The Expat Barrister’s Guide to working remotely

After more than three years of working remotely, there is a question to be answered: can a barrister can carve out a profession half a world away from a courthouse (at least, a courthouse in which they are admitted to practice – Paris actually has a very swish modern new justice precinct, and a rather nice old one too)?

I hope that my thoughts below are relevant both to people thinking of working long distances from a court building (or wherever your usually work), whether within Australia or abroad. There are about a billion and one things to take into account when making such a move, so consider this a high level summary of just some of the issues which I have faced. If you are thinking of a move to alternate climes, I’d be very happy to discuss further the ins and outs of going remote.

Location, regulation, taxation

While listed first, location is probably the least important of these three items (with apologies to Kirstie and Phil). I say this because a desire to work remotely is likely made for bigger life reasons than for the pursuit of maximum profit. Before throwing pins at a world map and choosing a location, there are a few matters to consider:

  • Time zones: sometimes these work to your advantage, but frequently they do not. If you do cross one or more time zones for work, I do not recommend compromising your working hours to fit in with the time in your work jurisdiction. While the difference between Sydney and Paris is an extreme example, working through the French daytime (therefore through the Australian night) has proven far more effective than staying up all night in the hope of matching the Australian work day;
  • Consider to what extent you want to be fully remote (never going back to your centre of work), or semi remote (able to travel when work requires it). If the latter, transport links are important. For both, but mainly the former, reliable and fast internet connections are a necessity;
  • Humans are naturally curious beasts. I find that a few words on life in Paris will almost invariable elicit a response, whether to discuss the weather, the culture, or shared experiences. Offering your clients an insight into life at your destination, chosen no doubt because it is a preferable place to live than the big city where your work is based, is in my experience a good way of keeping correspondence fresh and engaging.

As to regulation, not all countries allow immigrants to hang out a (virtual) shingle and start practising foreign law. The same may apply to other forms of business. Check to see if you need to register anywhere before starting business. Check also if your form of business structure (company, partnership, etc.) is recognised where you will be living, or whether other business structures are more appropriate. Hoping to fly under the radar from a regulatory perspective may work for a while, but is hardly advisable (as this unfortunate barrister found to their cost).

Finally, for any international move, working out the tax implications is essential. Check for double tax treaties, but do not assume that tax authorities will apply them correctly (or at all!). Getting good accounting advice in your old and new places of work should be budgeted for and prioritised. Tax considerations may lead to you rethinking your business structure (see above). Finding good tax advice can be a real challenge, so do make sure to address this issue as soon as you can. If staying within your home country, tax problems should be greatly reduced, but bear in mind that (in Australia) some taxes are state-based rather than federal.

Building and maintaining a client base

There are two fundamental issues for the remote worker: convincing your current clients that they should continue to use your services from afar, and convincing new clients that your services as a remote worker are preferable to those of competing workers based closer to your previous place of business.

For current clients, the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a very real thing. If current me could tell past me one thing, it would be to make sure people do not forget who you are. Never stop contacting current clients, even if just to swap tales or photographs from your new home (see above about how much people enjoy talking about other parts of the world). How you do that – telephone, video, email – will depend on your clients’ preferences, as will how frequently you make contact.

Winning new clients, in my experience, involves two principal matters: positive word of mouth from existing clients (the same as for non-remote working) and impressing upon potential clients the benefits of your remote practice. This second matter calls for some marketing skill in two areas. Firstly, getting your message out to potential clients, which means working out where those clients hang out, and putting your name in front of them. The second is to extol the virtues of your business offering. In my case this has involved highlighting my overnight delivery of work product to solicitors who may have received a demand for advice in the evening, and want a response ready to go first thing the following morning.

Technology for the remote worker

While the modern world runs on computer technology, I would propose that the single most important technological item you possess when working remotely is the humble telephone line (or its digital voice and video calling progeny). Being in constant contact with your current and prospective client base is an essential part of remote work (see above).

If overseas, give thought to investing in a VPN to access Australian sites which may implement geoblocking. I also strongly advise you to keep an Australian mobile line active, whether on a contract or a cheap SIM-only plan. Alas some Australian sites (including some banks and government departments) rely on 2-factor authentication by SMS, so losing your Australian phone number could see you locked out of certain sites.

I would also recommend investing in a dedicated workspace, wherever you are living. Apart from allowing you to work more efficiently (contrast sitting on the sofa with a laptop on one knee and a coffee on the other, with the space and stability of a proper desk and chair), in my experience a dedicated workspace helps to separate professional life from the remote lifestyle which you have targeted.

The challenges of remote life

While I cannot necessarily provide answers, I can at least highlight some problems which may strike the remote worker when settling in to their new routine:

  • Homesickness: whether moving to a different town or a new country, homesickness is most likely unavoidable, and is beyond my skill to fix. Perhaps take comfort that homesickness evolves as time goes by, from a sharp longing for friends and family, to a memory of tastes and sounds of places left behind;
  • Soft market knowledge: In contrast to ‘hard’ knowledge, by which I mean expertise and knowledge of your industry and the work involved in it, ‘soft’ knowledge includes knowing current pricing trends, general market gossip, which of your competitors are being spoken about in glowing (or otherwise!) terms, and the like. This glorified form of scuttlebutt is generally traded in personal conversations and can be difficult to glean from afar. Working your personal network is the best way in my experience of finding out what is happening in your industry;
  • Redefining what constitutes success: remote work will likely be fundamentally different from your previous working life. So the things which brought professional pride (for barristers, as an example, this could include appearing before courts and tribunals) may no longer be practical, or even possible. In those circumstances it is necessary to re-evaluate what brings you professional pride and constitutes success. Rather than arguing in court, it could be focusing on writing incredible written submissions. Rather than meeting clients, it could mean penning the most click-worthy of online articles.

A summation

I asked at the start of this article whether a barrister can carve out a profession half a world away from a courthouse. The answer is has proved to be yes, but not a career which many would deem conventional, or even desirable. And that is the point of the remote working choice – while one may gain in travel and new life experiences, there are sacrifices to be made in the professional context. If you get the opportunity to work remotely, hopefully some of what I wrote above will help you to overcome the sacrifices and focus on the satisfaction of building a career in your preferred choice of location.

What I believe is vital when marketing a remote business, is not to sell yourself as “business as usual, just from further away”. By putting your services on the same level as your contemporaries who do not have to deal with the challenges of remote work, your offering will always risk appearing inferior. Instead, look to find some advantage, or at least some intriguing distinction, which you can offer as a result of being based remotely.