When I left my last job as a lawyer, I was Of Counsel and on a good trajectory. I had carefully built a reputation (mostly good, I hope!) in San Francisco with an almost decade-long track record. And then I dropped everything, moved to a country I’d never been to, and the rest is history. I ended up falling into a job that became a truer vocation than the law ever was for me, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I had to take some risks to get there.
I spent 2014–2017 living in Singapore and London, and I’m here to tell you why, sometimes, it’s the best possible thing to leap.
As lawyers, after the ordeal of taking the bar, I think there’s a strong instinct to put down roots and NEVER LEAVE for fear of having to take another bar. I completely get that. But I recommend stretching yourself – and remembering that in a lot of jurisdictions you would be able to practice for some amount of time with just the California bar before having to fully acculturate to their system.
Here are the major (work-related) things I learned from living and working abroad mid-career:
(1) How to be a chameleon. I had a fairly well-honed professional communication style, which could best be described as “San Francisco litigator.” This involves being quite direct but also empathetic. That did NOT work in Singapore and London; it was not their language. I had to be a bit more subtle, indirect and largely unemotional in my reactions (especially in Singapore). These are great skills that I have continued to occasionally employ, even now that I’m back on my home turf.
(2) How to flex different muscles. So, yes, I switched not just locations but careers—but I think this would ring true for associates who move to, say, London from San Francisco also. The skills that may be very high valued here—client development, being the first line of defense to clients—are not as applicable there (especially if your tenure isn’t permanent). This may mean you move abroad and suddenly are the best drafter, or discovery expert, on your team and you really get to dig in. Or maybe you’re not able to do much project management here—that is definitely on offer for more junior people in other locations. Markets really do vary in what is most highly valued.
(3) Balance! I received (and used) 25 vacation days annually in London. My husband and I adventured to 27 countries during our time in Singapore and London (we didn’t waste a moment of our weekends). The Bay Area has more balance than some other cities in the U.S., but the chance to really clock out is more readily provided in most other countries. Go take advantage!
I took a massive chance making the move, and I have never regretted it. If you are curious about moving abroad, I’d love to discuss it with you and tell you how to package your current experience.