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May 16, 2016

I’m a 10th year real estate lawyer from South Africa. I moved to San Francisco (took the bar) and am looking for a job. Real estate law is different in the U.S. so I’ve had no luck. Is a law firm or in house a better option for me?

Julie Q. Brush

You have set sail for a new land (literally and figuratively) and in many ways are in unchartered waters. You’ve moved to a new country and are seeking a new job in a substantive area that is practiced differently in the U.S. than it is back home. So finding a new job will have its challenges. Given your situation, my advice is not to employ and “either…or” approach, but rather spread a wider net. So rather than pick a law firm or in house position on which to focus, I recommend that you pursue both paths to maximize your options. Below is the lay of the land:

Things to Know: Law Firms.

In 2016, the demand for real estate lawyers in the San Francisco Bay Area is moderate – and has softened a little from the prior year. But law firms are still hiring. The vast majority of California law firms require California bar membership for lateral associates, Of Counsel and partner candidates. Some exceptions exist, but in your situation, it will be a must. You’ve recently taken the bar exam so this will remove one material objection to your candidacy. But your real estate practice is not aligned with the way real estate law is practiced in the U.S. and/or California so no firm will consider bringing you on board at your true seniority year (10th year). In many ways you will be retooling your practice and will need to take a fairly substantial seniority hit. So manage your expectations accordingly and be open to such propositions.

Where to look? Start with law firms with a South Africa office (likely Johannesburg and Cape Town) as there may be some opportunities between the offices that might use you as the link. Baker & McKenzie, Dentons, Hogan Lovells and White & Case are a few of the larger firms that have offices in these locations as well as Northern California. Next, hit the regional and boutique law firms. Real Estate is a rate sensitive practice and has been jettisoned from many large law firms. So there are a number of smaller firms that house this practice in greater numbers. These firms pay less than their big firm counterparts, but you may not need to take as severe of a seniority hit.

In terms of a search approach, you have two options: (1) Use a recruiter; or (2) Go it alone. There are advantages…and disadvantages to both. A good recruiter will know the firms that will be worth pursuing and will have relationships with most, if not all. S/he will also have market data that will serve as an invaluable resource. In addition, recruiters will shoulder all the administrative heavy lifting – making your search a much more manageable and less stressful process. While using a recruiter sounds like a no-brainer, there can be downsides…particularly for the “out of the box candidate” like yourself. First, recruiters charge their clients (the law firms) healthy placement fees for the candidates they introduce who are ultimately hired. Consequently, employers jack up the bar with little give in order to justify the payment of a recruiting fee. “If I’m going to pay a recruiting fee, the candidate better be darn near perfect.” For a candidate who comes into the process with existing challenges, the presence of a recruiting fee could tip the scales out of his/her favor. So bear this in mind when selecting your approach. If you go it alone, be thorough in your research, create a solid resume, know your “story” and communicate it well and leverage your existing network to maximize your options.

Things To Know: In House.

The San Francisco Bay Area (which incorporates San Francisco, Silicon Valley, San Jose, the East Bay [i.e. Berkeley, Alameda] and the North Bay [i.e. Marin, Santa Rosa, Napa] has one of the most vibrant in house legal markets on the planet. This area is the birthplace of the technology industry and serves as its Mecca. So tech companies drive much of the hiring activity in the area. With this said, there are a host of other industries that are prevalent as well that add to the mix: financial services, retail, food & beverage and healthcare to name a few.

The market for in house real estate lawyers is not as robust as other practice areas like privacy, data security, commercial and tech transactions. So you’ll need to be proactive to mine attractive in house opportunities. To find these types of roles, legal job websites are helpful but you’re going to have to do much more than scouring the job boards. So what does that mean? It means that you put on your research hat and make a list of companies like banks, grocery stores, retail etc. whose business incorporates a strong real estate component. You then reach out to the GC or head of real estate and introduce yourself, introduce your background and spark a relationship. You may not receive a response…but you may. And it’s at that point you have the opportunity to build the foundation for your next job. Remember, it only takes one “yes” to transform a career. In addition, speak with good recruiters specializing in house search and ask to get on their radar. If possible schedule a meeting or call and provide them with more details about your background and the value you’d bring to an organization. The more they know, the better it will be for your quest.

Now that you have planted your flag on a new geographical destination, it’s time to focus on your next career move. By understanding the lay of this new land and pursuing the broadest number of relevant possibilities, you’ll increase your chances at securing the right role…and planting your next flag on the new career that awaits you.

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