Sarah M Glenn, a fourth-year associate at the venerable law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, is moving to Japan in January.
Although she is 5-foot-10 and has shoulder-length red hair, she blends in with the crowd when she walks to work in Lower Manhattan, not far from Wall Street. She anticipates that some adjustments will be in order when she starts working in her firm’s Tokyo office.
“There are 10 lawyers there now and they’re all men,” she says.
Ms. Glenn, 31, has never been to Japan, but when Milbank approached her this summer about a one-year stint there, she took only a week to think about it and say yes.
“Because of the markets, since October things have started to slow down in New York, while it seems that things are still busy in Asia,” she says. “But it’s hard to know even what to expect. No matter what people describe, it’s hard to plan what your experience is going to be like.”
Major American law firms have long had a presence abroad, staffed by a combination of local counsel and lawyers from the home office. But as the economic downturn continues to cause upheaval in corporate America and the law firms that serve it, many firms are relying on their international outposts to keep profits up — and a growing number of lawyers are starting to look overseas for work. Not long ago, the City of London was New York’s primary competitor for financial talent, and Britain was often one of the first choices for lawyers deciding to head abroad.
But with Wall Street in tatters and London struggling as the credit crisis plays out, lawyers and analysts say that the most promising places for legal careers are such far-flung locales as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. Even though Dubai’s booming economy has cooled sharply recently, lawyers say demand for their services remains strong there, and other overseas markets are still beckoning lawyers despite the global impact of the credit crisis — at least for now.
When work was plentiful at home, it was often a tough sell to get lawyers to move halfway around the world. But since the financial unraveling in September, that’s all changed. In the last two months, recruiters in Hong Kong and Dubai say they’ve seen a record number of New York résumés from candidates looking for law-firm or in-house legal work overseas.
Over the past decade, major corporate law firms have made international expansion a top priority, and some have become truly global businesses.
In the past decade, top firms like Jones Day, based in Cleveland, went from 6 foreign offices to 18. Weil, Gotshal & Manges, based in New York, went from 3 to 9, and Latham & Watkins, based in Los Angeles, from 5 to 14.
Much overseas expansion has occurred in the past five years, and even more recently than that for the Middle East and Asia, according to statistics compiled by the National Law Journal, a trade publication. In Hong Kong, there was a 48 percent increase in the number of lawyers from the 250 biggest American law firms from 2007 to 2008, based on data from the journal. In Abu Dhabi, their ranks grew 144 percent.
In February, Latham & Watkins announced three new offices in the Middle East — in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, Qatar — in one fell swoop, to reach its total of 14.
Dewey & LeBoeuf, based in New York, closed offices in Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina and Texas this year. But in the same October memo the firm sent to its eight Charlotte lawyers and staff members to inform them of the closing there, the firm’s executive director announced the opening of new outposts in Doha and Abu Dhabi early next year.
And the beat goes on.
“I know of at least 10 or 11 associates who are throwing their résumés out here, or coming by to visit to check it out,” says Arjun Ahluwalia, an associate in the Dubai office of the London-based Allen & Overy, who moved there from Shearman & Sterling in New York.
Mr. Ahluwalia, 30, grew up in Dubai, went to law school in Michigan and began his career in New York. Now, he says, he sees a big push from young lawyers hoping to find work in the Middle East. “Even kids currently in law school are coming by Dubai for jobs,” he says. “I met a very enthusiastic candidate from a Chicago law school in his second year who basically flew to Dubai for four days and actually cold-called and made visits to a bunch of firms.”