A Guide on How to Work Overseas in Law: Firm Culture

Henna

Whether you are a law student, recent graduate or a young professional, the thought of working outside Australia might have crossed your mind. Living as an expatriate and practicing law in a completely new environment is exciting to say the least, but what are the things worth considering before launching off with applications? If you set your mind on working, for example, in the European Union area, visas are not the only thing you need to think about. Like ethnographic cultures, law firm cultures are very different. The type of culture you choose is as important as the area of law you want to practice, plus it doesn’t hurt to like what you do. 

Firm Culture

Cultural differences in and outside the firms will vary from country to country. Having witnessed how law firms operate in the Nordic countries and the EU, I can give a few pointers to consider when working in small or big firm. First and foremost you are expected to be on time or few minutes early in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Being late is not only considered disrespectful, but it also sends out a message saying you might not be taking things seriously. Secondly, once the names are on the paper and you have a new job under your belt, you are not expected to work around the clock to dedicate your whole life to the firm. Especially in the Nordic area, people value work-life balance so much there is specific legislation not only for working overtime but also for paid parental leave and annual holidays.  What you are expected to do is to do your job with as minimal supervision as possible and with essential language skills, typically English and the local, but the more the merrier! Once in, many new lawyers are chosen in hopes of them becoming long-time business partners in the future. Law students and recent graduates have high employability and many choose to work in firms when studying and off semester.

Working in Europe

In central EU things are slightly different. Depending on the size of the firm the hours can be draining, the pace fast or slow, and both the languages and practices used challenging at first. For example in Italy, Spain, France and Germany fluency in the language is usually a must, however since many aren’t fluent in English, an Australian could easily swipe everyone off their feet and find many asking them for grammar advice – this could come in handy in learning to speak like the locals, so it works both ways. Young and mature lawyers are expected to stay in late but the over-all firm culture and atmosphere are less strict and tad softer than up north. 
For example in Brussels, the heart of Europe and European politics, many firms are slow-paced, filled with friendly people eager to help you any way they can. In a city where long lunches are common, you are encouraged to get to know your colleagues in a way it enables great teamwork and supportive atmosphere. With a custom like this comes responsibility too; you are entrusted with bigger tasks, especially if you have a background in English law (never underestimate the importance of common law heritage!.)

What about Australia’s common law partner UK? Since London is the ultimate business place in the EU and major commercial hub worldwide, prepare for fast-paced office environment with long hours. City lawyers in big firms can work an average of 70 – 80 hours per week and trainees are no exception. The firm culture is strict and hierarchy definitely exists. If you want to have a better work-life balance but stay in England, working outside the city in a regional firm might not be a bad idea. The key tip to success overseas is to do as much research beforehand as possible, talk to locals and learn from them.

This article was written by Henna Holt. This is part of series post about what to consider when working or looking to work in law firms outside Australia. Born in Northern Finland, Henna has special knowledge about the field not only in the Nordic countries but also within the EU. Henna is a law student in England, UK and holds a Master’s degree in Social Sciences (Sociology). You can connect with her on twitter (@tinhenno)