Already frequent hires at major U.S. law firms, Australian-born attorneys are likely to become much more common in the States, now that Congress has approved a separate visa category for professionals from Australia. Noting the half-million Australians already live in London, a New York-based CEO of a networking group for Australians abroad said law is one of the top three industries for Australians in the United States.

Though few U.S. law firms stock vegemite or serve flat white coffee in their cafeterias, they have embraced Australian lawyers in almost every other way. They may soon embrace many more.

On Wednesday, Congress passed legislation approving a separate visa category for Australian professionals. The E-3 visa program provides the country with 10,500 slots annually, relieving Australians of the need to jockey with other foreigners for H-1B visas, which are currently limited to 65,000 a year.

The new program, widely regarded as a reward for Australia’s support of President Bush’s policies, opens the door to a vast expansion of the number of Australians working in the United States, only 900 of whom received H-1B visas last year.

Elena Douglas, the New York-based chief executive officer of Advance, a networking group for Australians abroad, predicted rapid growth of the 150,000-strong Australian expatriate community in the United States, 20,000 of whom are in New York.

She noted that about half a million Australians live in London.

“Many of them would be here but for visa problems,” she said.

Law, banking and accounting are the top industries for Australians in the United States, she said.

Indeed, even with the current limits, Australians are already frequent hires at major U.S. law firms like Shearman & Sterling; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; White & Case and others, who now overcome the short supply of top U.S. associates by hiring the cream of the crop overseas rather than settling for second-best at home.

Though all foreign hiring is up at U.S. firms, native English speakers from common law countries like Canada and Australia have an edge, said Theodore Ruthizer, chair of the business immigration practice at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

The lifting of the visa quota for Australians “will make them that much more attractive,” he said.

Melinda Wallman, the London-based head of international operations for legal recruiting firm Major, Hagen & Africa, said Australian lawyers enjoy a strong reputation among their U.S. counterparts for their skills and work ethic. Wallman, an Australian herself, said the two nations also have similar cultures and histories.

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