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Practicing Law in Israel
By Adv. Minna F. Felig, Co-Founder Machshavot Smartjob

For potential olim, the hope of 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. No matter what, 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.

1. A Local Practice refers to positions that deal almost exclusively with local transactions and issues of Israeli law, no matter 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.

2. 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

How Important is Hebrew?

Excellent Hebrew skills are essential for those who want to practice local law and important for those with an international practice, but not essential. Excellent Hebrew means the ability to understand and participate meaningfully in a business meeting in Hebrew, and to write without mistakes. The more your foreign experience is needed for the position you apply for, the less stringent employers will be about your Hebrew.

Unfortunately, olim are not always prepared for the fact that many of the laws in Israel are completely different from what they are used to, and that in local practice areas there is little use for English. Lawyers who come from litigation, Labor law, Insurance, Family Law, Property Law and Criminal law backgrounds may have a hard time finding work.
Therefore, someone who wants to continue practicing any kind of litigation will have to be fluent in both written and oral Hebrew.

For international practice areas, English is usually the main language required for drafting and it is required at a native level. The largest firms and big international companies often hire English speakers who are not yet fluent in Hebrew, as long as they have experience in relevant practice areas (US Securities, private equity, software licensing, etc.). However, as a general rule, the default language for informal communications within law firms and companies is Hebrew and employers always prefer to hire someone who can communicate orally in Hebrew.

The competition for these select international positions is fierce. Besides other olim who come with stellar credentials, today many Israelis spend several years practicing in leading law abroad, gaining relevant international corporate experience and excellent English drafting skills. Some employers prefer these “returning Israelis” over native English speakers because they can communicate better with their Israeli clients in Hebrew. Others prefer the native English speaker because the English writing skills will always be better. A lot depends on whether the person hiring is himself/herself a native English speaker. However, in deciding between a pure English speaker with no relevant corporate experience and an Israeli with excellent English and relevant corporate experience, they will almost always hire the Israeli.

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. Large, by Israeli standards, is between 50 – 150 lawyers and mid-sized is from 15 – 50 lawyers. Firms with fewer than 15 lawyers are considered small or boutique, depending on its practice areas. There are also several "mega firms" with over 150 - 300 lawyers, formed as a result of mergers with smaller firms.

As a general rule, only the large and the mega 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. In contrast, the smaller firms often train each of their lawyers to provide full service to clients, and therefore Hebrew and English are important. 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.

If you are fluent in Hebrew then a medium sized or small law firm can also be an interesting option. 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), which is helpful in these firms in order to become a partner. Unfortunately, many medium sized and small law firms don’t have enough English work to keep an English speaker busy doing meaningful work 100% of the time. Thus, those that hire English speakers 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.

As of 2014, several international law firms and foreign lawyers also maintain a presence and practice foreign law in Israel.

• Outsourcing Firms - Innodata and City Book operate as the back office for property companies in the US. The work is document intensive, mostly doing property lease summaries and due diligence. These companies generally hire on a daily or project basis, rather than full time, so the salary is also less predictable.

• Schwell, Wimpfheimer, Aranoff, formerly Outside Counsel Solutions (OCS), is a full service foreign law firm that is based entirely in Israel. Practicing only foreign law, it has Corporate, Labor Law, IP, US Securities and US Litigation departments, most of the clients are foreign companies that are interested in the lower rates because they're based in Israel. There are also Israeli clients who confer with the lawyers about foreign legal issues.

• Foreign Litigation Firms –There are currently two firms – one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv -- that practice exclusively foreign litigation and hire American-trained or UK-trained litigation associates to do their legal research and writing.

• Branch offices of foreign law firms.

In 2012, the Israel Bar Association changed the law to allow foreign-licensed lawyers to practice foreign law from Israel, and for international law firms to set up branch offices in Israel. In practice, only 6 individuals have actually registered as foreign lawyers with the Bar Association, and only five law firms – - one major American or UK firm -- have actually registered.

 The international firms that are registered are:
o KWS Legal AUSTRALIA
o Yingke Israel – Eyal Khayat, Zolty, Neiger & Co CHINA
o Bersay & Associes FRANCE
o Greenberg Traurig P.A USA
o Zeichner Ellman& Krause pc USA

 In addition, there are a number of Israel branch offices for foreign law firms that operate in Israel but claim to be purely marketing and business development purposes with no legal work actually being practiced in Israel. These offices are generally set up by a successful partner who wants to live in Israel for personal reason and they don't usually hire local lawyers. Because these offices are not officially registered, information about them is less certain. However, they include:
o Berwin Leighton – UK based firm
o DLA Piper – Global firm, headquarters in US
o Freshfields – Global firm, headquarters in UK
o Mintz Levin – USA based firm
o White & Case – Global firm, headquarters in US


Practicing in a Company

The kinds of companies that are interested in English speaking lawyers are generally large, most often US public companies whose business is outside 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.

Simply 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&Aand 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.

Government Positions

The Israeli Foreign Ministry regularly hires English speaking interns, and sometimes over 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).

Salaries

Everyone knows that salaries in Israel are not what they were 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 shekel the number that s/he made in the US in dollars if s/he works in a top Israeli law firm. 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 basis in shekel) 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%).

Work Hours

Most people who make aliyah figure that they’re willing to give up to big firm salaries because 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 Passover, are also officially half days at work, although many 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 needs 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 laptop at home. 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 for 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.

Mothers in Israel generally try to work 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 mother-in-law 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 women significantly less than men and not to promote them as quickly.

License to Practice Law in Israel

There are two methods for a foreign licensed lawyer to be permitted to practice law in Israel. Either s/he can relicense as an Israeli lawyer or s/he can register as a Foreign Licensed Lawyer with the Israel Bar Association.

As of 2014, Israeli law firms seem to prefer hiring olim who go through the process of relicensing as an Israeli lawyer and there is no instance of a firm making a partner of a Foreign Licensed Lawyer who did not also relicense as an Israeli attorney. I generally recommend going through the relicensing process both because it allows you to learn Israeli law, and because it gives you more mobility in the future if you want to leave your first job or become a partner.

1. Relicensing as an Israeli lawyer is a four or five step process:

i. 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 lawyer 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.

ii. 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.

iii. 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.

iv. At the end of the Internship, foreign licensed lawyers with less than five years of experience must take the same Bar Exam that Israeli law students take at the end of their internship.

The Bar Exam is in Hebrew and has two parts. First is a multiple choice exam covering all aspects of Israeli law, and several weeks later, after passing the written exam, there is an oral exam before a panel of three judges in Jerusalem. Foreign lawyers who received their law license more than five years before the date of aliyah are exempt from these exams.

2. Practicing as a Foreign-Licensed Lawyer

In 2012 the Israel Bar Association adopted regulations allowing foreign-licensed lawyers and foreign law firms to practice foreign law in Israel. Under the new regulations, a foreign licensed lawyer who has practiced law abroad does not have to relicense as an Israeli lawyer but is limited to providing legal opinions and counseling exclusively regarding the laws of the country in which that lawyer was certified, and drafting legal documents for which only foreign law applies.

In order to be eligible as a Foreign Licensed Lawyer, one must:

i. Make a formal request to the Israel Bar Association to be listed in the Foreign Lawyers Registration and pay an annual fee.

ii. Submit the following documents:

a. Confirmation that the Applicant holds a valid foreign law license.

b. Proof that the Applicant practiced the specified foreign law for at least five (5) years immediately prior to submitting the application.

c. A declaration by the Applicant and a confirmation from an official representative regarding the Applicant's criminal past.

iii. Pass an Ethics Exam administered by the Israel Bar Association.

iv. Maintain Professional Liability Insurance compliant with the requirements of the Israel Bar Association.

As of February 2014, only 6 individuals have registered on the official Bar Association registry of Foreign-Licensed Lawyers

In addition, five foreign law firms have opened branch offices in Israel and are listed on the Foreign Law Firm Registry. The Bar Association permits branch offices to employ only lawyers who are admitted to the IBA, either as a Foreign Licensed Lawyer or as an Israeli licensed lawyer.


When should you make aliyah?

Traditionally, many lawyers waited until they had been licensed for at least five years in a foreign jurisdiction before moving to Israel, 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.

Since 2012, branches of foreign law firms have allowed for a select few lawyers with fewer than five years of foreign experience to practice in Israel. However, there are very few such positions available and the prospects are still unclear for moving on if you want to leave those firms. It is not clear whether a lawyer who continues to practice as a Foreign Licensed Lawyer in a Foreign Registered Firm could qualify as having five years of experience and therefore bypass the requirement of taking the Israeli Bar Exam.

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:

1. The shock of the salary cut will be easier to take when the salary you are leaving is lower,

2. 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,

3. 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 40. Israelis 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 the 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.

In Summary

1. Fluent spoken Hebrew is important, for litigators fluent written Hebrew is the key to getting a job in an Israeli law firm.

2. Top level relevant experience is essential – just having good English skills will not be sufficient.

3. One can practice law in a law firm or a company.

4. Commercial Contract law, US Securities Law and Technology Agreements are the most useful experience.

5. Starting salaries are low compared to US salaries.

6. Working hours can be long and often there is a lot of overseas travel required.

7. Relicensing as an Israeli lawyer is encouraged but not always essential.

8. Most international jobs are located in the Central and Sharon areas of the country. However, most foreign law firms are in the Jerusalem area.

9. Try to come before age 40.
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