Cracking the international combination

Five years ago, when I was applying for training contracts, the popular question to ask trainees at law fairs was about the variety of work and how this makes a particular firm unique.

Ismat Abidi

Ismat Abidi

Now, standing on the other side of the stall at law fairs, I’m most frequently asked about opportunities to work abroad – it’s no longer seen as a bonus, but rather an expectation for students applying to international law firms. Whether in the regions or the City, firms are increasingly incorporating seats outside the UK as part of training contracts.

There has been an undeniable shift in the legal sector, particularly in the latter half of the past decade, towards firms demonstrating international expertise. While certain countries are still experiencing waves of economic dips, other nations are going through rapid of development, or have emerging economies screaming out for investment in raw materials, commercial trade and even post-war infrastructure growth. These countries carry huge opportunities for law firms to offer their services, grow and remain competitive in a global market. Generally, trainees are an investment in any law firm’s future, as is business from international clients, so combining these two elements makes perfect sense from a commercial perspective.

The classic tag line for an international secondment is it “broadens your horizons” but what does that actually mean? The work is often extremely varied and with the exception of a few well-established large offices, you will experience a small office culture with the resources of a large international law firm. This setup of being one of two trainees as opposed to one of fifty, usually gives you a higher level of responsibility and an opportunity to develop your profile. You will also learn to adapt to a different business culture and legislation dictated by the region you are in, which encourages you to look at drafting, negotiating and networking with a fresh perspective, occasionally having to consider local cultural factors when providing advice.

A huge bonus is that generally, secondments outside the UK come with accommodation, a better climate and a network of trainees from other firms who are keen on building a social circle in a new city. Most popular destinations have a network of trainees on secondment at the same time, be it in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Brussels or Abu Dhabi. During my secondment in the Middle East, I met and socialised with trainees from other law firms all over the world.

We’ve established that international experience is great but how do you go about getting a place? Languages are an obvious edge for an applicant but if it’s too late to learn fluent Mandarin, it is worth demonstrating an interest in a region, whether it’s extensive travel, a small part of your heritage or even having work experience abroad in a commercial environment. When it comes to application time, these factors will give you a very good chance of securing your secondment at some point during your training contract.

An element of secondments that is usually forgotten is the follow-up once your return from a seat abroad. It is as, if not more, important than the three or six months you spend abroad. Maintaining links with a region, either via your UK colleagues who do work with your international offices or through your own initiative ensures that your international experience does not become compartmentalised. It is crucial to continue to develop the skills you have returned with both for your professional profile and for strategic value to your firm.

International seats are no longer the case of if and when, but they are essential to any international law firm’s long-term strategy. From a trainee’s perspective, personally and professionally, the rewards are nothing but positive.

Ismat Abidi is a final seat Trainee at Eversheds LLP. After completing a vacation scheme with the firm in 2008, she worked abroad as a paralegal in the Eversheds Middle East offices between 2008 and 2010, before commencing her training contract in 2010, during which she returned to the Abu Dhabi office for a six-month seat.