Seven things all lawyers moving overseas need to know

There are a few things I have learned along the way that I would like to share and hopefully will help other lawyers looking to make a similar international journey.

Daniel Lo

There are many benefits to living and working abroad that cannot be quantified. Outside of Canada, a study by the Harvard Business Review, found that living abroad helps you develop a clearer sense of self and also leads to clearer career decisions. I have practised as a lawyer in two countries (Hong Kong, China and Singapore) and can certainly attest to these findings. I believe that my two international moves have irrevocably changed my outlook on what a successful legal career looks like and also allowed me to grow into an independent, confident and purposeful person.

Social-science studies have shown that international experiences can enhance creativity, reduce intergroup bias and promote career success. I am particularly supportive of the positive effect an international move has on battling a person's intergroup bias (favouring one's social group over others) because, in my experience, lawyers who are able to embrace cultural diversity and can successfully adapt to local norms and behaviours often exhibit greater empathy and strive for co-operative and long-term relationship-driven solutions.

There are a few things I have learned along the way that I would like to share and hopefully will help other lawyers looking to make a similar international journey.


 Pack the essentials, get rid of the rest

The biggest mistake one can make is developing an emotional attachment to “stuff.” Generally avoid shipping your furniture and large electronics as you have no idea whether the furniture will fit in your new accommodation and also whether the electrical outlets will fry your TV and speakers. Even some clothes (like thick jackets) may be unnecessary if you are moving to a hot location, so be purposeful with what you pack. One key thing to remember is to bring the originals of your transcripts, degree certificates and lawyer certificates as you may need to produce the originals (a bar call, local regulatory requirement). You will soon realize that you actually need very little to uproot your life and that the only thing you absolutely need and that cannot be taken away from you is already stuck in your head — your knowledge and education.


Sort out housing quickly and carefully

If you are quick and all goes flawlessly, you can get in touch with an agent, view properties and sign a lease within two weeks. If your law firm or company is setting you up in temporary accommodation (typically one month), you have some buffer time from landing and needing to house hunt (although you should be hitting the ground running anyway). If you don't have housing assistance, I would recommend looking for at least a month-long stay in an Airbnb or a hotel suite so that you have time to find appropriate housing and won't be rushed. The best is to have a local friend recommend an agent that they trust, but always remember to compare the terms of each agency as certain agencies will charge additional fees. If you rent an apartment unit listed at $3,500-a-month then there will be no fee, but below that amount, there will be a one-month fee. Never sign a lease without looking at an apartment, and in most cases, you can negotiate a diplomatic clause within the lease that allows you to break the lease if you leave the country due to job transfer or termination of employment.

Have some money in the bank

The general rule is to have six months worth of salary readily available in your account for things such as startup furniture costs and housing. Many cities will ask for three months worth of rent upfront as a pre-payment of first-and-last-month rent and a deposit. This can be quite onerous especially when you haven't started work yet, so have a cash buffer ready. For the first few weeks, you may need to rely on cash as in most cases you would need time to set up a local bank account and a local credit card and using your current credit card for foreign purchases will rack up the foreign transaction fees, unless you have a credit card that waives these fees.


Update your service providers

Cancelling all your internet and cable services and other subscriptions should be obvious, but remember to update your bank so that your accounts won't get locked when you use them overseas. Updating your contact details with your law society is also important. If you intend to move frequently, it might be in your interest to have your mail sent to a trusted family member or friend back home so you make sure you won't miss it.


Stock up on your favourite goods

If you absolutely love something that can only be bought in Canada (and it's actually cheaper to do so), you may consider stocking up on it before you move overseas. For instance, certain brands such as  Kiehls will have jumbo versions of their products that will not be available in Asia. Certain over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol and NeoCitran are not sold in most places outside of Canada; however, there may be local equivalents. The one thing I definitely miss is ketchup chips, a very Canadian flavour not found elsewhere.


Check and renew your government documents

Check to see whether your passport and driver’s licence are close to renewal and, if so, consider renewing it before you leave. It is a pain to leave Canada just to come back to renew your drivers licence. If you intend to do a lot of travel to countries that require a visa (such as Vietnam, Russia or China), it may be more convenient if you sorted that out at home before heading off to another time zone.


Speak to an accountant about declaring non-resident status

It is always safer to speak to your accountant before leaving Canada so that you understand what your tax obligations are. This is especially important if you have assets such as a rental unit or stocks and you are considering declaring non-resident for tax purposes. CRA provides some guidance online; however, speaking to an accountant is still advisable as they will know whether there are reciprocal tax treaties that will require you to pay Canadian tax anyway and also the correct treatment of your assets.

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