colombian-educated lawyer who practices at King & Spalding (Austin, Texas), sought to maximize her exposure to international arbitration cases.
  • Eva Tanna, a transactional lawyer from India who practices at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP (NYC), was similarly drawn to the prospect of gaining experience in complex deals.
  • Melisa Ortes González, an Argentine white-collar criminal defense attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP (NYC), wanted the opportunity to work on cross-border cases.

I cannot overstate how difficult it is for foreign lawyers to secure legal employment in the United States, even if admitted to a US state bar. Many of us have found that American law firms generally value a JD over years of relevant international experience. Foreign lawyers who pursue LLMs at prestigious American universities will find that most employment resources are, understandably, targeted at JD students.

However, there are three steps that foreign lawyers can take to aid their quest:

1. Network

It is insufficient to rely on online job postings. Employers are frequently deluged with applications. It is essential to establish a network of contacts who might either be aware of an upcoming opportunity or be able to point an applicant in the right direction. Eva estimated that she sent over a thousand emails (including persistent, but polite, follow-ups) and met over a hundred people before she secured employment. Luisa established networking goals for herself, which included target numbers of weekly emails and in-person meetings.

2. Research

In establishing her network of contacts, Melisa spent copious hours researching firms with practice groups relevant to her background and people with a nexus to the firms where she aspired to work. She reached out to former Argentine law school classmates and coworkers who moved to the United States. Luisa researched partners that were involved in cases or transactions that fit with her background.

3. Identify a Selling Point

Numerous foreign lawyers are competing for a limited number of positions. They, therefore, need to consider what unique attributes or work experience sets them apart from the next lawyer (whether foreign or JD) and emphasize those factors in their communications with prospective employers.

Like Luisa, Eva, and Melisa, many foreign lawyers arrive in the United States armed with prior work experience. For example, having worked as a transactional lawyer in India, Eva started her first day at her previous firm, Latham & Watkins LLP, familiar with complex deal structures. She also had the soft skills that most attorneys only acquire after a few years of practice.

Although these experiences may not be the same as the experiences of an associate born and educated in the United States, the knowledge and skills gained from these experiences can nevertheless be an immediate asset to employers. While it can be an uphill battle to demonstrate this to potential employers, taking the above three steps can go a long way.