Think global, hire local

The globalisation of legal practices, writes Jacqueline Burns, has meant that securing that overseas posting is now harder – and certainly more complex – than ever before.

Promoted by Jacqueline Burns 11 November 2014 Careers
Think global, hire local
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The globalisation of legal practices, writes Jacqueline Burns, has meant that securing that overseas posting is now harder – and certainly more complex –  than ever before.

The recent frenzy of law firm marriages, engagements and rose ceremonies is having a major impact on the accessibility of overseas job opportunities for lawyers. The clear winners are those who are already employed by an Australian firm that now boasts a global footprint. With culture being the number one reason mergers fail, these firms are cleverly using global mobility (as an alternative to external recruitment) as a tactic to break down barriers, cross-pollinate practices, forge relationships, and embed their newly integrated brands and mindset.

“Because we have now merged with SJ Berwin we have an extensive network of lawyers and our first priority is always to keep it home grown, rather than looking further afield,” confirms King+Wood Mallesons Hong Kong’s HR head, Terrie Cole. “It’s about looking after our own people. We want to help their development and as a newly-merged firm it helps to build networks, great contacts and commonality of culture.”

DLA Piper shows an even stronger bias toward internal candidates and as a rule will always explore possible secondments before recruiting externally.

“This is a key part of DLA’s culture and retention strategy and is our preference in terms of how we move our lawyers around,” explains HR director Amanda Cutajar. “It helps development, builds networks, builds relationships with lawyers in other offices, but is also generally good for the firm and also good for our clients.”

In the past three years, DLA has seconded 42 lawyers within Asia – more than half from Australia to Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo or Dubai. A majority of these secondments were proactive, meaning the placements were not required to fill a resourcing gap but rather were facilitated by DLA for strategic reasons.

Traditionally, overseas transfers were used to reward tenure and therefore reserved for relatively senior practitioners. Not so today. Now that being part of an international network is no longer a differentiator, firms are also using short-term overseas placements and global rotations to seduce the best graduates and even the most promising summer clerks.

“If you want to experience diverse work and have an opportunity to work overseas, joining a firm like DLA is definitely a smart step. We prove that by not making you wait until you’re a senior associate before we give you that experience; we offer overseas secondments to summer clerks, graduates, and beyond,” says Cutajar.

The outsiders

Working overseas has long been a rite of passage for young Australians. The preference being shown by the global firms for internal candidates does not mean the door is closed to outsiders. What it does mean is that external applicants must be smart about how they position themselves for a position overseas.

1.   Eastern distributor

Until five or six years ago, most Australian law graduates looked to London for their international experience. It was the natural step and a relatively easy one. Interest only shifted to Asia when it became apparent lawyers could have a comparable overseas experience, and work on major international transactions, without moving to the other side of the globe.

Australian candidates are well regarded in Asia – they’re close, convenient, relocation is easy, and they tend to settle better than some other nationalities. That said, skills and experience will always trump proximity and a good nature. Competition for roles in Asia is heating up faster than the planet. Not only must you gain experience before you apply, you must be disciplined about documenting it in your CV.

2.   Network connect

Don’t rely on a job being advertised. Digital disruption has made it faster and easier to find and fill job vacancies. The conservative estimate is that at least 30 per cent of jobs never go to market – they’re filled through recommendations, internal referrals, or from the pool of candidates already in a firm’s database. Whereas in the past many employers lacked the capacity to manage recruitment internally, today – with automation and artificial intelligence combined – they can.

Subscribe to your target firm’s job feed, monitor their job board, follow the firm on LinkedIn, and apply direct – even if the firm does not appear to have a current job opening.

“I receive a lot of approaches via LinkedIn”, says  KWM’s Terrie Cole, “and I acknowledge each and every one because you never know when there’s going to be a gem.”

3.   The direct approach

Unless you have experience that is in high demand, don’t wait for a recruiter to tap you on the shoulder. Recruitment consultants are an endangered species. Many firms now only brief agencies for strategic hires as they cannot justify the expense for ‘bread and butter’ roles.

Right now Australians are relatively fortunate as many of the sectors that are embedded here (energy, resources, infrastructure) are in high demand in Asia. So, too, is capital markets and banking and finance experience.

“Aussie candidates stack up very well alongside their US and UK counterparts”, confirms William Wesley of Cyprus Recruitment. “This is especially the case in sectors like energy and infrastructure. There seems to be something that runs through their blood. Firms understand and appreciate that, particularly as sectors become more important. You see a lot of Australian candidates do very well in the international markets.”

4.   Don’t peak too early

In decades past, Australian lawyers would gain two or three years post-qualification experience and then head off to London. Terrie Cole, who worked for some years as a recruiter prior to joining KWM, reports that firms in Asia prefer candidates to have a little more experience under their belt.

“Australian lawyers need to remember they’re competing with UK candidates who have completed a two-year traineeship before qualifying. This inequity can be offset with experience – the more senior a lawyer you are, the more likely it is the firm will look at quality of the transactions you’ve done previously, not just your PQE,” says Cole.

5.   The written word

All firms that have Asia in their sights face language challenges – such that the top law firms now routinely offer language courses.

“It’s a big investment”, acknowledges Amanda Cutajar. “DLA offers an external program that you can do at a basic level or we will reimburse individuals if they want to do an extended program.”

Dual language skills are also fast becoming a prerequisite for graduates and young Australian lawyers competing for entry-level employment with a leading firm.

The challenge for bilingual Australian lawyers is to develop or maintain their foreign language drafting skills since the written word is what firms have the strongest appetite for and the benchmark is very high owing to the complexity of legal documentation.

“In the past, I’ve seen good quality lawyers with Chinese language skills coming out of Australia but if they’ve lived for a lot of time in Australia their spoken language might be very good but their written language skills aren’t as strong. They need really solid experience in drafting complex legal documents,” confirms Cole.

National law firm Holding Redlich has established a three-year partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne.

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