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‘Competition is fierce’ for lawyers looking to move overseas

Post-pandemic, overseas travel is back on many people’s radars, including mid-level lawyers looking for a change in the form of overseas work. However, as the legal landscape evolves and market dynamics shift, the path to international legal roles has undergone notable changes.

user iconLauren Croft 08 May 2024 Big Law
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Despite “softer” market demand overseas, legal recruiters have said that Australian lawyers should be “persistent” when looking for an international career move.

As previously reported by Lawyers Weekly, many legal candidates in the Sydney and Melbourne markets jumped ship coming out of statewide lockdowns to move either interstate or, when travel restrictions were eventually lifted, overseas, which is beneficial both on a personal and professional level.

In fact, a new study from Cigna Healthcare recently showed that people who live overseas demonstrate higher health scores despite various challenges around homesickness, work/life balance, and health-related issues, with 77 per cent encountering at least one challenge in the past six months.


Despite shifting (and increasingly tough) market conditions, legal recruiters say that many Australian lawyers are still looking to move into roles overseas – returning to Australian firms with a broader professional perspective and global experience.

Are lawyers still moving overseas?

While more lawyers were looking to move overseas two years ago, in the first half of 2022, legal recruiters confirmed that since then, overseas markets have been “softer” and harder to break into.

G2 Legal Australia director Daniel Stirling said that G2 Legal still facilitates moves overseas, often to in-house roles or completely new firms, with the United Kingdom being a popular market for Australians.

“We do assist with overseas moves for Australian lawyers, often in conjunction with our UK offices. These would generally be to new firms or in-house roles as the firms would handle any internal transfers themselves,” he told Lawyers Weekly.

However, Major Lindsey & Africa Sydney managing director Ricardo Paredes said demand is no longer as high for Australian lawyers in larger overseas markets, such as the UK, as it was two or three years ago.

“Since the second half of 2022, demand has been softer for foreign qualified lawyers in the US and UK. Although we have seen a bit of an uptick from London firms willing to consider Australian lawyers in recent times, demand is patchy,” he said.

“Demand for Australian lawyers in smaller international markets like Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo is stable, especially in the practice areas of energy and resources and projects and infrastructure. Overall, opportunities for Australian lawyers looking to move internationally this year remain steady, and we remain busy supporting a number with their objective to live and work abroad.”

Similarly, Burgess Paluch director Doron Paluch emphasised that while he’s still placing Australian lawyers in overseas roles, “law firms are certainly being more cautious and conservative now than they have been”.

“Good lawyers are still certainly securing roles overseas, particularly in the UK. But many law firms in the UK are telling us that they really want to make sure they can’t find somebody with local experience first. They are getting more interest locally than they have been in the past. They have fewer roles than they’ve had in the past. But there are also more lawyers from around the world who are moving to London or trying to move to London.

“Firstly, the UK-based arm of that law firm may not have a need for a lawyer to come across from Australia. Secondly, when Australian law firm offices hire Australian lawyers in Australia, they are generally hoping to keep them for a substantial period of time. Many firms talk the talk about making international transfers, but some of them are not able to actually accommodate that goal,” he said.

“One of the other reasons that the market has been softer in the UK has been the general state of the market internationally. We’ve got a couple of wars going on around the world at the moment. America was supposed to be going into a recession not long ago. Interest rates have risen continuously. And law firms are generally watchful of the economy. They also did some substantial hiring in the last 18 months. So, some law firms are being a little bit more cautious, being more selective, and maybe doing an extra round of interviews before hiring.”

Moreover, Paluch said that while many lawyers are still looking to move overseas, many are more likely to move to a new firm than stay with their current one.

“Many lawyers don’t want to inform their current employer that they want to go overseas because they know their employer is unlikely to be able to accommodate that ambition. Lawyers don’t want to put a target on their own back. They don’t want to advise their employer that they might be leaving as it can take three to six months to secure a good role overseas. Lawyers don’t want to be sidelined during that period by an employer who knows that the lawyer is planning to move on,” he added.

“Very often, Australian law firms and international law firms with Australian offices are not able to accommodate an internal international move. It’s a difficult one for Australian law firms because they certainly want to look supportive and they want to make sure they’re seen as looking after staff. But sometimes, you can’t just create a role for a lawyer overseas when it doesn’t exist. And there is a substantial cost to the local law firm in trying to accommodate that desire when it means you’re going to lose your asset.”

High-demand jobs and other challenges overseas

According to the Cigna Healthcare study, while moving overseas can come with a range of benefits, it can also come with unique challenges, including feeling isolated and homesick – making it ever-important for workplaces to be supportive.

“It’s common for globally mobile individuals to suffer social isolation, which can compound emotional difficulties or aggravate stress and burnout. The workplace is often their most valuable social outlet,” the chief executive of global health benefits, international health at Cigna Healthcare, Wendy Sherry, said.

“Boosting occupational wellbeing and workplace culture is an effective lever to pull for improving globally mobile employee health and retention.”

This is particularly important as larger law firms overseas often have long hours and are high-stress environments – particularly in areas like corporate law, which Stirling said was a good fit for an international move.

“Many of the key destinations, such as London and New York, are well known to have high demands and long working hours, particularly within the top law firms, which are often the ones to hire Australian lawyers. This is balanced against the unrivalled work quality and opportunity to handle global transactions, experience living overseas, and travel more widely.

“So, I don’t think this will have a dramatic impact on the attractiveness of overseas work, but it is certainly important for lawyers to understand the potential negative aspects and to try to guard against them,” he said.

“Some areas of law are more of a natural fit for moving internationally. These are generally transactional areas such as corporate M&A, banking or projects. This is because these transactions work in a similar way globally, where other areas are subject to very different regulatory regimes and procedures such as competition law or litigation.”

The practice area is important when considering a move overseas, Paluch agreed, in addition to having a good level of experience and a visa or citizenship where possible.

“Law firms are still preferring not to have to sponsor lawyers. So, if you have any eligibility for a UK passport, it’s certainly easier to apply for a role once you’ve got it.

“Being on the ground in the UK can help because it shows the employers over there that you really are serious and available, but it certainly does not guarantee any employment opportunity in the UK.

“Law firms over there still want a lawyer with at least two to four years post admission – ideally, probably three to five, because many law firms in the UK and around the world will knock two years off of an Australian lawyer’s PQE to assess them by local standards. So, if you’re only a one-year lawyer, most of the firms overseas will treat you at best as newly qualified, and there are very few good roles around for that level of lawyer,” he said.

“So, I think level of experience is important. Area of practice is still important. The transactional areas like banking and finance and corporate and commercial are still the most in demand, and I would still say those lawyers experience the smoothest transitions initially. With some exceptions, areas like employment law, property and litigation still aren’t transferring as well.”

Competition is also extremely “fierce” for legal roles overseas; however, there are a number of Australian partners working for overseas firms, proving that it’s a very real possibility.

“If lawyers want to ‘make it’ abroad, they need to know that they’ll need to work very hard because competition is fierce. Australian lawyers are known for their strong work ethic, and this is borne out by the number of senior lawyers and partners around the world who are Australians who moved abroad and stayed,” Paredes said.

“For those lawyers who want to move abroad for a few years and return to Australia, ideally, they should return home by the time they have seven to eight years PQE, especially if they wish to continue on a path to partnership with a firm back in Australia.”

The best time to go (and come back)

Despite various demands and increased competition overseas, lawyers are able to gain high-quality international work experience, which makes them sought-after candidates by Australian firms or in-house legal departments.

“I have always found that lawyers with overseas experience are highly sought after and can leverage that exposure to advance their career more quickly than others. It is also true that major overseas firms look for the highest calibre lawyers anyway, so these candidates are generally already in demand, and this just adds another string to the bow,” Stirling said.

“The best time to move is often between three to five years post-admission firstly because there are generally more opportunities at that level. In addition, it is difficult to move before that as some jurisdictions have different qualification processes, which means that your number of years post-admission can be discounted. It also works well if you then spend two or three years overseas, as you will be re-entering the Australian market at a good level, which is also in high demand.”

In addition to being highly sought after, lawyers who move overseas can also benefit from higher salaries and make global connections.

“Although it’s not a holiday, and hours can be long, lawyers are generally better paid than their counterparts in Australia, so the trade-off is generally worth it. Those that go know it comes with the territory so are well prepared,” Paredes said.

“Lawyers who have had the opportunity to work abroad tend to come back to the Australian legal market with a strong sense of confidence and a global mindset to how they operate. Many return with expansive global networks, which can help them carve out practices.”

Paluch echoed a similar sentiment and emphasised that despite a tough market, lawyers who are keen to move overseas can still do so if they are “persistent and proactive”.

“The experience you get overseas is often very valuable. Working overseas is a very good way to broaden your horizons, and having experience at a good law firm overseas is recognised very favourably by law firms here when you’re returning to Australia. It depends on exactly what you’re doing over there and how long you’re there for and in what capacity. But working overseas is looked upon very favourably by law firms here upon your return,” he said.

“Where there’s a will, there is often a way. In general terms, I’d encourage people who want to work overseas not to be deterred. There are still ways to secure roles in overseas jurisdictions. You may need to be prepared to wait longer, you may need to be prepared to be a bit more flexible in terms of the kind of firms you consider, or the kind of roles you accept, but there are still opportunities.”