Tips for Lawyers Moving Abroad: Lessons from Three Years in Istanbul


As lawyers, many people may think that their only options for living abroad would be to work for a big international firm or an NGO.  But actually it’s not that hard to find or create a job for yourself overseas.  I moved to Istanbul in 2010 because my Dad had died and I was depressed and wanted a change.  Although technically I am a lawyer, I haven’t practiced in many years and went to Istanbul intending to create a coaching practice, not a law practice.  These tips are based on my experience as well as that of other lawyers who I met living abroad.

(1) As an American lawyer, you a have a lot to offer.  We may be a dime a dozen in certain large American cities, but in a foreign environment you will have a very unique set of skills and experiences.  If you meet the right people, they will have ideas for how you can work together. Of course, this is going to be even more true for non-English speaking, non-western countries.

 (2) Go there directly and meet with people.  Sending resumes from three thousand miles away is unlikely to yield results.  On the other hand, calling someone and saying, "Hi, I'm an American lawyer.  I'm moving to Portugal in October and will be visiting your city in two weeks” will likely get you a meeting. Of course, getting introduced first would make it easier, but even if this is done cold, you would be surprised at how frequently you will get positive results.  If a lawyer from Costa Rica or Namibia or Italy called you up and asked to meet with you for twenty minutes to get advice on transitioning to the US, wouldn't you try to make time for them?

(3) Use your extended network. Your most useful connections may come from a fellow linkedin group member whom you never even met, or that guy you met five years ago and barely remember but somehow stayed connected with on facebook. Saying, “Joan Smith suggested I speak with you,” gets people’s attention, and generally yield results, even if Joan is a third degree connection or someone you met on a train.

(4) Teaching in a university could be a great way to get your foot in the door in a foreign legal community.  You may have to explain the American legal education system to people so that they will understand that you are qualified to teach, since in most countries they would expect professors to have a Ph.D. in law.  If you are really serious about teaching long term, you could always get a Ph.D. It turns out that with a J.D. all you have to do is pay for a year of school and write a thesis.

(5) Connect with other expats.  As someone affiliated with the Foreign Service, you already have access to substantial resources and information. You may have heard that most people get jobs through their extended network, not through their close network, since we tend to have access to the same information and job announcements, as do others in our close network.  For this reason, it makes sense to create a larger network for yourself. People who have lived for a few years in that country can be very helpful.  Even if the people you meet seem really busy and not interested in making new friends, they will be happy to direct you to groups, websites and other resources.  Also, sometimes foreigners know things that locals don’t.  Even if you want to focus on making friends with locals and don’t want to be in the “foreigner scene” it’s still very useful to get connected to this community.

(6) Sorting out the legalities for working in a foreign country could be easier than you think.  In this regard you have both advantages and disadvantages vis-à-vis other expats.  Laws are not always as clearly defined or as rigidly enforced as we might expect coming from the United States. You may meet people who are working under the table, even in quite highly respected, well-paid jobs.  But of course, as a person affiliated with the USG you do need to follow the rules.  On the other hand, laws can change quickly in other countries, and getting the most up-to-date information can be a challenge for people who are on their own.  In this regard you will have an advantage.  Even still, if you want to do work that does not fit into the usual categories you may want to speak with several local experts to determine what is possible. Where laws are not black and white, getting a second opinion could be particularly helpful.

(7) Put aside your tendency to try to predict all potential problems and figure it all out ahead of time.  The challenges you anticipate will probably turn out to be non-issues and the real difficulties will come from places that never occurred to you. Of course, you will do all you can to prepare, but don't make yourself crazy.  That's why they call it an adventure.

(8) The more bold your action, the more people will feel inspired by it and want to help you. " I am going to start a non-profit to help refugees get asylum in the U.S.," will yield more results than, "I am thinking about trying to help refugees somehow, maybe, if I’m allowed."  There is nothing wrong with being careful and cautious.  However, committing to something even in the face of not knowing how you will accomplish it, has a very different energy and sets you apart from all the people who want something but don't ever really pursue it. As Goethe said, "Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

If you are interested in hearing more about why I ultimately decided to leave Turkey, you can see that here.