The idea of an international business trip typically conjures up glamorous images of first class flights, limitless expense accounts, and executive suites at 5-star hotels at the very least. Let’s be real—getting paid to travel is every jetsetter’s wet dream. But working abroad isn’t necessarily synonymous with sitting around and drinking wine all day while soaking up all the breathtaking views (unless you’re in Italy, in which case such a depiction will be more accurate than not). Here are some things to keep in mind next time you have the opportunity to earn some free miles.
Traveling in Comfort and Style
An expense in the thousands seems like a big ticket item, but business travelers take advantage of amenities like first-class for a (practical) reason. Flying internationally generally involves traversing time zones, and you will be expected at the office the next day during local working hours, if not immediately. You want to be well-rested and on your A-game; jetlag is no longer a viable excuse for underperformance. If you have to go directly from the office to the airport and time is of the essence, wear your suit on the plane. You’ll survive, I promise.
Overpacking Is OK
I know, I know. There’s no shortage of eye-rolling right now by those of you who know me. In all seriousness, pack shoes and clothingfor every level of formality unless it’s a trip you’ve made before. Not only might business casual in New York entail something completely different from business casual in Shanghai, but also the most accurate assessment of office norms can only come from personal observation. Although we generally might err on the side of overdressing rather than underdressing, some office cultures view excessive formality as a display of arrogance or condescension. As much as you should be prepared to not have a life, you should also be duly prepared for unexpected social occasions without counting on having the time to shop. Plus, checking a bag is free for most international flights so there’s really no good reason not to do so for longer trips. Just remember to bring a carry-on with your irreplaceable essentials and at least one change of clothes in case the airline misplaces your bag.
Developing Language Skills
Fortunately for us, most professionals around the world today can conduct business in English, and foreign language skills have become more of an added bonus than a necessity. While the advantage of language skills cannot be discounted, you may not be as fluent as you think. Business proficiency is a learned skill in any language, and knowing how to ask where to find a restroom doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll understand everything that’s being discussed in the boardroom. Think about it—did you really know what a tender offer or poison pill was before taking corporations?
Never eat alone, unless you have to. From the moment you take a seat at that JFK airport lounge bar to when you’re cursing Homeland Security under your breath for making even U.S. citizens wait in ludicrously long customs lines, an international business trip is the ultimate networking opportunity. Even though business travelers are generally not the most amenable to random conversation with strangers, don’t hesitate to bond over complaints about how the only vodka available for your Bloody Mary is Finlandia. Whether you are finally meeting colleagues you have been exchanging emails with for weeks or traveling by yourself to a country where you lack language skills and don’t know a soul, make an effort to establish new relationships at your destination and on your journey — you are your firm’s ambassador.
No matter how many new LinkedIn contacts you make, however, be prepared for the possibility of having to eat alone. This is an easier pill to swallow for some more than others, and I have always pitied the people I’ve seen sitting alone in restaurants with nothing but a glass of wine and the flicker of a tealight candle for company. As welcoming as the lawyers in your host office may be or as busy as the client may keep you, these people have real lives outside of the professional sphere of your relationship and you may one day find yourself without dinner plans. The blurry line between work and life for Biglaw attorneys may be all but eliminated on some business trips, but the upside of working 24/7 is that sweet, sweet per diem that could probably feed a family of four in a developing country for a month.
Getting to Know Yourself
As a person and as a professional. We all know that finding yourself in unfamiliar territory and succeeding in the face of adversity inevitably leads to tremendous personal growth (hello, 1L). Even for the seasoned world-traveler, however, working abroad involves a unique set of trials and tribulations distinct from those we have conquered in the classroom. In addition to the cultural differences inherent to conducting international business, you will also face situations that challenge and cultivate your own construction of professional identity. Law students who want to work abroad are like recent Clippers fans– either the fit is so perfect that they will unwaveringly weather all the unique challenges that might accompany such a role (see: seasons 1984-2011 and Donald Sterling circa 2014), or they don’t really know too much about what they’re getting themselves into but want to be part of a movement quickly gaining momentum. There’s nothing wrong with being either of these kinds of law student (being any kind of Clipper fan whatsoever is a different story entirely), but you won’t know until push comes to shove.
Working abroad is not for everyone—and that’s perfectly ok.
Despite longstanding dreams of living out of a suitcase, I’ve settled on a practice area that doesn’t lend itself to much travel at all (tax; yes, super exciting, I know). But I didn’t know that this dream would be something I could comfortably let go of until I experienced it for myself. Of course, summering abroad is not the same as working full-time, but it’s likely the closest you’ll be able to get. While you are away, your peers will be gaining office-specific work experience and building relationships amongst themselves and others in the home office, and it may be difficult to catch up when you return. Also be prepared for the possibility that the most exploring you’ll get to do will be limited to viewing the city through car windows during the same daily commute between your hotel and the office or client site. Nonetheless, I would urge you to split your summer internationally if you can, since very few large New York law firms regularly send summer associates abroad (Shearman, Clifford Chance, and Cleary most notably). Although it usually doesn’t feel like it, law school is a gift — a time to try a lot of different things without causing anyone to blink or question your commitment to any particular career path.
As I’m entering my final year of school ever (is it too late to apply for that 4-year JD/MBA?), I can confidently say that I have no ragrets about how I’ve spent my law school summers, and I hope you’ll be able to say the same.