Australian lawyers looking to expand their experience overseas are finding that opportunities in international legal markets are disappearing as the world economy slows, writes Angela Priestley.
For many Australian lawyers, 2008 will be remembered as the year they changed their international plans and realised that sticking with their domestic lifestyle might be a better means of dealing with a slowing global economy.
Some may have stayed at home to get out of the way of any fallout occurring in international law firms in light of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. For others, the opportunities in London and the US that once appeared limitless may have simply become unobtainable.
In the UK, where a stint in legal work was once considered a rite of passage for Australian lawyers keen on climbing as high up the ladder as possible, the opportunities have slowly deflated as the burgeoning market finally came to the end of its positive run.
The crash was well under way when Lawyers Weekly published its annual London Report in July. Back then, even recruiters were quick to point out just how much the market had slowed: "The market is dead," says Edward Andrews, managing director at EA International. "Don't be fooled by the situation in London, because it's not pretty."
Since then, with the added fuel of the near collapse of international markets in September, the opportunities for Australian lawyers in Magic Circle and Silver Circle firms appear to have dwindled even further. Redundancies have become a regular fixture of the London legal landscape. UK-based publication The Lawyer reports that the last few months have seen more than 730 lawyer redundancies in the region.
But with the distribution of legal work through globalisation, the rise of less traditional legal markets such as Hong Kong, Moscow and Dubai appears to have arrived at a good time. Australian lawyers working in such markets are adamant that the deals are still bigger than Australia, with the added bonus of unique cultures and environments.
Recruitment manager at Simmons & Simmons, Emma Lim recently told Lawyers Weekly that away from the dream of working in London there are still plenty of valuable opportunities in the growing markets of the Middle East and Moscow. "Lawyers working in these areas gain good, transferable experience and often have increased responsibility and many more business development opportunities, which can only benefit them in their future career," she says.
This won't necessarily mean more opportunities for Australian lawyers. Law firms needing to cut costs in their main offices will be looking to use those resources elsewhere - meaning lawyers already under their wing will probably be more likely to land the big jobs. Meanwhile with the international pool of opportunities evaporating, legal markets that are still strong are taking only the best candidates Australia has to offer.
The influence of China and Hong Kong on the global legal market does not appear to be disappearing any time soon. Market analysts producing the Legal 500 directory series label Hong Kong as "fashionable again", given China's influence in a global economy that has seen Western markets facing severe pressure. Law firms might be rationalising their services in London and New York, but in China they are still keen to grow their offices.
Chinese target M&A also recently reached its highest volume ever, reaching $76.1 billion in the year-to-date 2008 period according to Thomson Reuters reports - a rising figure that runs against the trend of slowing deals in much of the rest of the world.
Lawyers in the US have seen some interesting and, for some even exhilarating, work in light of the financial crisis. While records were not so long ago falling as deals kept getting bigger, M&A had to take a back seat as the climax of the sub-prime crisis set in and lawyers recognised the need to change their specialties - into areas such as bankruptcy and even special sub-prime crisis groups - in order to remain relevant.
A shattered global economy won't hold an ambitious young lawyer back from their desired international future. While some will chose to wait the situation out, others will still leave home, but may very well find their original destination has changed.