A very cosmopolitan practice

The number of trainee solicitors who come from foreign backgrounds is increasing. That is the message delivered by Richard King, head of legal education and training at City-based firm Herbert Smith.

At Herbert Smith and other leading City firms with an international bias around 5 to 10 per cent of trainees come from foreign backgrounds. Often they already have qualifications in law or a degree before they come to the UK.

According to King, applicants from foreign countries make good candidates because firms like Herbert Smith are increasingly looking to expand their practices overseas.

"We are looking to develop relationships with overseas lawyers," King says.

"Our practice is becoming increasingly international and as it does so lawyers who understand international clients and who can give advice to international clients will be placed at an advantage."

At the moment, the focus of expansion for a large number of firms is towards Asia and the Far East, as well as Russia and Central Europe.

"Foreign trainees can attract clients from their home countries. Obviously language is an advantage. They can understand clients and give advice to them and relate to them better," says King.

At Baker McKenzie, Gary Senior, partner in charge of recruitment of qualified lawyers, explains: "We are not looking for linguists. We are interested in people with appropriate legal skills that can build our London practice."

Russell Lewin, Senior's colleague at Baker McKenzie and partner in charge of trainee recruitment, believes a growing number of foreign students are interested in gaining experience from UK firms.

"Their main reason for applying is the perception of many students that London is the place to make a career if you want to make that career in commercial international law."

Gavin Rabinowitz, now a partner at Nabarro Nathanson, came to the London School of Economics from South Africa in 1988 because he "wanted to work in a cutting edge, international financial centre".

Once he arrived, he had many obstacles to overcome, including having to manage his studies without family or a support network.

But as current Clifford Chance trainee Helena Samaha comments: "You can't have it all." Samaha's family is from Lebanon, but remains in France where she obtained a degree in law. Samaha came to London to do her LLM and has now completed both the CPE and LPC courses.

She speaks four languages and was impressed by the quality of legal training on offer by firms like Clifford Chance.

"I started to discover there is a very developed training system which doesn't exist in France," she says.

Samaha has been able to work on international cases and finds London an excellent platform from which to deal with international law.

Some students come to the UK only with the intention of gaining a legal background to take back to their home country according to Roger Earis, director of academic studies at the College of Law. The students come from Africa, the Far East and the Americas.

This year, the College of Law has arranged a special programme for students from Albania. Last year three Albanian students came to England, funded by the Open Society (Soros Foundation).

These students come to the UK to learn valuable skills. "They want to gain experience in an advanced country with an advanced legal system, " explains Earis.

"Many return to take up important positions."

This year's students from Albania include the head of the faculty of law at Shkodra University Ardita Arsula.

Arsula explains that many Albanian students want to go abroad. "Students and lawyers need to know the law, and how to make international transactions, as well as dealing with international divorce and family problems."

Arsula doesn't find studying in English to be a problem. "We get most things, but not the jokes."

She notes the differences between common law in England and civil law in Albania. "In England, land belongs to the crown. We say the land is of the people."

The College of Law also runs programmes for young lawyers from Europe, as well as courses for Bulgarian law students and courses on jury trials for judges and court officials from Russia.

Deena Baker is the co-ordinator of a programme at Linklaters & Paines for US law students to be summer associates in London.

According to Baker: "Linklaters is interested in providing US securities law capabilities to its clients as part of its international capital markets practice."

Six American students from top US law schools spent the summer at Linklaters' London office.

Of the six students, five have been offered a place next summer and one has been offered a position at the London, New York or Hong Kong office next autumn.

"We aim to recruit students who will be our associates and partners in the future, as we do with the trainees in the UK," says Baker.

Foreign students and qualified lawyers from other countries who have come to the UK independently must undergo the difficult process of finding a training contract and work.

Richard Moorhead, chair of the Trainee Solicitors Group says that for those trying to get trainee contracts, "the competition is fierce".

"Students wanting training contracts will only stand out if they have a special expertise in the area in which the firm has an interest," he says.

Students with backgrounds from Central Europe, Russia or the Pacific Rim will be good for a firm with international links but there are a limited number of these firms.

The most important thing firms are looking for is quality. The same standards of merit apply for all applicants.

There is always a concern that foreign lawyers trained at City firms will return to their home countries but at present most of those who have begun working here have remained. Certainly firms expect trainees to continue to work in the UK for a number of years.

As Lewin points out: "Some foreign students come to get experience and then go back home which is generally not attractive to us.

"We are primarily looking to building in London, to be investing in our local practice."

King's advice for lawyers wanting to work here, particularly those who come from European backgrounds, is that English law can be quite difficult and that it is not like civil law.

"They should remain open minded and expect a period of re-adjustment," King says. "Most people do make the bridge eventually."