Practicing Law in Israel
This article was contributed by Minna Ferziger Felig, President and CEO of Minna Felig/Lawjobs
For olim, making aliyah and living the Zionist dream sometimes clouds the reality that once you land in Israel most of you will need to work. Finding a job is a necessity. The most obvious place to look for a job is in the field that you practiced abroad. If you were a lawyer before and you want to continue practicing law – you can practice here either in a law firm or as a legal advisor in a company or a government office.
Besides practicing as a lawyer, there are other jobs in the market that may touch on the law but don’t require a law license such as patent attorneys, IP management, legal secretaries and paralegals. However, for the purpose of this article I have limited myself to jobs that require a legal education and a law license.
Practicing law in Israel can be similar to your practice abroad. But depending on your area of expertise, it can also be very different. Even if you end up practicing in nearly the same field that you did abroad, however, there are many practical and cultural differences that are important to know before making the transition.
The Market Place:
The law market in Israel is divided into international and local practice areas, and one can practice law in either law firms or companies.
A Local Practice refers to positions that deal almost exclusively with local transactions and issues of Israeli law, regardless of where the client is based. From a law firm perspective, this includes, inter alia, Family Law, Property Law, Commercial Contracts Law, Income Tax, Labor and Civil/Commercial Litigation. Companies will also hire lawyers to deal with local issues such as Contracts, Property, Labor Law, Insurance Law, Banking and Regulatory Law in areas such as Israeli Securities, Telecom, etc.
It is important to remember that the practice may still be local even if the clients are not. So, for example, a global computer company might hire a local lawyer to advise on local issues affecting their local office and trade in Israel. They want their lawyer to handle property contracts, advise on local labor issues, negotiate insurance contracts etc. For all of these “local” practice areas, the emphasis is on Israeli law and lawyers are expected to have a high level of written and spoken Hebrew. Global companies will also expect a high level of fluency in English so that you can communicate with the managers abroad.
An International Practice refers to positions that deal with international transactions and focuses primarily on Israeli companies that export from Israel and those whose primary transactions are abroad. Such companies include technology companies as well as food and clothing manufacturers. But it also includes companies that invest abroad, such as property development companies, and public companies that are listed -– or want to be listed -- on foreign stock exchanges and thus require advice on foreign regulatory compliance. The areas of expertise that are generally sought are Capital Markets, Mergers & Acquisitions, Software Licensing and Distribution Transactions, International Property Transactions, International Tax, etc.
Many full service Israeli law firms hire foreign-licensed English speaking lawyers because of their foreign practice experience. These foreign licensed lawyers represent international clients who are investing or doing transactions in Israel, or they represent Israeli companies that are investing or doing transactions abroad. Usually, the international lawyer has a basic knowledge of the relevant Israeli laws, but in large firms s/he works together with the firm’s Israeli lawyers who are experts in the local laws, thus relieving the foreign lawyer of having to be experts on Israeli law – at least initially.
For a list of Israeli law firms, see http://www.martindale.co.il/Search.aspx?Lang=en-US.
The Israel Bar Association website can be found here: http://www.israelbar.org.il/english_index.asp.
How Important is Hebrew?
Hebrew skills are essential for those who want to practice local law, and less essential for those who practice international areas of law. Unfortunately, olim are sometimes unprepared for the fact that the laws in Israel are often completely different from their home country, and that in local practice areas there is little use for English. Lawyers who come from litigation, Labor law, Insurance, Family Law and Property Law backgrounds can have a hard time finding work in their specialty.
Someone who wants to continue practicing in local areas of expertise, such as any kind of litigation, will have to learn Hebrew at a level of fluency. For interviewing purposes this usually means being able to carry on a conversation completely in Hebrew. But from a practical level, this means forcing yourself at work to take on every project possible in Hebrew, researching the relevant laws in Hebrew and writing memos in Hebrew. Basically conducting your own private ulpan.
For international practice areas, English is usually the main language required for drafting and it is required at a native level. (Today, native Spanish is also in demand, but never at the expense of English.) The largest firms and big international companies often hire English speakers who speak little or no Hebrew, as long as they have experience in the relevant practice areas (US Securities, private equity, software licensing, etc.).
However, just having native English without specific and high level experience in an important practice area is usually not enough to impress the large firms specializing in international work. Today, many Israelis spend several years practicing law abroad, thus offering relevant international experience and excellent (although not native) English skills. From the employer's perspective, these candidates are usually preferable to a native English speaker who has no relevant corporate experience. The reason for this is that Israeli law firms and companies don’t usually like to train people (and they’re not very good at it). Also they are more comfortable working with Hebrew speakers since the default language for internal communications within a company or law firm will usually be Hebrew.
Practicing in a Law Firm
Israeli law firms have grown substantially over the last ten years and the international practice areas have grown accordingly, in both large and smaller firms. A large firm, by Israeli standards, is between 50 – 180 lawyers and mid-sized is from 15 – 50 lawyers. Firms with fewer than 15 lawyers are considered small or boutique, depending on their practice areas.
As a general rule, only the largest law firms can afford to hire lawyers who don’t write and speak fluently in Hebrew. They model themselves after the much larger US and UK firms that are compartmentalized by practice areas. Here, the international work is located in one or several international departments and thus it is easier for a pure English speaker to find enough work to keep busy. The large firms can be very good places to begin one’s career in Israel because they cater to a diverse type of clientele and can give a new oleh a good overview of the business law market in Israel. Also, since these firms have usually hired other new immigrants in the past, they will have a better idea of the learning process that olim must go through as they make the transition to becoming Israeli lawyers. It's important to remember that even a lawyer working exclusively in English in an international department of a big firm, is still practicing Israeli law, and must learn the Israeli laws relevant to his practice area.
If you are fluent in Hebrew then a medium sized or small law firm can also be an interesting option. In contrast to the large firms that delegate lawyers to specialized departments, smaller firms often train their lawyers to provide full service to clients making it essential to be able to work both in Hebrew and in English. While such firms may not have the same size or breadth of clientele, they generally have a few top tier clients who can give a new lawyer top level experience. Also, if your Hebrew is good then it is an opportunity to learn and practice Israeli law as well as international law. Finally, lawyers who distinguish themselves in medium and smaller firms may have more opportunity to bring in clients (because the rates are lower) and thus to make partner. Unfortunately, many medium sized and small law firms don’t have enough English work to keep an English speaker busy 100% of the time doing meaningful work. Thus, those that hire new olim often give them tedious translation work and other non-legal assignments to take advantage of their English skills.
Boutique law firms are an exception to the big firm/ small firm dichotomy. These firms specialize specifically in representing foreign clients, such as high tech companies, so all of the lawyers are doing work that is only in English. For these firms, like the largest full service firms, Hebrew is an asset but it is not always essential and there is no need to draft in Hebrew. Prior relevant experience, however, is always a necessity here because these firms do not have the size and funds to train.
At this time, there are no International Law Firms with branch offices in Israel. There are several options of foreign law entities that hire foreign lawyers to do outsourced foreign work. These firms don’t require Israeli law licenses, but the number of positions and the growth potential are more limited:
Outsourcing Firms – Innodata-Isogen and Citybook operate as outsourcing firms mostly for companies in the US. Innodata, the Israel branch of a leading US business process outsourcing firm, hires on a full time basis for jobs that require US legal research and writing. Citybook acts as the back office for commercial property companies. The work is document intensive, mostly doing property lease summaries and other due diligence work, and the pay is either full time or piecemeal, based on a daily or project specific fee schedule.
Outside Counsel Solutions (OCS) is a company that acts as a full service foreign law firm based in Israel. It has Corporate, Labor Law, IP, US Securities and US Litigation departments and most of the client relationship work is done by telephone and video conference calls. OCS hires full time employees and pays them full Israeli benefits.
Foreign Litigation Firms –There are currently two firms in the Jerusalem area that do foreign litigation and hire American-trained or UK-trained litigation associates to do their legal research and writing. Again, Israeli licenses are not needed here but options for growth are limited.
Some foreign firms have partners who want to live full or part time in Israel and they have agreed to maintain a presence in Israel, mostly for marketing purposes. However, these are generally one man shows on the Israeli side, with the associates work being generated in the firm’s other offices, usually in London or New York.
Practicing in a Company
The kinds of companies that are interested in English speaking lawyers are generally large, most often NASDAQ-listed companies whose business is focused out of Israel. These include technology companies that license abroad, international property investment and building companies, high tech companies, companies listed on foreign stock exchanges that report to foreign investors and submit reports to foreign stock exchanges, and the international departments of banks.
Knowing English for these jobs is essential, but not enough. Relevant candidates must be thoroughly familiar with the types of deals that the companies need to sell or license their products.
Depending on the company, the range of in-house positions for lawyers can include:
General Counsel for a legal department. This is generally not a position for which companies hire new olim since they want someone who is already licensed as an Israeli lawyer.
Legal Counsel in a company legal department. These positions are periodically available to olim. Usually they require at least five years of top level commercial contract experience. Technology companies generally insist on experience with software licensing and distribution agreements.
Solo Counsel for smaller companies. This position can be very interesting because it allows a lawyer to be involved in every aspect of the business. Usually, the lawyer must be licensed in Israel and speak a fairly high level of Hebrew. These positions sometimes include work in M&A and international securities, since the lawyer acts as a manager of outside counsel.
Contract Manager for large companies. Many of the companies that build and implement large, complex systems for overseas companies or governments hire contract managers with legal backgrounds. The Contract Manager doesn’t draft or negotiate the main framework agreements. But since there are many subcontracts involved, the Contract Manager follows the implementation of the large contract and negotiates all the smaller subcontracts. This is actually not considered a legal position and, while they hire lawyers to do this work, they don’t usually require an Israeli law license.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry regularly hires English speaking interns, and sometimes offers them permanent positions. Some quasi-governmental companies, such as defense-related manufacturers, hire English speaking lawyers to draft and negotiate their complex agreements for sales around the world (often in countries that no one will admit we do business with).
Everyone knows that salaries in Israel are not what they are in America; but everyone is still surprised by how low the salaries here can be. As a general rule, a highly skilled corporate or securities international law who was trained in a top US law firm could expect to make in shekels the number that s/he made in the US in dollars if s/he works in a top Israeli law firm, i.e. about one-quarter of his US salary. However, if the experience isn’t entirely applicable, or if the lawyer is very junior, then those numbers will drop significantly.
As a rule the salaries (quoted on a monthly before-tax basis in shekels) will be:
Entry Level/ Junior : 8,000 – 12,000 shekel
Mid- level: 13,000 – 20,000 shekel
Senior level: 20,000 – 30,000 shekel
Salaries can increase significantly as a lawyer gains experience and can reach US level (smaller firm) levels once a person makes partner. In law firms, some firms will also pay lawyers who bring in new business a percentage of the revenues collected (usually between 15%-25%).
Most people who make aliyah figure that they’re willing to give up big firm salaries to get a better quality of life here in Israel. But that is not always the case, especially for those coming after the lean years of the recent recession when work hours were lighter.
The good news for olim who are Sabbath observant is that the work week in private industry is officially from Sunday through Thursday, and Jewish holidays are official days off with the day before the holiday as a half day. Chol Hamoed, on Sukkot and Pesach, are also officially half days at most offices, and some firms give the entire week as a paid vacation.
In large international law firms, work days begin between 9 - 9:30 am and end around 8 pm. However, many international deals – such as merger transactions, investment rounds that need to close, securities reporting by the end of the quarter or a license deal that must finish – require frequent late nights either in the office or from your home computer. Work in these firms from 9 am to 10 pm is not uncommon.
For those who work in international companies, frequent travel is a given. On complex deals with foreign clients, most deals are closed by the in-house lawyer traveling with the business manager in the company to wherever the client is based in order to close the deal.
Government companies and local Israeli companies, such as banks and insurance companies, generally work six days a week, but shorter hours, usually 8 am – 6 pm with only a half-day on Friday.
Many mothers of young children try to arrange work hours until 4 pm so that they can pick up their children from daycare (which usually closes at 5). It would be a lie to say that employers are happy about this. Some employers will accommodate mothers but require them to work two long days (when the father or a grandparent picks up the kids). Most require mothers to be willing to finish at home what they did not finish during the day at work. Also, if meetings take place after 4, many employers will want mothers to be flexible about emergency childcare.
For English speaking mothers, law firms are often a better place to work than companies because their size and depth allows them to accommodate working mothers’ hours. In either case, as a general rule I recommend trying to find a job as a full time employee and then suggesting reduced hours once you’ve gained your employer’s trust.
Finally, mothers’ “reduced” hours-- even if they end up working many hours from home and are more efficient than their male counterparts-- often are an excuse for employers to pay them significantly less than other employees and not to promote them as quickly.
Relicensing as an Israeli Lawyer
Technically, Israel recently adopted a new law that allows foreign-licensed lawyers to practice law in Israel. However, the regulations relating to that law have not come out and it is unclear whether law firms can hire foreign-licensed lawyers – and if they can what those foreign lawyers will be able to do in their practice – without those regulations being in effect. Until now, Israeli law firms have continued to prefer hiring olim who go through the process of relicensing as an Israeli lawyer.
I generally recommend going through the relicensing process, both because it allows you to learn Israeli law, and also because it gives you more mobility in the future if you want to leave your first job.
Relicensing is a four step process that includes:
A Hebrew Proficiency Exam – in order to qualify for the rest of the requalification process, foreign lawyers must take a basic Hebrew exam that tests their ability to read and write a legal document in Hebrew. Foreign-licensed lawyers with at least two years of foreign experience may begin the legal internship after passing this exam, even before they pass all the Law of Israel exams.
Law of Israel Exams – Every foreign trained lawyer must pass a battery of eight tests on a variety of subjects in Israeli law: Property, Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, Family Law, Torts/Contracts/Labor Law, Criminal Law, Corporate, Tax + Bankruptcy Law. These exams are given twice a year and the Bar Association offers a three week preparatory course in English for a fee. All foreign-licensed Lawyers must complete these exams prior to completing their internship; those lawyers who have less than two years of foreign experience practicing law must pass these exams before they start their internship.
Complete a legal internship under the tutelage of a lawyer who has been admitted to practice in Israel for at least five years. The official internship period for Israeli is one year, but a new law was passed -- but is not yet in effect -- increasing the length of internship to two years. The Bar Association may reduce the length of the internship for very experienced foreign lawyers as it chooses, but never to less than six months.
The Israel Bar Exam is required of all Israeli law students when they finish their legal internship. The exam is in two parts. First is a multiple choice exam in Hebrew covering all aspects of Israeli law. If you pass the first exam, then there is an oral exam in Hebrew before a panel of three judges. Foreign lawyers with fewer than five years of experience must also take both these exams. Foreign lawyers who worked in the profession for at least five years after receiving their law license and before their date of aliyah are exempt from these exams.
When should you make aliyah?
Many lawyers wait until they’ve been licensed for at least five years before moving here, in order to avoid taking the Israel Bar Exam (Step IV above). This works best for those who are already practicing in an area that they can continue practicing in Israeli firms or companies. In addition to avoiding the Bar, those extra years of experience can be beneficial for making contacts that will want to send you business in Israel and saving money in order to afford the cut in salary.
For those who are not fluent in Hebrew, and especially if you aren’t going to practice the same area of law, I would recommend coming with no more than two years of experience (preferably in some kind of contract law). The reasons for this are that:
- The shock of the salary cut will be easier to take when the salary you’re leaving is lower,
- In order to get ahead you’re going to have to learn Hebrew so you might as well start learning it sooner rather than later
- If you need to learn a new area of practice, firms will be more willing to take on a junior lawyer than they will to take someone who has practiced for many years.
In any event, I would strongly recommend coming before the age of 45 and if possible before 40. Israeli employers are not allowed to discriminate by age, but they do.
Where should you live?
Most of the law jobs that need English speakers are located in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Law firms are mostly in the Tel Aviv/ Ramat Gan area. International companies, and particularly technology companies, are usually outside of central Tel Aviv, but are still in the same general area.
There are also companies located in different “high tech parks” throughout the country, such as Rehovot, Jerusalem, Beersheba, etc. However, you will have the most options if you live in the Center or Sharon areas of the country. Areas like Modiin and Bet Shemesh are accessible to Tel Aviv by a convenient train, however they are more inaccessible for positions north of the Tel Aviv area. Cities that are close to the new Road #6 Cross Israel Highway (i.e. areas near Ashdod, Gedera, Kfar Saba etc.) also cut travel time significantly and are possible places to live outside of the big cities.
- Hebrew is important and in some areas essential.
- Top level relevant experience is essential – just having good English skills will not be sufficient.
- One can practice law in a law firm or a company –
- Commercial Contract law, US Securities Law and Technology Agreements are the most useful experience.
- Starting salaries are low compared to US salaries.
- Relicensing as an Israeli lawyer is encouraged.
- Try to come before age 40.
- Most international jobs are located in the Central and Sharon areas of the country.