The Foreign Desk

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After attending high school near Tokyo while her father was in the military, Chris Chavez al­ways wanted to return to Japan. “I just never realized it would be as a real estate lawyer,” she says.

Chavez left San Francisco for Tokyo in 1999 after letting law firm powers-that-be know she was interested in an overseas assignment. The biggest benefits of the three-year stint, she says, were the opportunities to do “high-level work and interact with clients at the highest level.”

Like other as­sociates, Chavez, who recently made partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco, found that billing time abroad can be a real career booster.

For Adrienne Go, who now works in eBay’s legal department in San Jose, Calif., two years in Hong Kong as a fourthyear associate allowed her to set herself apart from other associates at the large law firm where she worked at the time. “Instead of being one of a hundred associates, I was unique,” she says.

And because her office was “the PR face of the firm in Hong Kong,” she, like Chavez, was able to do more client development than other associates in her class.

Working with different legal systems and cultures allows one to develop “an extra depth and sensitivity,” says fifth-year associate Holly Neavill at the Lon­don office of Bingham McCutchen. “You can’t take it for granted that the people you work with share the same set of legal principles … as you,” she says. “This opens your mind up to different ways of structuring deals.”

Tight Expatriate Community

Practicing abroad often provides, as Go describes it, the chance to “live in a wonderful, exciting foreign country without a backpack and not as a starving student.” But associates say it can be hard to be far from home, isolated from family and friends.

Fortunately, in most countries, the American expatriate community is tight. “In Tokyo, there are attorneys from other U.S. and U.K. firms, and everybody knows everybody,” Chavez recalls. “You’re in the trenches together and pretty quickly develop friendships.” Go also met lawyers and other professionals through expat groups in Hong Kong but says she had more trouble mingling with locals. She finally did, though, when she took a cooking class and met a Chinese woman who is still a friend today. “But that’s very hard to do,” Go says. “The locals are just harder to get to know.” Not that she had a lot of free time, thanks to the intense area work ethic. “Saturday is a work day in Hong Kong so I rarely had two-day weekends,” she says.

London’s high cost of living, especially the taxes, is the only downside for Neavill. “You don’t really know what to expect on that front until you get here,” she says.

Still, many law firms provide expat packages that neutralize the effect of living in an über-expensive city. “It can be quite an attractive financial package,” says Chavez. “You are made whole for tax purposes and your housing is often paid for or subsidized.”

For Chavez and Go, the transition back to the states went easier than expected. “When I realized I was ready to return to California, it worked out great because there was a need for someone at my level in San Francisco,” Chavez says.

Though she worried about not being up to speed with Califor­nia law, it turned out not to be an issue. “I had become used to big, complex transactions with Tokyo law,” she says. “There was lots of work when I returned and I got busy quickly. I had a new confidence that I could take anything on.”

Go, too, came back to a bunch of year-end closings. “I didn’t have to relearn anything,” she says. “I came back and boom–I knew I could be a valuable mem­ber of the team.”

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