Find a Job >


A blog with tips and insights into the practice of law

Lawyers looking to work in Emerging Markets – what you should know

Many lawyers, more specifically at the junior to mid-level, express a strong interest in working overseas. Usual playgrounds for talented Australian-qualified lawyers are jurisdictions such as London, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Tokyo where they can get exposure to large-scale transactions and be given highly attractive salary packages.

However, a couple of hours away from Australia, developing South-East Asian jurisdictions can constitute an appealing alternative for those looking to add a little bit of adventure to their practice of law.

Some countries, like Vietnam or Indonesia, have already seen a considerable influx of international law firms, that established either through local alliances or the proper setting up of offices through the past decade. Others, like Myanmar are gaining strong international attention and have recently seen the arrival of global law firms deciding to claim their share of the booming business activity generated by massive foreign investments in infrastructure, telecommunications, real estate & financial services, and increased local demand. In addition to global firms, smaller outfits created by foreign lawyers whom are often ex -partners from the local offices of international firms, have strong local experience and are also major players on the ground.

These firms are usually staffed by a mix of locally-qualified lawyers with a strong knowledge of local laws and regulations and foreign lawyers, whose expertise is particularly valuable in M&A, projects and banking and finance.

So, what are the main profiles that are recruited in emerging markets? At which conditions? What are the traps to avoid? Having worked as a corporate lawyer for an international law firm in Ulan Bator (Mongolia) and now as a legal recruitment consultant here are some of my main conclusions:

  1. Which profiles are sought-after?

Lawyers with expertise in Mergers & Acquisitions, Corporate/Commercial, Projects, Energy & Resources are typically more desirable. Whilst local language skills will rarely be required, previous experience working or studying overseas particularly in an emerging market is an advantage.

  1. What to expect?

Work conditions and scope of work

Offices in emerging markets are usually much smaller than in developed jurisdictions. Expect small offices with limited number of Partners and Associates, as well as a low level of support and facilities. Your work flow will probably be more diverse than what you were used to – you will have to be more polyvalent and happy to expand your skills set.

In terms of salary and work hours:

Salaries in developing jurisdictions are expected to be lower than what lawyers can experience in developed jurisdictions, which reflect lower billing rates as well as lower billable hour targets.

However, for Australian lawyers who are facing sky-high cost of living and lower salaries than in other major jurisdictions, working in an emerging market is more likely to result in increased purchasing power and savings capacity.

Also, as a result of lower billable hour targets, work life balance is usually way better than what you could expect in Sydney, London or New York.

  1. What are the traps to avoid?

Of course, it is important to stick to either international brands or well-established local firms with reputable partners. Most of the lawyers working in emerging markets will not spend their whole career there, hence the importance of being able to demonstrate to potential employers back home that you worked on quality matters. In addition to this, the scope of work that is expected from you should be clearly discussed. A project finance lawyer may be asked to have some flexibility in that respect, but flexibility should of course not mean becoming an employment law specialist…

While negotiating your salary and relocation package is obviously very important, this requires you to be able to properly assess cost of livings, local tax systems and possible hidden costs. For instance, while housing prices in locations like Vietnam or Cambodia tend to be relatively low, the price for a comfortable 2-bedroom apartment in central Yangon is surprisingly high, which should be considered when negotiating salary packages.

Working in an emerging market is an exciting adventure, but it needs to be well prepared and negotiated, so that you can enjoy it in a way that is good for your career and for your personal finances.