Can I take a J.D. abroad, or should I not bother coming back to get one?
September 2, 2008 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Can I export my law degree from the USA? If not, where else should I consider going to law school?

I've just decided that I would like to go to law school. I'm going to apply at Columbia and NYU because of their high caliber and the fact that I'd love to spend some time in Manhattan; it would also be most convenient for me to finance graduate school in US$ in the near future. I have an American BA as well. I am relatively confident that I could be successful as a lawyer and tolerate working long hours under pressure, so this question isn't really about whether I should go to law school, except insofar as this is influenced by geography (and I am open to suggestions of other similar career paths that would accommodate my geographic inclinations).

I have been living abroad for several years and currently have no expectation that I will ever wish to permanently resettle in the USA. I would like to get my J.D. and take it overseas to embark on a wildly successful international career in law; is this possible? How and where can I make it happen?

If so, who are my potential employers, and what might I end up doing? Should I have a focus in international law, or are other areas viable for positions overseas? Would I have any hope of working in the EU? Currently I'd prefer to be in the developing world, but I wouldn't like to rule out settling in Europe by going to law school in the USA.

If not, where else should I study law? German is my best second language, and I'd be enthusiastic about studying in Germany; however, I'm equally hesitant to make a permanent commitment to any country at this point. I would be open to getting a law degree in a reputable program in just about any interesting country; I am aware that I may not be qualified to walk into a graduate program in another academic system, though I'd like to explore this complication here as well. I do not intend to live in any country whose only official language is English, so the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ are not preferable alternatives.

Have any lawyers or former law students out there gone on to an interesting international career? Please tell me your story along with any advice you can offer!
posted by xanthippe to Law & Government (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It really depends on what type of work you want to do, I think. You could probably quite easily qualify in the US, join a global law firm and then transfer to one of their offices elsewhere and they'd pay for whatever exams you had to take etc. These types of firms do tend to be doing corporate work though, so if that's not for you, then maybe not such a good route.

I think you're approaching this backwards - work out where you want to end up, and then see if you can do this via qualifying in the US. You probably could to be honest - leave with a strong law degree from a good school, and you could probably do anything you like - but it might take a while longer.
posted by djgh at 6:24 PM on September 2, 2008

A top school-JD and a Bar admission in a major jurisdiction are very portable: you can (and many do) immediately practice US law in many foreign capitals, and you can also qualify, with varying hoops to jump through, to practice law in many common law jurisdictions (but you seem to wish to rule those out).

It is very difficult to obtain admission to either Columbia or NYU -- a career plan which involves only an application to those schools is at best half a plan, unless you have a very high college GPA and a very high LSAT score.

There is no reason whatever to focus on "international law" -- aspiring IP lawyers aside, relatively few people specialize in anything in law school, and at most schools the focus of "international law" is either public interntional law (treaties, human rights) and even when commericial, tends to be quite esoteric and removed from the workaday concerns of an American-admitted lawyer in Frankfort or Hong Kong.

It's not clear from your posting what your own nationality is -- the best career boost by far for an American-admitted lawyer who wishes to build a permanent career abroad is not to be an American. Everyone likes a local, nobody really trusts an expat's long-term commitment. Having spent significant time abroad strengthens your case considerably, though, even if you are American.
posted by MattD at 6:26 PM on September 2, 2008

Actually, Canada would not be a bad idea at all. Go to either University of Ottawa, or McGill (in Montreal). Ottawa allows you to take any course offered in either French or English (because Canada has two official languages), and I think there's a similar something-or-other in McGill, can't remember details. And of course McGill gives you the benefits of learning both Civil & Common law, since provincial law is vaguely based on the french system, and federal law is based on the british system. I think that's the case, I know you learn both there.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:19 PM on September 2, 2008

I am a law student at Columbia/NYU, and I have several friends who got offers to work at big firms overseas after graduation. Most of the big NYC law firms have international offices, and many of those offices interview at the top US schools, so it's definitely possible to get a position with them. From what I can tell, the people I know who have been successful in this regard have had good grades in law school (which, trust me, you can't really just trust you'll get) and have a fair amount of international experience.

Language, of course, helps a lot. If you want a job in Asia, say, you'll have a much easier time getting it if you speak Mandarin or Japanese.

Also note that big law jobs are primarily in places that are major financial centers. In Asia, this is Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong. In Europe, it's primarily London. There are other opportunities, but they are fewer and therefore even more competitive.
posted by ecab at 7:31 PM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to leave the realism of your getting into Columbia or NYU for a different discussion. Suffice it to say that unless you've got an LSAT in the 98% percentile (169 and above) or some other really, really compelling resume booster (Ph.D. from a major research university, etc.) or you don't have a realistic shot at getting in at either place.

But I don't think you necessarily understand now this profession works. If you get a degree at an American law school, you will be qualified to practice American law. Replace both instances of "American" with "German", "British," French," or "Hungarian," and you'll start to get an idea of how this thing works. Law degrees aren't "portable" in the sense that a degree from one country will enable you to practice law in another country (except in the former British colonies like Australia, Singapore, etc. which have some reciprocity). This means that with an American J.D., you're all but certain to work for an American firm--even if you're living overseas. Most lawyers that practice overseas are simply representing international clients who have legal business with their home country. An American lawyer in London is exceptionally unlikely to appear before a British court.

Furthermore, American legal education is somewhat unique in that it's a graduate degree. In most European countries--including Germany--law is actually an undergraduate program. Granted, it can take up to seven years and is quite a bit more scholarly than most US undergraduate programs, but it isn't a graduate degree.

You don't just "decide to go into international law." You can decide to go to law school, but after that your career is not entirely in your hands. The practice area you wind up in has far more to do with what jobs you actually get than what you studied in law school. You can certainly shape your options by only applying in certain practice areas, but ultimately, you'll work the best job you actually land, which may or may not have anything to do with what you thought you wanted. Why? Because the market sucks and there are plenty of lawyers who are at least as qualified as you are. International law in particular is really sexy, so there are plenty of highly-qualified people who want to work in that practice area.

International law generally involves sums of money that are large enough that the parties involved aren't going to hire solo practitioners. They're going to hire major international firms with international reputations. So unless you work for one of them--or want to go into public interest, which is even harder to make viable--you can forget about it. Even if you do get a job with a firm that has a major overseas presence, odds are good that you won't start out there. Working in an overseas office is both a pretty big responsibility and really prestigious, so until you're a partner or at least a senior associate, you're not terribly likely to find yourself in London long-term.

But, to answer your question directly, if you want to work overseas, you can. Get a degree from a top US law school, land a job with a BigLaw firm that has a major overseas presence--like White & Case--and then pay your dues, and maybe, someday, you'll find yourself living overseas.
posted by valkyryn at 7:55 PM on September 2, 2008

As a graduate of a law school comparable to Columbia and NYU, yeah, your J.D. is definitely, definitely exportable to a major non-US financial market.

In fact, it's not quite as hard to get overseas as valkyryn makes it out to be, even if you're looking beyond Canada. Coming out of Columbia or NYU, if you get good grades, you should be able to sign onto a globalized British firm like Linklaters or Allen & Overy, and you won't even have to pay your dues before they ship you overseas, especially if you have any form of language skills or can otherwise show that you're ready to hit the ground running.

The caveat is that you'll probably end up doing either securities work or related corporate-type work. If you haven't gone to law school yet, do some reading of securities or M&A blogs, or if it's too late, take a couple classes in those areas when you're in law school. The stuff the professors talk about in those classes is the fun, glamor-shot stuff. If you can't stand it, all the pretty London/Frankfurt/Hong Kong/Tyokyo lights in the world aren't going to make the 13th hour of a 24 hour emergency due diligence document review worth it.

"Tolerate working long hours under pressure" doesn't begin to describe what those firms demand. To last more than couple years, you have to be able to eat it up, lick your plate clean, and ask for more, please, sir.

posted by joyceanmachine at 8:22 PM on September 2, 2008

Pretend I didn't fail at closing a strong tag up there.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:23 PM on September 2, 2008

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