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How Expat Lawyers Grapple with Loneliness Exhaustion

Phillip Bantz LAW.COM

The legal profession is notorious for the crushing toll it takes on its members. But what happens when lawyers are plucked from their home countries and sent abroad to work for extended periods of time?

The quick answer is that the expat life can exacerbate preexisting mental health issues or even give rise to new ones. But that doesn’t mean lawyers should avoid opportunities to work abroad. They just need to be prepared for what lies ahead.

Take, for instance, the case of a U.S. lawyer who grappled with severe alcoholism and took a position in Hong Kong to “really kind of clear his reputation and start over in some sense,” Andy Benjamin, a clinical psychologist and lawyer in Seattle, says of one of his current clients, whom he describes as a “bright and gifted lawyer.”

The client, who has lived in Hong Kong for the past four years, had packed his bags in search of the “geographical cure,” Benjamin says. But the lawyer soon discovered that alcohol use was rampant among the expat community in Hong Kong and also among his Chinese clients—and he relapsed more than once, according to Benjamin, who has treated several other expat lawyers, including in-house counsel.

“There’s a sense that it will break the pattern of tedium that exists here in this country,” Benjamin says of going overseas. “The half dozen people I’ve treated went abroad, in large part, for new experiences with new cultures and thought that would help find or renew a spark in life.”

Those are lofty expectations to cram into one’s luggage. And when illusion dissolves in the face of reality it can be devastating.

“People often go to other countries with fantasies in mind: Everything’s going to be beautiful in this certain way or cheaper or the people are going to be fully welcoming or whatever it is that they have in mind,” says David Oskandy, general counsel of Chicago-based information technology services company Avanade.

Having lived and worked in Mexico earlier in his career while serving as the GC in Latin America for Honeywell International Inc., Oskandy advises soon-to-be expat lawyers to “prepare yourself in advance for the fact that, just as at home, you’re going to face disappointments. That’s just life. Don’t blame it on the country or yourself.”

‘People give you energy’

Navigating a world teeming with foreign languages, different foods, dissimilar cultural norms and a host of other changes can be stressful and exhausting. But it helps to embrace those differences.  

“Try to let go of your expectations. Don’t compare it to home,” says Barrett Avigdor, a San Diego-based managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa who specializes in in-house placements in Latin America and has lived and worked in Brazil and Mexico.

“Take every opportunity to learn because one of the beauties of working and living in a foreign country is that everything is a learning experience. Everything is new. Be open to that,” she says. “You’re going to be tired every day. You’re going to be exhausted. Understand that you’re transitioning into a new culture and it’s going to take a while.”

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