How these American lawyers have built their lives and careers in foreign lands
That wasn't the case two or three decades ago. Back then, only a handful of firms were truly international, and foreign governments often had scant idea what to do about would-be U.S. expatriate lawyers wanting to practice in their countries. Many would have found it easier to simply stay home.
But a few persevered and managed to build long, rewarding careers in foreign countries. The ABA Journal recently caught up with four American lawyers who have each spent more than 20 years living and working abroad.
The three men and one woman all had a strong cultural interest in the countries in which they ultimately chose to settle—an interest that in some cases preceded their choice to become lawyers. In their current roles, all see themselves acting as cultural bridges, whether advising a multinational entering the Korean market, an American couple trying to retire to a beach house in Mexico or a Chinese state-owned company trying to tap Wall Street capital for the first time.
One might suspect they would have made more money if they had stayed and practiced in the States. But none have serious regrets. All are particularly proud at having raised fully bilingual and international-minded children while living abroad.
Most do suspect things may be tougher for those hoping to follow in their footsteps, though. While the volume of cross-border work has exploded, so have the number of lawyers native to foreign lands who speak perfectly fluent English and likely studied or worked in the U.S. Increasingly, these are the lawyers—not expats—who are leading major firms’ practices abroad.
Which means that 20 years from now, finding four lawyers like these could be harder still.
CALLED TO CANCUN
Having started her legal career in Colorado ski country near the resorts of Vail and Breckenridge, Janet Folsom had an idea: There seemed to be a fair number of wealthy Latin Americans buying vacation properties in the area. If she could just brush up on her Spanish, Folsom figured she’d have an edge in winning this new group of clients.
So she headed off to Mexico for what she thought would be a few months of language study in San Miguel de Allende before returning to Colorado. That was 1992.
She never went back. She fell in love with the people and the culture. But she also sensed there was a business opportunity. Finding out she was a lawyer, American retirees and other expats would often ask her for advice on some aspect of their situations. So instead of becoming a lawyer catering to Spanish speakers in the U.S., Folsom decided to become one who could help English speakers in Mexico.
Initially setting up shop in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, she began advising American retirees on their taxes and estate planning. Folsom moved to Cancun in 2003, where her practice shifted toward helping foreigners buy property. That’s still mostly what she does today. Her firm generally has one or two Mexican lawyers working with her and has an office in Playa del Carmen in addition to Cancun.
Many more Americans are moving to Mexico because their retirement dollars go further south of the border. The U.S. State Department estimates there are now 1 million Americans living there. Cancun is one of the most popular destinations for retirees.
But there are restrictions on foreigners’ purchase of property within 60 miles of Mexico’s borders or within 30 miles of its coastline. These must be held by a trust or Mexican corporation. Folsom often advises foreign buyers on the creation of such entities.
“A lot of the job is just explaining to clients that things are done a certain way in Mexico,” she says. “You need to get U.S. clients to understand the cultural differences.”
The fees in Mexico do tend to be lower than in the U.S., she says, but “you have to have other reasons to do it besides money.”
For Folsom, one of the main reasons to live in Mexico is the healthier, saner lifestyle. Living in a beach resort area, she definitely feels like she’s adopted a more relaxed approach to life. She sees that reflected in her teenage son as well.
“None of this teenage acting up!” she says. She thinks he’s also more open to the world, and he’s considering going to college in Europe along with the United States.
“It’s really amazing to watch a child grow up in a foreign country,” she says.
After more than 20 years, Folsom doesn’t think she will ever move back to America.
“I’d be lost if I went back to the States,” she says. “When I’m back visiting, I don’t move my car at a red light unless someone honks.”
MAKE MINE PARIS
Jonathan Wohl first saw Paris more than four decades ago, hitchhiking across Europe as a penniless recent college grad. “I got there, sat down at a cafe, and something about it just immediately felt right to me,” he remembers.
The French capital has had that effect on generations of American expatriates, most famously writers and artists. Wohl had a cultural attraction to Paris as well: He had long been interested in European history and had studied French since eighth grade. But he also wanted to be a lawyer there.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1974, Wohl spent one year clerking for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and then joined Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City. Though that firm had a small Paris office, he fairly quickly realized he had little chance of being sent there. So he moved to the firm that probably sent more U.S. lawyers overseas than anyone else.
Coudert Brothers, founded in New York in 1853, was the original international law firm. It opened its Paris office in 1879 and, after World War II especially, was the first to open in many other countries around the world, including China in 1979.
“It was a very dynamic place,” Wohl recalls. “They never hesitated in opening new offices.”
Upon joining Coudert, Wohl first spent two years in the firm’s Hong Kong office before finally landing in Paris in 1978. He found he could communicate quite easily in French, but many American clients could not. That set Coudert apart from the French firms with which it vied for work advising multinationals doing business in the country.
“At that time, French lawyers at the leading firms often did not speak very good English,” Wohl says, “so they couldn’t address the needs of American clients.” By contrast, Coudert’s office was a mixture of French lawyers who did speak English fluently or Americans who spoke perfect French.
The mix was possible in part because licensing for lawyers was relatively lax at the time. Someone wishing to appear in a French court would have needed to become licensed as an avocat, but foreign lawyers in France back then generally found it was easy enough to become a conseil juridique instead. Though they could not appear in court, conseils were free to advise on most business matters.
Though he eventually advised mainly on finance and mergers and acquisitions deals, Wohl says expatriate lawyers tend to specialize less than their American counterparts.
“When you practice abroad, you by necessity become more of a generalist,” says Wohl. “The common experience among expat lawyers is they’ve done almost anything. If you’re dealing with a foreign client, you’re going to be dealing with whatever they encounter, even court cases or criminal matters.”
During Wohl’s 35 years in Paris, the landscape for foreign lawyers changed dramatically. More British and American firms have opened in France, but he notes that the number of expats has fallen as a proportion of their rosters.
“Almost all of the American firms are staffed almost exclusively with French lawyers now,” he says. That’s partly because there’s no longer much of a language barrier: Most young French lawyers from top schools speak English fluently. It’s also because the old conseil juridique title has been largely abolished and folded into the avocat role. Foreigners are free to qualify as the latter, but most are daunted by having to take the French bar exam.
When other firms started expanding abroad, Coudert, which had a weak U.S. practice, couldn’t really compete. Many of its leading partners were recruited away and the storied firm finally closed its doors in 2005. After Coudert, Wohl moved to leading French firm Jeantet, where he became the first American partner. In 2011, he joined the newly opened Paris office of Chicago’s McDermott Will & Emery.
“I started at one of the oldest foreign firms in Paris and now I’m at one of the newest,” he points out.
The pleasures of living in Paris, where he also raised three children, haven’t changed, though. McDermott Will’s office is somewhat unusually located on the Left Bank, affording Wohl a particularly nice commute from his home on the Right.
“Every day I cross the Seine and see the sun over Notre Dame,” he says. “I still love it.”
“I was definitely a China guy first and a lawyer second,” Matthew Bersani recalls.
He wasn’t a China guy when he first signed up for the postgraduate Princeton-in-Asia program, which placed him as an English teacher in Taiwan in the early 1980s. “I knew nothing about Asia then,” says Bersani, who was pre-med at Princeton. “I honestly thought I was going to Thailand.”
But he fell in love with the Chinese people, culture and language in Taiwan, the island nation that broke away from China after the communist takeover on the mainland in 1949. After his two-year teaching stint was over, Bersani stayed in Taiwan for another year of intense language study. And he began trying to figure out how he could make China a part of his career.
He had abandoned medical ambitions by then but was pondering trying to become a diplomat when he heard Columbia Law School had a program in Chinese law. “So it was really China that led me to the law,” he says.
After graduating, Bersani first joined New York City’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which had one of the leading China practices at the time led by legendary China legal scholar Jerome Cohen. From 1990 to 1991, he was posted to the Beijing office. He recalls it as an odd time, coming right after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations were violently put down and foreign investors were running a bit cold on the country.
The work was “a bit of everything,” he says, from enforcement of arbitration awards to registering trademarks. It was the kind of generalist practice—geared toward foreign multinationals—that typified China practice at big firms at the time. But Bersani could already sense that the work didn’t excite him.
He went back to New York for about three years, during which he got to experience a higher level of practice, including working on one initial public offering. That deal gave him more of a thrill as a lawyer than any of the work he had done in China.
Fortunately for Bersani, China was also starting to eye global capital markets. Sensing that Shearman & Sterling was a better platform for that kind of practice in Asia, he jumped ship and relocated to Hong Kong in 1994. Within a few years, he was advising the company now known as China Mobile on one of the first big IPOs for a Chinese state-owned enterprise.
It was a deft career move too. Many of the lawyers who began in China around the same time as Bersani but stayed to focus on foreign investment-oriented work have since been edged aside by an expanding Chinese legal profession. Still, work involving global capital markets remains a specialty of U.S. firms in particular.
Bersani says those early deals were made all the more exciting by the linguistic and cultural complexities. He recalls spending hours and hours speaking to old party cadres, trying to get them to understand their new responsibilities as managers of a public company.
Those kinds of challenges are what make practicing in Asia more exciting than America, says Bersani. If he had stayed in New York, he thinks, there would have been “more of a risk of getting stuck doing something again and again.”
In the last 20 years, the deals in Asia have only gotten more sophisticated, and there are a lot more of them. Shearman has gone from having five lawyers in Asia when Bersani joined to more than 100.
“I feel like I’ve had an amazing career,” he says. “I’ve been privileged to witness the greatest economic transformation in history.”
Along the way, he and his wife have raised four children, all of whom are now attending Princeton or prep school in the U.S. The kids all speak fluent Mandarin, he says, and had “terrific childhoods” in cosmopolitan Hong Kong.
But Bersani thinks a career path like his would be harder today, even for a young Western lawyer who speaks Mandarin fluently.
“There are just so many native-born Chinese who speak fluent English and have also studied in the U.S. at the best schools,” he says.
Anyone visiting Seoul these days will be greeted by a modern, glittering metropolis. But it wasn’t like that when Jeffrey D. Jones first arrived in 1971.
“At that time, South Korea was actually poorer than the north,” he remembers. “Living was rough, electricity was patchy, and phones were nonexistent.”
Jones had interrupted college and gone to Seoul to serve as a missionary for the Mormon Church. He was 19. The church had given him only two months of language training. It would be another six before he could really have a conversation and, even after the two years of his mission were up, he wasn’t sure he really had Korean down.
But he’d already decided he would be back.
“The thing that really impressed me and that I really enjoyed was the humanness of the Korean people,” he says. “They’d had this tragic history of being overrun by their neighbors, and then war and the division of the country. But I got the sense that they continued to be hopeful and optimistic and eager to create better lives for themselves.”
Back from his mission, Jones studied Asian history and then law at Brigham Young University. After finishing his studies in 1978, he went to work for the Tokyo office of Baker & McKenzie, which was the other big firm besides Coudert that had a large overseas presence at the time. The plan was to have him start laying the groundwork for the firm to open a Seoul office.
It wasn’t to be. Korea was then a military dictatorship and wasn’t interested in having foreign law firms operating in the country. Jones was actually threatened with arrest. The country wouldn’t let foreign law firms in until 2012.
To get back to Korea, Jones would have to leave the stability of a big Western firm and join a Korean one. Fortunately, Kim Young Moo was just starting a firm around that time, where he hoped Korean and foreign lawyers would work together to advise multinationals investing there.
Jones joined Kim & Chang in 1980, when it had just six lawyers. Today the firm is Korea’s largest with more than 600 lawyers, around a fifth of whom are foreign attorneys like Jones. The presence of foreign lawyers in large numbers is peculiar to the Korean legal system. Foreigners typically take the lead in dealing with international clients and understanding their needs, while Korean lawyers supply the substantive law knowledge. Most major Korean firms now have a similar division of labor between foreign—mainly American—lawyers and local ones.
A lot of the job is explaining Korea to clients, Jones says. “You help them understand the social, political and cultural environment of the country and how that impacts the business and regulatory environment.”
Over the past 35 years, Jones has advised just about every Fortune 500 company on its Korean ventures. He thinks a focus on helping companies break into a new market probably leads to higher job satisfaction among American lawyers working abroad.
“Lawyers want to be involved in productive things,” he says. “International practice is all about creating new ventures and making new investments. It’s very satisfying.”
It does pay less than big-firm practice in the U.S., Jones says. “People have typically viewed Korea as a developing country, so the tolerance for significant legal fees is just not there,” he says. “Even now, we’re more expensive, but we still can’t charge as much as big New York or London firms.”
Jones and his wife raised eight children in Seoul. They are now spread among Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Thailand and the U.S. “The experience of growing up in Korea helped them to be more international,” he says.
In the early days, it was hard for the family to have an American lifestyle, though. “All the products you took for granted you couldn’t get,” he says. “We’d go back to the States with empty suitcases so we could fill them with shampoo, toothpaste, cookies, cheese.”
That’s certainly changed. Seoul is no longer the hardship post it once was; it’s now a thoroughly international city where just about any kind of food, drink or entertainment can be found around the clock. But Jones is a bit nostalgic for the old days, when there were few foreigners around, unless you counted the thousands of American soldiers stationed at the U.S. Army base in Seoul’s Yongsan district.
“In the early days, the big thrill was to get on the Army base and get a hamburger,” Jones says.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “A Career Abroad: These 4 American lawyers have built their lives in foreign lands.”
Want to Work Overseas?
It may be harder for American lawyers to forge careers overseas in the future, thanks to the increased number of foreign lawyers speaking English and studying and working in the States. But it won’t be impossible.
Antony Dapiran, an Australian partner in the Hong Kong office of New York City’s Davis Polk & Wardwell, says native-born mainland Chinese lawyers definitely have an edge in that market in terms of developing business. But he says there’s still a role for foreign lawyers, provided they speak the language.
He thinks foreign lawyers starting out would be wise to pick practice niches that are inherently international, such as financial regulatory and enforcement practices. “You don’t want to be dependent entirely on the local law,” he says.
It’s a view echoed by London-based legal headhunter William Wesley of Cypress Recruiting Group. He says the broad area of disputes including international litigation, arbitration and anti-corruption enforcement is hot at the moment.
Sometimes skill set can trump language ability. Wesley is currently working with an international firm that is considering a non-French speaker for its Paris international arbitration practice.
“This might be exceptional, since the candidate has had straight A’s since birth at top schools in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere, but it’s an example of [prioritizing] native drafting over local language fluency in an area where drafting is critical,” Wesley says. He does think the candidate will find it more challenging to land interviews for transactional positions without French fluency.
Candidates might also consider looking beyond the big economies. Singapore-based recruiter Robert Metcalf with Lateral Link says language ability is rarely a prerequisite for legal jobs in that island nation, which acts as a financial hub for developing Southeast Asian economies like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. As in China, those economies are growing, seeking more foreign investment and often expanding abroad themselves. Unlike China, however, they still have too few skilled professionals to demand lawyers who can speak Bahasa Indonesia or Malay.
The truly adventurous might consider Myanmar. Many believe the country, now open to the world after decades of isolation under an authoritarian government, is poised to take off. Sound familiar?
Metcalf reckons it would be closest to what old-school ex-pats encountered when China was first opening up to the West three decades ago. “If that’s what you want,” he says, “go and work in Rangoon with whoever is open there. Then see what happens in 25 years.”
Anthony Lin is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong.