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He’s got the moves.

There’s been a curious trans-Atlantic migration of players out of European football (soccer) and onto US teams. It’s an instructive tale of talent, timing, and managing the trajectory of a career.

The typical soccer migrant I have in mind hails from Europe, especially from the English Premier League, and comes to join the US’s Major Soccer League (MSL). Names like Beckham, Henry, Keane, and Cahill illustrate. These were all European-based players coming close to signing their last contract when they jumped. While still competent, their value in the field was diminished by age, and by competition from younger, faster, less-expensive players. Those same pressures exist in the US, but at nowhere near the intensity as Europe. The upshot is that any good 32-year-old European player can assume a leading, superstar role in the US, creating a moment in the American sun when the European sky would otherwise have gone dim.

Something almost like the reverse has been taking place in Greater China recently – and, no, I’m not referring to Didier Drogba, the Ivoirian and former Chelsea star who now plays for Shanghai. I’m referring to several US practicing equity / capital-markets partners who arrived in Greater China over 10 years ago and enjoyed superstar status – as do Beckham and Henry in the US presently. These lawyers brought a unique skill-set enabling Asia companies successfully to tap into the US equity markets. Ten years ago they left New York or Northern California as very good lawyers – among many dozens of such very good lawyers. Moving to Greater China made them more or less alone in a market that demanded their services desperately, just as US soccer requires the likes of Beckham today.

After a very good run in China, these partners face a new migratory challenge when they return home. Coming back to the US after 10 or 15 years as stars in the Asian pitch is a less traveled road that’s hedged with uncertainty. It’s not clear whether the US market (whether New York or Northern California) can bear an influx of high-end US capital-markets talent. In particular, it’s not clear whether their own firms can successfully integrate these returning partners, whether they can build a practice that provides a business case for each of them. It must be a difficult time for those in this situation. Even though many of these lawyers are still at peak career age, they must feel like a 35-year-old player returning to Chelsea without a contract hoping, despite a deep bench of good younger players, that they can find a productive role on the team.

Yet in the face of disruptive change, most of us eventually find a way to land on our feet. Once we start this process, the old juices, the electricity which was there all along, floods the system and the machine starts working again. For these partners returning from China, that means a new practice in place, probably different though by no means of lesser quality, and a career that’s once more secured.

Thinking all this over, I found it all the more impressive hearing the news a few days ago that David Beckham would be leaving Los Angeles Galaxy and the MLS at the end of this season. At first it didn’t make sense: he and the Galaxy stand a chance to win their second title. Following on its heels, he could win a third next year, securing him a place in the pantheon of American soccer. Three straight MLS titles would give him a career ending that he couldn’t find anywhere else in the world. So why give this up for a new start with the Australian Football League?

Then I thought about Beckham and branding, and suddenly I got it. Beckham for sure built up a brand in Europe (there’s even a movie with his name in it, ‘Bend it like Beckham’) – a highly exposed brand that was even recognized in some circles in the US. Then he came to Los Angeles, on a very substantial package with different ways to generate revenue. For the last few years, in addition to bending shots and defying gravity, he’s become widely recognized without getting over-exposed. Beckham added substantial value to his name in the US which he didn’t have before. Now he’ll likely move to Australia and this 37-year-old will probably get another two years in the pitch, do some magic with both his feet, and build up name-recognition Down Under, in what’s a highly sports-oriented market. Once Beckham retires, his platform of retail goods will be all the wider and richer. The big question, however, is Why not China? Why not move to Shanghai or BJ and build the brand there? It would be a great question for Beckham’s next press conference.

Generally when lawyers think about moving laterally – whether from the US to Asia, or just from one firm to another in the same city – it’s because something’s ‘wrong’ with their current situation. Maybe the comp is too low, an office or firm doesn’t have a skill-set to build client relationships, there are personal issues, or the firm isn’t committed to Asia or a particular practice area. Therefore it’s a ‘reaction’ move, a response to something that isn’t working. Beckham’s move to Australia, however, is impressively proactive. He wants to build up his brand globally, beyond Europe and the US. From that brand-building perspective, moving laterally can be a way not just to fix a problem but a tool to build a bigger house yielding far more equity at the end of a career.

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