The globalization of the legal market (driven in large part by increased prominence of financial hubs outside the U.S.) is starting to have a serious impact on the demand for lawyers and legal education. Multi-lingual lawyers have long had an obvious advantage for top jobs at global firms – a Cantonese-speaking attorney is a major asset for firms that do a lot of business, or have offices, in Hong Kong. Demand for foreign language skills, however, has expanded beyond the top tier of jobs. The Wall Street Journal reports this week that law firms are increasingly seeking temporary attorneys fluent in foreign languages:
The rise of the global economy—and the tilt toward Asia—has increased demand for lawyers who are fluent in Asian languages or who can help translate on deals or disputes in emerging economies, such as Brazil or India, said Belina Anderson, a commercial litigator whose practice includes French comparative law and legal translations.
But even the biggest law firms typically can’t afford to retain an army of bilingual lawyers just in case litigation pops up in one country or another.
So they often turn to staffing agencies. Fluent temp attorneys and document reviewers can help winnow down mounds of foreign-language material during trial preparation, flagging the relevant files for the firm’s senior litigators.
Multi-lingual contract attorneys are highly sought not only for their language skills, but for their price. As Michael Reichwald (president of legal staffing agency Yorkson Legal) notes, “For legal matters, translators and attorneys with foreign-language skills are probably in the same price range – you get more bang for your buck.”
The development may be good news for law firms and their clients, who are increasingly engaged in cross-border transactions and transnational litigation and are looking for cost-effective ways to address those needs. The contract lawyers, however, are less fortunate. In the boom years of the early aughts, these attorneys’ language skills might have helped them land high-paying, permanent positions within law firms and legal departments. Now, with the market for lawyers flooded with highly qualified candidates, those same assets simply enable them to obtain short-term document review jobs.
The market could potentially become even more competitive if the American Bar Association votes in favor of offering ABA accreditation to foreign law schools, such as Peking University School of Transnational Law. According to the National Law Journal, the vote, which has been twice delayed amid controversy, comes up again on August 3rd, at the ABA’s annual meeting. Opponents include students and recent graduates of U.S. law schools, who fear that accrediting foreign schools will only make an already difficult market more challenging. Opponents also contend that foreign accreditation raises oversight issues while drawing attention away from legal education in the U.S.
For its part, Peking University (which was founded in 2007 by former University of Michigan Law School dean Jeffrey Lehman) dismisses these concerns, and contends that accreditation of foreign law schools would help to export the American style of legal education to the rest of the world.
Posted by Emily Fisher