Lawyers without Borders: Working in Britain under the Youth Mobility Scheme

Youth Mobility Scheme for Australian Lawyers

University is over and the dust has settled. You are working in a stable job and finally putting to use the law degree that you slaved over during your student years: a haze of caffeine and cortisol. You have a comfortable income and you know your city like the back of your hand. Some of your peers are settling down into predictable careers and serious relationships, but something about that makes you feel trapped. Is this it? Could you really be ready to join them on the well-worn path towards Australian adulthood? Erin Bassett offers insight into life as a young lawyer in London.

Moving to Britain

If the answer is no, you are not alone. Moving to Britain has long been a rite-of-passage for young Australians who are eager to explore and/or escape. The shared history and culture between Australia and Britain makes for a fairly easy transition, but the sheer physical distance between them removes the safety net of home, and fosters a sink-or-swim style of independence that can have a kick-start effect on multiple aspects of life.

If you are looking for adventure, all that stands between the UK and continental Europe is a short flight on a budget airline, and London itself offers an array of new places to experience and explore. 

Despite the opportunities for novelty offered by the British working holiday, statistics suggest that fewer young Australians are taking up the opportunity than ever before. Perhaps owing to changes in the world economy since the GFC, the relative strength of the Australian economy, the new popularity of Asia as a travel destination, and the waning of the “cultural cringe” once felt by a generation of fleeing Aussies in decades past, the number of young Australians heading to the UK to live and work since 2005 has more than halved.

About the Youth Mobility Scheme

While numbers might be down for the time being, for young professionals such as lawyers, there are still many benefits to be gained from making the move, and the process is fairly simple. The latest iteration of the Working Holidaymaker Program is the Youth Mobility Scheme, which offers a two year visa to any Australian who applies between the ages of 18 and 31 and has the equivalent of £1890 in savings. The application process is inexpensive and quick, and is not contingent on having a job offer.

Exploring options

Once in the UK, the easiest way to secure employment in law is by signing up with one or more of the many specialist legal recruiters—who, it must be said, are an interesting breed. Reflecting on their motives, Alexandra Ivett, an Australian-qualified lawyer in London, said “their main goal is to put bums on seats.” Recruiters can be irritatingly verbose and unashamedly commission-driven, in the manner of a used car salesman, but once you communicate what kind of role you are looking for, and are firm about what you will and will not do, they can be an invaluable resource—because they know the legal landscape better than anyone else, are the first to hear of new openings, and will stop at nothing to make a placement.

For those who are seeking quick money, low stress, and flexibility for travel, document review positions might be the way to go—at least as a first step. Document review relates to the computer-based process of analysing evidence for relevance to a particular matter: for example, a large scale litigation, or, more commonly, an enquiry by a regulator in a field like Competition law. In the wake of the GFC, this kind of work is currently available through almost every major London firm, and many of the US firms with offices in London. The work is well paid and done by large teams of young lawyers from all over the world, meaning there are many opportunities to form connections with fellow newcomers. Contracts can run for weeks, months, or sometimes years and are generally easy to come by. Jennifer Keane, a lawyer who worked in document review for the first 8 months of her stay, described the working environment as “fun, easy, safe and uncompetitive” but at times found the work itself “quite repetitive, with no career progression.”

If you are looking for something more interesting or permanent, it is important to consider your level of experience, and the nature of the UK legal market. If you already have a few years of post-qualified experience in Australia and your chosen area of law operates in a similar way in the UK (for example, banking and finance, or mergers and acquisitions), it is technically possible to step into a similar position in the UK. Chris Goodman, a London based recruiter at Chadwick Nott, noted “In the last year or so, many firms are expanding internationally, and are more open to international recruitment.”

If you are only recently qualified in Australia, or if your post-qualified experience is spread across a few areas of law, you might be better placed to consider public sector roles, or in-house roles. Chloe Nockolds, a recruiter at London's Law Absolute, is optimistic about the UK job prospects of qualified antipodeans. "Central government organisations, regulatory bodies, local authorities and companies with in-house legal teams are all keen to consider Commonwealth-qualified lawyers, although it does depend on the skill set they require."

If you have completed your law degree but are not yet qualified, the options will be more limited. Some document review positions do not require qualification, and will be open to graduates at paralegal level. You could also apply for other paralegal positions, whether in large firms, small firms, or the public sector, but keep in mind that you will be competing with British graduates.

The British workplace

Once you have secured a position, what you can expect to encounter in a British workplace? When asked about the difference between Australian and British workplaces, Wayland Cheung—who worked in Sydney in commercial litigation and is now a property paralegal in London—said, “Australian work culture is more direct and goal oriented. UK work culture is almost too polite. [They] need to get on with the job.” Christopher Blake, a Melbourne-trained commercial lawyer now working in the legal team of a London investment bank says “It’s different. Not to say which is better or worse, it’s just different. And that is the beauty of moving countries.

If life in Australia is feeling too predictable, moving to Britain will definitely be a shake-up. Perhaps the relevant question is not why, but rather, why not?

This week's guest post is written by Erin Bassett. Do you have tips you want to share with law students and graduates, or have a blog article you want to contribute? Just get in touch with us.