Moving your legal career out of Australia: Why is it so difficult?

I noticed the announcement a couple of weeks ago in Lawyers Weekly that Michael Cripps was leaving as General Counsel of IAG to join international law firm Clyde & Co in Shanghai. Good luck to him. There is nothing particularly surprising here as Mr Cripps speaks Mandarin and previously spent 13 years in Shanghai with Allens Arthur Robinson and Glencore.

However, what interests me is how many other senior lawyers in Australia want to move their legal careers overseas beyond this high-profile example?

My past experience has taught me that such moves are uncommon and difficult: in all my years as a head-hunter in Sydney I think I can safely say that almost every partner whom I introduced to overseas employers – mainly law firms – received an offer or would have – had they not withdrawn.

But, and this is a big but, no-one accepted the offer.

Now you could put that down to my skills as a negotiator but that would not be entirely fair. I got the offer and that was my job.

The simple fact is that a move out of Australia is in the ‘too hard’ basket for almost everyone. Make no mistake, the talent of Australian lawyers is in demand but many cannot get themselves over that last hurdle.

It is a decision based on a risk assessment and the more senior the lawyer the higher the potential risk:

Here are the main factors that can make a move so difficult:

  • Money: a partner elect in Sydney and Melbourne can earn more than in overseas regions such as the UK
  • Portability & Recognition: it’s easier to be big fish in a smaller pond in the Australian sector
  • Lifestyle: high earning partners in Australia cannot match that lifestyle overseas regardless of cash, except maybe in Cayman and Hong Kong
  • Family: many lawyers have children in school, and partners who may find the move daunting or impossible
  • Time: it can take between 6-12 months to finalise a move, and interest wanes over this time period
  • Security: a prospective partnership overseas is not as secure as an established current one
  • Home: for partnership overseas you need to commit to a minimum of five years – if you want to come home you need to maintain links and keep options open, but it is a risk

It’s a difficult move, so many partners also join clients or see out their days as senior advisers within corporations or Government bodies, probably the most well known being Tony D’Aloisio ex managing partner of Mallesons and now Chairman of ASIC.

Is it possible that Mr D’Aloisio could have been the head of the FSA in UK, or that other partners could turn up at firms such as Clifford Chance in London or Hong Kong?

In theory, yes, but because of all of the reasons described above – the reality is usually different.

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