Many Australian and New Zealand-qualified lawyers dream of getting overseas experience, but the prospect of moving to and working in a new jurisdiction can be daunting. After getting a law degree in New Zealand and working in Auckland for four years, I recently moved to New York to join a law firm. For those interested in making a move, here are a few thoughts based on my experiences.
Why New York?
Each State in the U.S. has its requirements for admission to the bar, and these requirements vary widely. In some states, it is nearly impossible to practice as a lawyer if you don't hold a U.S. law degree. New York, however, is a relatively easy state for non-U.S. lawyers to practice. However, that's not to say it's easy – you still need to pass the New York bar exam (and other exams on New York state law and professional responsibility) before you can qualify in New York. Studying for the New York bar can easily take two months of full-time study (seriously). Even after passing all those exams you need to apply for admission, which includes paperwork attesting to your character and fitness, and details of every law-related job you have ever had. The whole process can take over a year, so it pays to start early.
You're probably wondering if all that work is worth it. But working in New York is truly a unique experience. New York is one of the commercial hubs of the world, and working there can expose you to transactions and disputes on a scale you haven't seen at home. For example, my firm handles many securities class actions with hundreds of plaintiffs and several million-dollar claims. These types of cases are well-established in the U.S. but relatively new in New Zealand.
[Actual footage of me studying for
the bar exam]
The New York job market
Competition for jobs in New York is extremely fierce, with most firms recruiting U.S. law students for roles years in advance. I faced particular challenges because I was looking for a litigation role, for which there is currently little demand in New York. Unfortunately, litigation is also viewed by some firms as jurisdiction-specific, meaning there is an assumption foreign-qualified lawyers will not excel as litigators in New York. I also did not have previous experience with an international law firm that was recognisable or in demand in New York. However, I still eventually secured the perfect role in a great firm. If you want to move your career to New York, don't get discouraged if you received dozens (or even hundreds) of job rejections – keep applying!
If you want to move to New York in the future, you can increase your chances of success by getting experience in a large law firm at home, preferably one with overseas connections. Also, bear in mind that there is more demand for internationally-qualified corporate/transactional lawyers in New York than litigators. I would also recommend looking out for job advertisements for firms and organisations other than the big international law firms. Finally, make sure you structure your CV in a format preferred in the U.S. and explain your previous experience in terms American lawyers will understand.
[Not the right attitude whilst job hunting]
Working in New York
New York law firms have a reputation for working lawyers incredibly hard. While this is no doubt true, I have been pleasantly surprised by the work-life balance at my firm, and the level of support from excellent support staff. I also know several foreign-qualified lawyers now working at large firms in New York who have told me they are not working any harder in New York than they did back home. So I would recommend going into any job in New York with an open mind – if you worked in a high-pressure environment back home, you might not find working in New York too bad!
I also expected a much bigger learning curve than I had. While American legal practice is different than practising in New Zealand, the law and the court processes are surprisingly similar to what I was used to, and critical legal researching and writing skills are easily transferable. Several of the cases I am working on are also surprisingly similar to the kinds of cases I worked on in New Zealand – from commercial injunctions to tort claims for historic child abuse.So if you want to raise the bar for yourself and work in New York (or anywhere else in the world), definitely give it a try. It's undoubtedly challenging, but if you don't try, you'll never know!