The last few years have seen a significant increase in the number of US lawyers who have moved to London. In addition to the expansion of US law firms such as Coudert Brothers and Sidley & Austin, several large English firms have hired US lawyers.
Far from discouraging them, UK immigration rules contain special concessions for overseas lawyers who wish to establish themselves in the UK.
If an established US law firm is considering opening an office in the UK, it can send its first lawyer as a sole representative. This immigration category applies to the first representative of an overseas firm. It is necessary to demonstrate that there is no other such representative in the UK and that there is a need for this representative. There is no capital investment requirement but, since the introduction of the new immigration rules in October 1994, the overseas firm must establish and operate as a registered branch. Sole representative applications are made at the lawyers' nearest British diplomatic post in the US.
Other lawyers who are brought to the UK once the firm has been established by the sole representative can come as work permit holders. Work permits are also appropriate for US lawyers joining existing UK law firms.
The work permit scheme is administered by the Employment Department in Sheffield. In order to obtain a full work permit, the employing firm must show that the lawyer has at least two years' senior relevant experience and that there is no one in the European Economic Area that can do the job. This will be accepted by the Employment Department if the position is an inter-firm transfer or, in the case of an English law firm hiring, there has been appropriate advertising.
Occasionally, the Employment Department will accept that a US lawyer who is an expert in a particular field has unique qualities that no other European lawyer would have and therefore it would be pointless to advertise the position.
There is also a concession in UK immigration law for overseas lawyers who wish to establish themselves in business in the UK. Ordinarily, businessmen have to show that they will be investing £200,000 in the business and creating at least two jobs for resident labour but that requirement does not apply for an overseas lawyer. They simply have to show that they have sufficient funds to maintain themselves and any dependents until the business is making money.
In addition to the immigration requirements, there are also specific requirements set out by the Law Society which US lawyers must comply with.
The past year has also seen an increase in business from Eastern Europe. Many US firms acting for Eastern European clients have used London as a venue for meetings. Earlier this year, there were great delays in obtaining visit visas for Eastern Europeans, partly due to the sheer volume. However, most embassies and consulates are now attuned to the problems and are ready to issue visas in genuine cases.
Apart from advising US lawyers, City immigration practices have also been busy advising on the ramifications of the new immigration rules which came into effect at the end of last year. The rules introduced a new immigration category for investors. To qualify as an investor, the applicant must have more than £1 million and be prepared to invest £750,000 of that in UK Government bonds or share or loan capital in UK registered companies; unsurprisingly, this did not prove too popular.
European developments are also a fertile ground for fresh instructions. Currently the main issue is border control and the effect of the Schengen Agreement on non-European nationals. Time will tell whether it really is 'Fortress Europe'.
Julia Onslow-Cole is a partner specialising in immigration law at Cameron Markby Hewitt.