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Though few U.S. law firms stock vegemite or serve flat white coffee in their cafeterias, they have embraced Australian lawyers in almost every other way. They may soon embrace many more. On Wednesday, Congress passed legislation approving a separate visa category for Australian professionals. The E-3 visa program provides the country with 10,500 slots annually, relieving Australians of the need to jockey with other foreigners for H-1B visas, which are currently limited to 65,000 a year. The new program, widely regarded as a reward for Australia’s support of President Bush’s policies, opens the door to a vast expansion of the number of Australians working in the United States, only 900 of whom received H-1B visas last year. Elena Douglas, the New York-based chief executive officer of Advance, a networking group for Australians abroad, predicted rapid growth of the 150,000-strong Australian expatriate community in the United States, 20,000 of whom are in New York. She noted that about half a million Australians live in London. “Many of them would be here but for visa problems,” she said. Law, banking and accounting are the top industries for Australians in the United States, she said. Indeed, even with the current limits, Australians are already frequent hires at major U.S. law firms like Shearman & Sterling; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; White & Case and others, who now overcome the short supply of top U.S. associates by hiring the cream of the crop overseas rather than settling for second-best at home. Though all foreign hiring is up at U.S. firms, native English speakers from common law countries like Canada and Australia have an edge, said Theodore Ruthizer, chair of the business immigration practice at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. The lifting of the visa quota for Australians “will make them that much more attractive,” he said. Melinda Wallman, the London-based head of international operations for legal recruiting firm Major, Hagen & Africa, said Australian lawyers enjoy a strong reputation among their U.S. counterparts for their skills and work ethic. Wallman, an Australian herself, said the two nations also have similar cultures and histories. In the legal arena, though, Britain has been a greater influence and remains a larger magnet for young Australian lawyers. That may now be changing. Philip Colbran, a partner at Chadbourne & Parke in New York, said his choice to come to the United States rather than the United Kingdom from Australia 20 years ago was influenced by his view that American legal practice is more innovative and exciting. “I saw the U.K. and the British legal practice as the past,” he said. “The U.S. legal practice seemed to be the future.” Judith Levine, one of six Australian associates working for White & Case in the United States, said she had sought to work in New York both because of the excitement of the city and its position as a center for her chosen field of international arbitration. She said fellow Australians working in transactional practices are even more eager for exposure to U.S. practices. “Everything here is bigger,” she said. “The matters here are bigger. There are always more zeros at the end of every figure.” But that excitement can fade. Though he himself decided to make his home in the United States, Colbran said it seemed to him that most Australian lawyers returned home after a few years. Despite earning much more than they would back home, where lawyers start at less than $40,000, young Australians abroad often find the high cost of living and the more stressful work environment make them homesick after a few years, he said. Which may be just fine with the firms. Wallman said that, among firms in London, the perception that Australian lawyers would eventually go home made them attractive to firms worried about managing their other associates’ partnership expectations. “They’re seen as well-trained, hard-working lawyers that won’t want to make partner,” she said. But Douglas, whose Australian husband is an associate at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, said Australians today may be more willing to stick around. Technology, she noted, has collapsed the vast distance between Australia and America. “You can be living here and still be connected to home,” she said.

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