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Travel broadens career horizons

1 December 02

How individual Scottish solicitors feel they have benefited from finding legal work abroad

by Roger Mackenzie

If there ever were a notion that being a Scots solicitor left your career options geographically challenged, then a glance through the “Scottish Solicitors in England and Abroad” section of the “White Book” would tell you otherwise.

But is working for a legal firm overseas just something to embellish your cv or can Scots forge a genuinely successful career outwith our own jurisdiction?

For Kara McLaren the attractions of relocating to Toronto were partly to do with the lifestyle on offer, but primarily because its reputation as a relatively strong financial base and close ties to the US economy meant the opportunities to participate in cross-border transactions offered exciting opportunities for a corporate lawyer.

“Working in corporate law afforded me some flexibility in considering a move abroad, which would have been more difficult had I worked in, say, litigation or property.”

She’s now midway through a two-year stint with Canadian firm Stikeman Elliott where she’s employed as a “foreign visiting lawyer” and would recommend the experience for anyone pondering it.

“Working abroad totally changes your perspective – both of where you come from and where you’re going.

“Toronto is hugely different from Glasgow – socially, culturally and economically. It is truly cosmopolitan – home to a number of nationalities and cultures and, because of its geographical location, heavily influenced by the States. Transactions in Toronto are, almost without exception, cross-border in some shape or form. This type of transactional work broadens your horizons and forces you to understand and consider issues that you would rarely come across in middle-market Scotland. Also, Canada’s legal system operates on both federal and provincial levels and it is a challenge to get to grips with this aspect.

“Coming to a new country and learning to work in a different environment is character building. You have no ready base of contacts and associations and you have to prove yourself – completely - both as a person and a professional. There is a different work ethic and methodology and you have to tune into it – fast.”

Broadening her career perspectives was also a motivating factor for Fiona Mackay in moving to the Sydney office of Australian firm Minter Ellison.

Soon after arrival she was given the opportunity of going on secondment to one of the country’s main telecom providers, offering the chance both to broaden her business outlook and experience working in-house.

Contrary to expectations, the traditional image of the laid back Australian way of life doesn’t translate to the working environment.

“The deadlines they set for themselves are tighter than at home which is possibly due to the fact that they are operating in a more competitive market.”

The notion of a competitive market and involvement in cross-border deals might not spring to mind when you mention Romania, but for Neil McGregor, working in Stephenson Harwood’s corporate department in Bucharest, the corporate finance and mergers market is hectic as foreign clients seek to invest in advance of Romania entering the EU.

“We typically advise on inward investment by foreign clients. In the early days this was largely by way of privatisation but one of the pleasures of working here is being able to develop the work as the market develops: we now deal with capital markets work, refinancings and restructurings, asset transactions, joint ventures and so on.”

He’s upbeat about the career and lifestyle benefits of working in Romania at this time in the country’s economic development.

“The career benefits that I have had do not just come from working overseas - they have come from being able to work in Romania and in the neighbouring countries, such as Moldova and Bulgaria, at a time when they are undergoing enormous changes in moving from communist command economies to market economies and membership of the EU. There is still some way to go but I have the advantages of extremely interesting work with congenial professional colleagues and an expat lifestyle.”

Kara McLaren cautions that there are challenges in adapting to different ways of working.

“It takes time to adjust to a different way of doing business, different outlooks and different expectations. For example, the legal culture in Toronto is perhaps a little more adversarial in nature, deadlines a bit tighter and the billable hour is a prized aspect of legal work – more so than in Scotland. Although firms in Scotland look to billable hours as a useful measurement of profitability and efficiency, they do not attach the same degree of importance to them or use them quite so strictly in the assessment of personal performance.

“But when you feel familiar and confident with concepts and systems that were previously alien to you, the sense of achievement you experience makes the effort worthwhile. It is for that reason that placements under two years are of less benefit to the individual concerned. It takes at least a year to get up to speed and it is only in your second year that you actually start making a real contribution.”

It might be thought that the benefits of working overseas would be limited. If the solicitor has no long-term ambitions with the firm, are they still likely to be exposed to the most challenging work?

“It would be totally unrealistic of me to expect to be treated in exactly the same way as someone employed by the firm for the long-haul. Also, because it takes you at least a year to adjust to a different working environment and different issues, the type of work you get has to be tailored to accommodate your level of expertise. That said, at no point have I felt wanting for challenge or stimulation,” said Kara McLaren.

She’s confident of returning to practice here as a better lawyer.

“I have re-evaluated my outlook on business practice in Scotland. My approach to the practice of law has changed. From my new vantage point I can assess, objectively, what is good about the way we do things - and, I can honestly say, many things fall into this category - and what needs improvement. For example, there is room for improvement in the way we run law firms, the way we approach client care and the way we perceive ourselves as professionals and businesspersons.”

Neil McGregor indicates little inclination to return to the UK. Having first visited Romania on holiday in 1995, he enjoyed it so much that on his return home he found a Romanian language class and, by May 1996 was the first, and so far only, resident Scots qualified solicitor in the country.

“For the expats and for some Romanians, living conditions can be very pleasant. Unfortunately for many, particularly pensioners and the unemployed, life is not so pleasant. I hope that the position will improve as Romania moves closer to joining the EU. As regards weather, we have hot summers and cold winters. The countryside is gorgeous – the country should attract far more tourists than it does at present – and the Carpathian mountains are only an hour and a half from Bucharest.”

Unsurprisingly, Fiona Mackay extols the virtues of the Sydney lifestyle.

“The benefits of the good weather can’t be underestimated. There are a number of beaches not far from the city, so it’s easy to get there at weekends for lots of watersports. You just have to watch out for the sharks.”

Kara McLaren is also positive about life in Canada.

“Working overseas is not just about the work but also about the cultural and social benefits you can acquire to make you a more rounded individual – and this affects the way you work, think and apply your knowledge and experience. The ideal scenario is to achieve a perfect balance between the two and - right now - I think I’ve got it.”