Where can an international lawyer go adventuring?

As some readers may know, Curzon is a lawyer — qualified in the US, but working first in Japan and now in Dubai. A common question that I’ve heard through my years of practice is, “How do you practice law if you’re a US lawyer in [Tokyo/Dubai]? Are you advising on US law?”

The answer to that is: no, not really. The role of many US and English lawyers working overseas is that of “international counsel.” (Why that role is generally limited to US and English lawyers is a story for a different day.) International counsel will often know or learn local law, but the biggest role for these lawyers is to “manage the deal.” Consequently, it’s not surprising that one of the core skills that international law firm say they are looking for today in lawyers is “project management skills.”

Of course, international lawyers practicing in various countries around the globe must comply with local law — and countries regulate foreign lawyers and their practice of law in a variety of different ways, which I break into four categories:

1. “Free for All”
A number of countries don’t really care what type of law you practice and what law you advise on. These countries include the UAE and Vietnam, among others — countries where, once you have a law license from somewhere (and you register it locally), there is generally no restriction on what legal advice you provide. Typically this emerges by accident — a local law allows international lawyers to “provide legal services” and local regulators are not sophisticated enough to differentiate between local law and the law of foreign countries.

Representing clients in court is a different matter — for that, in the UAE, I would have to be an Arab and speak Arabic. Most lawyers who appear in court in the UAE are Egyptian and Lebanese. In Vietnam, only Vietnamese lawyers at independent local firms can appear in court — Vietnamese lawyers at international firms and joint venture firms are prohibited from appearing in court.

2. The Global Standard
This system is the most common in the regulated, developed world, by which foreign lawyers can open their own law firms but cannot advise on local law without being admitted locally. These regimes include most states in the US, most countries in the EU, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and China.

In some countries such as the US and Japan, experience is a key requirement, while in others such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the registration is relatively straightforward. In some countries, partnerships with local lawyers are permitted, but some prohibit the practice (China) or regulate/restrict it (Singapore). In other countries, it’s quite easy to qualify as a local lawyer if you are already qualified overseas, with the principle of reciprocity applied in many countries.

This regime arguably makes the most sense, and is followed by most developed countries. Furthermore, regardless of the law, this is how most law firms operate from a risk management perspective.

3. Restrictions Apply
Many countries that are less integrated into the global economy, and which are protective of local businesses, do not recognize independent foreign lawyer offices or the practice of foreign lawyers. However, in many countries, “associations” between local law firms and international lawyers and law firms is common, together with the secondment of lawers from international firms to local associated law firm offices. Such countries include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia — countries that are important markets and where it is tolerated practice for foreign lawyers to be employed at local firms and for local firms to market themselves as being “in association” with an international firm. In some cases, the actual position of a lawyer–a partner in an international firm seconded to a local association firm–is not accurately reflected locally, where they are hired on fixed term employee contracts in order to be in compliance with local law (or be less likely to be seen as a breach by the bar association or other regulatory authority).

4. No thank you!
There are plenty of countries that are protectionist of local lawyers and do not allow foreign lawyers to practice in any capacity whatsoever. These countries include Korea, Malaysia and India. In practice, these countries tend to have the same law and regulations as those described in (3) above, but for either practical or regulatory reasons, no real associations between local firms and international firms have emerged. For example, in Korea, there are very few commercial law firms and none of them are interested (at present) in forming an exclusive relationship with an international law firm, and otherwise the country could have the same “associations” seen in Indonesia.

The inevitability of globalisation will change these countries. Korea is moving towards liberalisation, and under a free trade agreement with the EU, European law firms can open foreign law offices in Korea sometime this year. But the bar association in India is fighting liberalization hard, and the courts are tightening the restrictions on lawyers that have association offices or which fly in to conduct business meetings, enforcing penalties and taxes against any lawyer or firm they find in breach of the law.

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