[Opinión] The internationalist lawyer: How to be a foreigner and not die trying

| | Updated: 11/22/2020 12:23 PM

He intended to set up an office in Paris that would deal directly with the big companies there, and he wanted to know if he would be willing to go. “You are young and it seems to me that it is a life that you must like.” I said yes, but deep down I was indifferent. He then asked me if I was not interested in a change of life. I replied that life never changes, that in any case all of them were worth the same and that mine here did not displease me at all. Albert Camus, “The Foreigner” (1942).

In the legal profession, the foreign element is not exceptional. Internationalization, let’s not forget, is nothing more than the result of our quality as foreigners.

Now, as internationalists we do not just live like a foreigner Meursault —The perennial observer of international reality who stars in Camus’s work.

By interacting dynamically with foreign reality, as foreign lawyers, we are imbued with the legal culture of the country where we practice.

Nobody is born an internationalist.

We are doing over the years. Neither the faculty nor the indoctrination programs with which the big firms send you out of your country, anticipate what you will have to learn.

From my point of view, and despite the difficult things that can be done at times, I could not think of anything more satisfactory than the practice of international law.

In fact, If I had to choose a career again, I would choose the same – making new mistakes for sure, but at least not trying to repeat the ones I already know.


Well, in addition to the topic that I do not share, that “in Spain you live better than anywhere”, international law requires a certain vocational element, as well as a commitment to your professional development that not everyone is seduced by.

And this doesn’t just apply to those starting their career.

Over the years I have seen established professionals, and large firms that you know, begin an international adventure to abandon it in a few years.

Actually, Spanish law has established little real presence outside the Peninsula, beyond “alliances” —which, from my point of view, cannot be called internationalization in the sense that I am referring to.

This is due to a series of keys that I would like to briefly mention.


As jurists, in Spain, despite how critical I am always with our degree in Law, the level of legal reasoning among professionals is generally high. There are even those who speak two or more languages ​​fluently.

But nevertheless, When we left Spain we found that we were missing some fundamental tools.

But above all we lack patience, and often the intellectual curiosity necessary to learn about other legal cultures.

And it is that learning is not the same as studying. Learning a new legal system demands a sustained capacity for observation and listening for a period of several years, preferably under tutelage.

It requires a high dose of cultural and social immersion as well, but above all it involves interacting and engaging in intense dialogue with other professionals.

Acquiring the necessary experience to develop an independent practice in another legal system requires much more than a language, or knowing the technical elements of the law of a country. I always insist to my juniors that unlike Spain, all seven or nine subjects of the English law system can be learned in one year at grade level.

That is why I consider it essential that the protocols and the business, socio-political and cultural etiquette that is expected of an internationalist professional in that country are also apprehended.

The curiosity to learn, and a certain intellectual humility, is required to understand the practical application of local legislation, but also to understand and assimilate the culture and philosophy of the countries where we want to practice. It is precisely this understanding that really reduces the distance with foreign interlocutors and interlocutors.

In countries like Spain, where foreignization in recent decades has been inward, going outward to other countries costs more work. And when we do, it’s hard to know where to start.

No matter how much we study, and learn about another legal system, we will always have much to understand about a reality where we are not native.

Thus, while the concept of the nation state and patriotic tribalism continues to be in our DNA, as well as in that of the countries where we have to practice, it does not matter how many decades we spend practicing in them: We will surely always be foreigners.

However, from that perceived foreigner, it is possible to get very close to the knowledge of the reality of other peoples and come to understand them as equals.

In fact, the great paradigm shift for most international professionals occurs after a few years living in a country.

One fine day you realize that even though you keep speaking with a foreign accent, you no longer think like a foreigner. The other side of the coin is that when you talk to your Spanish colleagues, you feel like a foreigner in your own country.


Ignorance of Anglo-Saxon Law, and the problem of conflicts of laws and jurisdiction that we should have learned well when we studied Private International Law, leads too many colleagues to confuse the Anglo-Saxon civil or commercial reality with its Spanish equivalent.

The application of comparative law or the use of international legal dictionaries, which is very useful at an academic level, cannot substitute training and practice both in Private International Law as we should acquire in at least one jurisdiction other than our native civil jurisdiction.

To be considered an internationalist, except better opinion, it is essential to know foreign rights as well as international law.

It is not enough to speak languages.

It is difficult to conceive an internationalist who is not versed in at least two legal systems: one of the family of civil law and the other of Anglo-Saxon law.

This would be the lingua franca requirement, which I believe is essential. Understanding the main legal and procedural figures of Anglo-Saxon law is the basic alphabet to be able to build and argue internationally from the civil paradigm.

If in addition to civil and Anglo-Saxon, we have the enormous fortune of getting to know some traditional legal system of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East or Africa; our internationalism reaches a new dimension.


What can I say about the complexes that assail us when we sit down for the first time in front of a team of American or English lawyers?

I have suffered them.

The reality is that the language has a lot to do with it, but we don’t have to have the queen’s English either Isabel II to make us understand.

Taking care not to fall into the syndrome of the emperor’s new suit and believe that we speak a language when nobody understands us, it is important to know and be able to play on an equal footing with our Anglo-Saxon colleagues,

There is no doubt that there are many legal needs that exist at an international level, and that Spanish lawyers are more than prepared to face them.

For me, the international legal capacity of the Spanish legal profession is clear, but it is essential, in order not to die trying, to assume that as foreigners we still have a lot to learn.

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