After graduating from law school in Germany, I spent in 1992 half a year as a law clerk working for an US firm in Miami, Florida. That stint in Miami was something like an international eye opener for me. There was no doubt that I was not going to practice law in Germany after getting admitted to the bar there. Instead, that stint in Miami was the first of several jobs all over the globe. The purpose of this article is primarily to give readers an idea about possible approaches to land professional work in an international setting.
Getting a job as a law clerk with a law firm in the United States was reasonably easy. There are a bunch of law firms all over the United States with clients involved in international business, for example business interests in Europe. Many of those law firms also have European and / or German clients doing business in the United States. For these reasons, international law firms in the United States are sometimes interested in hiring European law clerks.
However, when I was interested in working for a law firm in the United States, I had no international contacts whatsoever. So I contacted the German American lawyers' association in Bonn, Germany. The organization provided me with a list of law firms in the United States, which are sometimes interested in hiring German law clerks. After short listing law firms that looked like my cup of tea in terms of size and areas of specialization, I applied to them in writing. As a result of some more correspondence and a telephone conversation, I received a job offer from a law firm based in Miami. I had secured my first international job. Looking at it in hindsight, everything was going to change for a rather provincial German law graduate.
Miami is a very international city with a strong Latin American flavor. More people in Miami are fluent in Spanish than in English. It goes without saying that life there was completely different to my rather provincial home town in Germany. And life was much more exciting there. One of the involuntary excitement was experiencing hurricane Andrew. However, the expansion of my legal horizon ranged from exposure to trade with Latin America to following the trial against Manuel Noriega, Panama's ex President who was ousted by a US invasion. When I had to return to Germany to get admitted to the bar, I virtually felt confined there.
After getting admitted to the bar, I embarked on an extensive backpacking tour through Southern Africa. The purpose of the exercise was to figure out what I really wanted to do. Practicing law in Germany was not a serious option. I arrived in South Africa in 1993, during the transition period from Apartheid to multi racial democracy. That was at least for the time being the place to be, live and work.
Getting work in South Africa is easiest in Johannesburg. Jo'burg as South Africans call the city is the commercial and financial hub of the country. The very high unemployment rate in South Africa somewhere between thirty and forty per cent of the workforce is not necessarily an obstacle to finding professional work there. It is just crucial to be a little resourceful to find the right niche.
Instead of applying for advertised jobs, I made the decision to focus on the hidden job market. I contacted the German South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry based in Johannesburg and asked me to provide me with a membership directory. Companies listed there are predominantly German companies with business interests in South Africa and South African companies with German directors and other German executives. As the German business community is well represented and very influential in South Africa, the membership directory is as thick as a book about half as thick as a novel by James Michener.
The next step was that I cold called companies that I had short listed. The purpose of the exercise was to talk to a director, hoping to get an appointment for an interview. Talking to the personnel department is a waste of time. Talk to the circus director, not the clown. Eventually I obtained an appointment for an interview with the managing director of a business consulting firm specializing in mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures between European and South African companies. After a second interview and a reference check, I got the job. When I contacted that consultancy, the firm was looking for someone, who is familiar with the German legal system and is fluent in German and English. But the firm never got around to advertising the vacancy. Focusing on the hidden job market in a specialized niche turned out to be successful.
Living and working in Johannesburg during the transition period definitely deserves to be called exciting. The excitement during that period included marches of tens of thousand of Zulus in the central business district and bombs exploding all over Johannesburg. At a professional level, during that stint I could expand my experience with international business. In every respect, it was without any doubt worth living and working in South Africa during that time.
However, in the second half of the nineties it was time to move on. I wanted to move to New Zealand. So I did. Like in South Africa, I eventually found work in the commercial and financial hub of the country, Auckland. Unlike in South Africa, there is nothing in New Zealand that deserves to be called German business community. For that reason, it was necessary to change my approach a little.
By coincidence, I realized that there was a market in New Zealand for competitive medical insurance. The medical insurance market in New Zealand had been dominated for decades by two insurers, whose premiums were sky rocketing. Many Kiwis were not aware that there were more competitive deals available offered by reputable and well established insurance companies.
That is the reason why I went this time through the yellow pages cold calling insurance brokerages. The purpose of the exercise was again to talk to a director, hoping to get an appointment for an interview. After obtaining a few interviews and going through the usual application procedure, I had a job with an insurance brokerage focusing on business development for medical insurance.
Since 1984, New Zealand radically deregulated and liberalized its domestic markets. In that process, many state owned companies were privatized. The result now is a very competitive business environment. That also includes the financial services industry. But my hunch was right. I did this business development role for several years.
In a nutshell, a few lessons can be drawn from my job hunting in South Africa and New Zealand. First, landing professional work appears to be easier in the commercial and financial center of the respective country. Second, at least according to my experience, focusing on the hidden job market in a specialized niche does make sense. Third, as far as I am able to form an opinion, smaller firms seem to be more promising targets than large companies. Smaller firms often do not advertise vacancies and tend to be more flexible. Both the business consulting firm in Johannesburg and the insurance brokerage in Auckland I worked for are rather small firms.
In 2000 and 2001, it gradually dawned on me that I wanted to get out of law and business altogether. It also dawned on me what I wanted to do instead teaching at college level, preferably in a less developed country.
The internet is indeed a wonderful invention. Some websites specialize in listing teaching positions throughout the world. Other websites list schools and colleges all over the globe. By using search engines, one can locate websites of virtually every educational outfit, no matter where it is based. The websites of educational institutions sometimes list vacancies. But it is also worth contacting them if they do not list vacancies.
Needless to mention, I have found what I felt inclined to do. Since August 2001, I teach at the campus Colima of the Monterrey Institute of Technology, the largest private university in Mexico. While still living and working in New Zealand, I applied by Email for a teaching position in Mexico. The usual application procedure was done by Email and telephone.
In summary, if one is a little resourceful and entrepreneurial, one can land professional work almost anywhere in the world. By living and working oversees, one develops a global mindset and becomes in the course of time more relaxed. Just give it a go..