How I Went from an English Teacher to a BD Manager at an International Law Firm

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Written By Matt Shannon

If you are reading this, you probably want to go abroad, but you have no idea where to start. The best advice I can give you is to just do it. Things will work out on their own if you are determined enough to make a career abroad. After graduating from college, I worked at a bank in the finance department and all I could think about was how miserable it would be to do this for 40 more years. I wanted an adventure and a career abroad. People around you are the biggest barrier to making this happen. Anytime you bring up a career abroad, most people will tell you it is impossible, or worse, that you need to put your time in at home at an international company and push for an international assignment. What if I told you there was another way, where everything was in your hands? My story is a long one, but the short version is that I stopped listening to friends and colleagues, quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Russia in 2013. Was it easy? No. Was it worth the effort? Definitely! 

After graduation in 2011, I started working as a treasury analyst at a bank in downtown Boston. While I was in college, I went to Russia for two weeks on a study abroad trip and fell in love with the culture. As I sat at my desk, all I could do was think about how was I going to take this experience and move abroad in the shortest time possible. I was also in a serious relationship with someone who had no intention of living more than an hour away from their hometown, let alone another country. There were many factors that, at the time, I thought complicated my decision. Then one day, a good friend of mine said to me after hearing for the 100th time that I wanted to move abroad – “fortune favors the bold.” I have no idea where the quote is from, maybe he made it up himself! It was the kick in the pants I needed to make my dreams a reality. Shortly thereafter, I quit my job and bought a ticket to Kyiv, Ukraine for 3 months. I had saved up enough money to live, travel, and study Russian. I remember telling my boss my plan, he looked at me strangely but knew how passionate I was about working abroad. I said goodbye to family and friends for 3 months and I was off to Kyiv. 

Once I got to Kyiv, I was able to travel, I lived with an acquaintance who I met on a previous trip (he is now one of my best friends). This 3-month trip was supposed to get travel out of my system so I could start a real career and family. The feeling of showing up in a foreign country with no plans but a ticket home in 3 months was liberating and probably the most defining moment of my career. For 3 months, I traveled all around Ukraine. I met incredible people. I drank vodka with police officers on duty. I saw places that few if any foreigners had ever seen in Ukraine. I learned conversational Russian and things were only just starting when the 3 months ended. I remember the night before I was leaving, my friend had bought salo (salted pork fat), one of my favorite foods in Ukraine and a small bottle of vodka. We sat up all night just talking about what I should do. I planned to return to the US and find another job, get married, and have a family. As Ukrainians are quite forward, my friend told me that he could see that wasn’t what I wanted. I am sure all of my friends at home knew it as well, but no one ever told me to follow my dream of living abroad. 

I returned home from Kyiv to start looking for another job in Boston. During that time, I sat with a good friend and told him how I felt and that I would regret it for my whole life if I didn’t go abroad for longer. That friend told me that there is nothing worse than regret in life and that if I was serious about it, I should go back and things would work out if I was determined. So, I found another job in the US and two months in, I bought a one-way ticket to Moscow for that summer. I worked very hard to save as much money as I could and I thought constantly about my plan for Moscow. The day finally came, I quit my job and got on a one-way flight to Moscow. 

I arrived in Moscow with grand visions of how I was going to work in finance and companies would be fighting over who was going to hire me. For the first few months, I networked with everyone I could while traveling around Russia. During my travels, I met a guy from the Netherlands at a hostel in St. Petersburg, Russia. He shared the same passion for Russia and told me about his idea to start a tourism company based on his background in tourism in the Netherlands. After a week together, he proposed that I work on the project with him. I told him that this sounded good, but I wanted to travel around a bit more before settling down and he agreed that he would start working and I could join when I returned. I traveled for a few months and arrived back in St. Petersburg to get started. 

I will never forget the day I arrived back in St. Petersburg, it was extremely cold and dark. Certainly not the vision I had of my “glamorous” life abroad. As soon as I got in, my friend and I started scoping out tourist attractions for our company. As we got everything ready for the summer season, the Maidan protests in Ukraine and Russian military intervention decimated Russia’s tourist image. We had spent so much time and money on marketing materials and an online presence only to find that almost no foreign tourists visited Russia that summer. It was heartbreaking and I was on the verge of running out of money. With almost no money, I started networking again to try to find any odd jobs to stay in Russia. I had rent to pay and life wasn’t cheap in Russia back then. I found a few English schools that were in dire need of native-English speaking teachers. The pay was terrible and the corporate lessons were at company offices, so I was all over the city, but it paid the bills. 

As I learned to be an English teacher, I hit the ground hard networking. I went to every expat event in the city and told my story. My Dutch friend introduced me to the Dutch community in St. Petersburg and I found a few more English teaching jobs. Unfortunately for me, the state of the Russian economy was terrible, to say the least, and no one was looking to invest in an American looking for work in Russia. One of the Dutch people in the community introduced me to a Canadian who introduced me to a director at a large Russian real estate investment firm. I met with him and he quite liked my story and introduced me to the American owner of the firm. We met quickly and he told me that I reminded him of his good friend who was now in Moscow, another American. One thing led to another and I was talking to his friend over beers. This American was a Russian-qualified lawyer at an international law firm in Moscow and he was telling me about the opportunities in Moscow. We kept in touch for the next few months but nothing came of it. 

After months of intensive travel around St. Petersburg teaching English, I was exhausted. I would get up at 7 am and get on the subway and travel an hour for 8 am lessons at a corporate office with a few directors. I would get home around 11:30 am for a quick lunch and head out again for lessons at another company in the afternoon after which I would have dinner while traveling to evening lessons until 9 pm at another company. I was only making about $15 an hour due to the 100% decline in the Russian ruble, but it was enough to make ends meet. If you had asked me while I was living in Boston how I imagined my life abroad, this certainly isn’t how I would have described it! The difficulty of living in Russia as a foreigner was getting to me, for the first time in my life, I was depressed and worn out regardless of how much sleep I got. I knew I had to radically change my approach. I went home for 3 weeks over Christmas in 2013 to recharge. 

When I returned to St. Petersburg, it was “make it or break it” time. I started networking even more than I had up to that point and I began considering a move from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I knew that if I was going to make something of my time in Russia, I needed to take the same kind of risk I took to get to Russia. I started talking with a few companies in Moscow, but the only interest I got was from a wealth management company looking for people to cold call executives to try to sell financial planning services. It wasn’t great, but the base pay was about the same as what I was making teaching English. I took the job and within two weeks, I was living in Moscow. With a background in finance and a knowledge of Russian, I figured I could probably set up some meetings with Russian and expat executives. But it was harder than I thought. Unfortunately for me, I knew more about financial planning than the partners I was selling. It became very difficult for me to sell products over the phone that I knew were simply not good investments. After a few hard weeks, I collected my base pay and left the job on a Friday.

I had no idea what I was going to do in Moscow, but I could fall back on teaching English for the time being. That Saturday after I quit, I was on Facebook, one of the largest tech companies in Russia was looking for a native-English speaking translator and community manager for its mobile games division. I quickly got in touch with the person who posted the job and I was in the office on Monday for the interview. The director was more comfortable speaking in Russian, and I was happy to speak Russian as well. They offered me the job on the spot. The job paid well by Russian standards, but it wasn’t going to pay my student loan debt that was looming. 

I began working at the tech company and it was fantastic. The company modeled its office after Google with flexible work stations, almost free food, and many ways to relax during the workday. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew the job would only last a few years as it was a contract role, so I hit the ground running in Moscow with my networking efforts. After a few weeks of work, I met the American lawyer who worked at the international law firm in Moscow for beers and I told him about my new job. He was happy for me but mentioned that he thought I would be a great fit for his law firm to run their business development efforts in Russia. A few more beers lead to a few more meetings over the following months and we became good friends. Eventually, he was able to bring me on full time. And that is how I took my job as an English teacher and turned it into a career in law firm business development. The next few years were packed with travel around Russia and Europe meeting with clients and finding new work for the law firm. Law firm business development is a little known industry, which pays very well and having an international outlook is extremely valuable. 

It took an immense amount of effort and time to land a job that was more professional than an English teacher in Russia, but it is definitely doable. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing other than potentially moving to Moscow initially. But I met my wife in St. Petersburg, so not all was lost! The best piece of advice I can give anyone who wants to go abroad is – just do it. There will always be people who tell you it is too hard, no one wants to hire foreign employees, the list goes on endlessly. At the end of the day, there are limitless opportunities out there in every country of the world. You just have to be diligent and resourceful to find them. It will be easier if you have professional experience in your home country to leverage, but in my case, it wasn’t essential. The relationships you cultivate networking will go much further than any experience you have. Just get on a plane and get out there. If you are determined, it will pay off and you will find a job that you like.

If you are interested in having a call with us to help you determine how to sell yourself and your experience for a career abroad, check out our career consulting page. We offer a range of services to help make your dream a reality. We advise every step of the way so you don’t make the same mistakes we did.