international lawyer path

After my last post on this topic, I fielded several inquiries via phone, email, and LinkedIn from people who took me up on my offer to try to help them think through their path in the international legal world. My offer – to be a sounding board for anyone contemplating this path – still stands. You know how to reach me. In this part two, I address some additional concerns I shared 10 years ago as a law student full of promise and insecurity as I tried to divine my future.

Law school is hard. Being a lawyer is much better. It’s no secret that I hated law school. I absolutely hated it. I won’t go into the gory details here, but there were some good parts, few and far between. This was not really anyone’s fault but my own. My over-healthy ego meant that I expected to excel in law school from the gate, but it took me about a year to figure out what was going on. It took me a long while to get comfortable with the pressure, the competition, the workload, and the recalibration of my brain (all with the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis weighing on my future).

I felt like I had gone from a reasonably smart undergraduate to the dumbest person in every one of my law school classes. My classmates knew more about history, politics, government, finance, and every other subject (except China and Chinese) than I did. But I was tenacious. I was not going to quit or let it beat me, even though I wanted to quit.

But guess what – being a lawyer is significantly better than being a law student. Why? For starters, you get paid to do what you were previously paying to do. You get to learn every day of your life. You get to solve puzzles. You get to be an oracle to help your clients see into the future. It is fun. It is rewarding. No matter the area of law you get into, you get to help your clients. And if you’re an international lawyer, you get to meet and work with people from all over the world and learn about their cultures, their legal systems, and their individual and national quirks. If you love learning – even if you hate law school – you’re going to love being an international lawyer.

Make yourself uniquely valuable. In law school and at my first law firm, I studied everyone else. What were their top skills? What did they do extremely well? What did I do well? And most importantly, what skills and experiences do I need to learn to myself uniquely valuable? This takes some introspection, and you may not be able to figure all of this out on your own. That’s fine. But pay attention and keep in mind that you need to make yourself irreplaceable. For me, that meant adding an MBA degree to my law degree so that I could think and speak like the businesspeople I would be advising. (And candidly, my MBA was also my parachute in case I wasn’t going to enjoy being a lawyer.)

In retrospect, it is clear to me that no one can replicate “you,” but you still want to make sure that your skills and experiences make you stand out in some way. Recognize and build on your strengths. Do you like foreign languages? Then learn one that is difficult and is or will be important to international business in the future. Do you like people? (Not everyone does.) Build your domestic and international network incessantly so that you can draw on those people when you need them (and encourage them to lean on you when they need to). Do you like writing? Then read works from good writers constantly and hone your writing craft until you can create beautiful sentences on the first (or fifth) try.

Be willing to adapt. Maybe you thought you were going to be a law clerk or litigator, but you end up hating the pressure and deadlines and confrontation of litigation. Maybe you wanted to be a business lawyer but ended up liking your clerkship better because you prefer to sit alone in your office rather than deal with people. Maybe you thought you wanted to work with clients but end up liking law firm marketing or management better. Maybe you decide that law firm life isn’t for you and that you would rather work as in-house counsel because you enjoy building a brand and being on a board of directors and developing international strategy for your company. Maybe you decide that you’d rather stay in your home country than travel around the world because you realize international travel is only glamorous for those who love the excitement and anxiety of feeling lost and culture-shocked. If you become an international lawyer, you’ll start to pine for some semblance of normalcy in your life, even if you love all things international. And you’ll need to be flexible even if you don’t become an international lawyer.

Lawyers (and others) at the top of their game are often willing to mentor talented, ambitious people. I have benefited in so many ways from more mentors than I can count. Professors, students, family, friends, colleagues, and many others have answered my naïve, simplistic, selfish, and (sometimes) informed questions. The more people I meet who are at the top or on a trajectory to the top, the more I understand that those ranks are filled with good, normal people. They are smart, ambitious, resourceful, and dedicated people, but don’t believe for a minute that they are any smarter or more ambitious, resourceful, or dedicated than you are.

When you “arrive” at the top of your career, I encourage you to be one of those who remembers what it was like to have fallen on your face and lost all confidence in yourself. Keep your eyes open for those who are struggling and be the mentor they need. You will not regret the time you spend helping someone else.