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James Lieber works in a small townhouse on Avenue Montaigne, in one of Paris’ most chic shopping areas. From his quietly elegant office, Lieber orchestrates legal and business strategies for France’s LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton S.A., the luxury goods maker. As director of corporate affairs, he works directly with the company’s chairman and CEO, Bernard Arnault, advising LVMH on high-profile deals involving some of the toniest names in fashion, including Gucci, Donna Karan, and Prada. It’s a long way from the daily grind of a midlevel associate on Wall Street. But only a half-dozen years ago or so, Lieber was just that. So how did he do it? He fled the country — by transferring from the New York headquarters of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton to the firm’s Paris office, where he advised LVMH on corporate matters. “What got me here,” he says, “is my background as an American lawyer, the relationship of trust I developed as outside counsel, and the fact that I speak French.” Lieber’s enviable career shows how an overseas corporate stint can pay dividends — big-time. As national borders in the European Union start to fade, and China becomes an even bigger presence in international trade with its expected entry into the World Trade Organization, new market opportunities abound. Multinational companies, as well as law firms, are on the prowl for American legal talent — particularly when it comes with seasoned transactional experience. But before you ditch your stateside job for Shanghai’s Bund or Milan’s Corso Venezia, consider this: Not all foreign jobs are glamorous or professionally elevating. In fact, some could land you in corporate oblivion. The tricky part is distinguishing the plum opportunities from the duds. So ponder these points before you pack your bags: Location, location, location. For die-hard dealmakers and those with a conservative bent, London still tops the list. Both professionally and culturally, it offers an easy transition. “The deal market and the lawyering are not that different from [what they are in] the U.S.,” explains recruiter Meyer Haberman of New York’s Interquest Inc. But hardship posts may be the place to be. “If you’re willing to spend two years in a place where people don’t want to go, you will get better experience,” says recruiter Melinda Wallman of Major, Hagen & Africa’s Hong Kong office. “The developing market is where some of the big deals are … and that’s where you can end up as the company’s country counsel in short order.” Today’s hardship post could be tomorrow’s hot market. Case in point: China. Just over 10 years ago, it was considered a frontier destination where business was risky, technological support poor, and housing substandard. Now, with its economy growing by 7.9 percent in the first half of this year, it’s regarded as the world’s fastest-growing major market. Follow the money. If the foreign nation generates a significant or growing percentage of the company’s revenue, says management consultant Susan Sneider of Hildebrandt International in Chicago, that’s usually a sign that the business will stay committed to the region. Haberman echoes that point: “A company like Colgate is a good bet, because it does the bulk of its business abroad.” But he adds: “If the international market is only a small part of the business, you’ll lose contact with senior management.” Also, research the company’s foreign forays: “When a company has a history of closing down foreign operations in a down market, and you sense a down market, then it’s risky,” says Wallman. Powwow with the chief. Always meet personally with your immediate boss — preferably on her turf — before taking the job. Watch out, warns Wallman, for the boss who has “gone native” — that is, a supervisor who has been away from the main office too long and has lost touch with American business techniques. “When you’re relying on that person to groom you for promotion,” says Wallman, “it could spell disaster.” Also, look for a reporting line back to the home office. It’s better if the legal department ultimately reports to the GC in the home office, rather than to the CEO of the foreign office, says Wallman. The best thing about an overseas post, she explains, is that it gives you greater exposure to senior management back home; but, she adds, “if you don’t have direct reporting lines back to the U.S., that advantage disappears.” Tally the perks. The GCs of multinationals, says Wallman, still get great perks, which traditionally include housing allowance, tax reimbursement, cost-of-living adjustments, home leave expenses, school tuition, club membership, and repatriation expenses at the end of the term. But lower-ranking counsel, she warns, only get “quasi-expat packages,” such as a housing subsidy and home leave expenses. As for new-economy companies, expect a spartan package — usually just what the locals get. Be true to your own cultural temperament. Your personal outlook ultimately shapes your overseas experience. “There’s nothing like a cross-cultural negotiation for honing the senses,” comments Wallman, who is herself an Australian lawyer. Some people thrive in a new culture, she notes, while others regard any non-English-speaking country as just too exotic. Though company counsel don’t necessarily need to speak the local language (the top lawyers in a foreign post seldom do), cultural sensitivity is usually critical. “You need to go with an open mind,” says Penelope Tham, a director of compliance with Deutsche Bank A.G. in London. Tham, who’s worked for foreign banks in Singapore and Hong Kong, says it pays to be attuned to cultural nuances. Some countries, she says, have subtle rules about how people address each other and how business cards are given and received. “People can be naive,” she explains. “They don’t grasp that what’s acceptable in Japan may not be acceptable in Singapore.” Don’t overstay your welcome. Before you go, decide how much time you need — and can afford — to be overseas. Develop a plan, so that you are not left stranded in a foreign office. On that score, “banks are among the best places to work abroad,” says Wallman, because they offer a “nice expat package and have fixed terms.” Brick-and-mortar companies and media and technology operations are notorious for having vague term limits. The danger, says Wallman, is that some people stay too long and go off track. “The first three years can be very exciting,” she says, “but then it can get too comfortable … you get used to having a maid to do your cooking and laundry.” What are the signs that it’s time to go? “So long as you’re doing cross-border transactions, you’re OK,” says Wallman. “But watch out if the work becomes too local.” Adds Tham: “If your clients are no longer taking your advice, then it’s time to part ways.” Of course, you might not want to leave. Like students abroad who never make it home for graduation, some American lawyers stay on — regardless of the price to their careers. They learn the language, develop a taste for the local delicacies, fall in love with a native, and camp out — permanently. “For better or worse,” says Lieber, who is now married to a Frenchwoman, “things just don’t work as they do in the United States … the rhythm is different.” That might mean getting used to civilized lunches and monthlong breaks in August, when European business comes to a grinding halt. Of course, worse things could happen.

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