What does an international lawyer do?
The vast majority of international lawyers practice U.S. domestic law on behalf of foreign clients or represent U.S. clients in international transactions. Almost all legal practice areas can have international aspects: family, environment, securities, mergers and acquisitions, tax, antitrust, litigation, arbitration, intellectual property and project finance. Many international lawyers first gain mastery in a particular area, such as business transactions, and then build an international client base.
Lawyers may also encounter international law in criminal practice. For example, their practice may include drug trafficking, corruption, money laundering, organized crime or terrorism cases. These lawyers may be called upon to advise a police department on how to interact with diplomats or foreign officials. They may be asked to advise a corporation on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or on voluntary codes of conduct or corporate social responsibility.
Attorneys also represent or advise governments and private clients on the interpretation and application of international law to a wide range of topics, including the environment, human rights, international investment arbitration and trade. They frequently work for federal agencies, law firms, nongovernmental organizations and international organizations. Beyond the U.S. Department of State, many federal agencies―such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice―have international divisions.
What skills do I need to be an international lawyer?
Foreign-language skills will be invaluable to you as an international lawyer. You will also need problem-solving skills and the ability to interpret and apply treaties and other sources of international law. International lawyers benefit from solid international legal research skills and an attention to detail. You should also be interested in working with individuals from many different backgrounds.
What kinds of jobs are available for international lawyers?
International lawyers can work in a variety of contexts. For example, they can work for the U.S. government in many offices with international issues in their jurisdiction, such as the Department of State (Office of the Legal Advisor), the Department of Justice (Transnational Crimes, Office of Special Investigations, Office of International Affairs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce and others. While only 175 lawyers work in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor, many opportunities exist elsewhere for interesting policy development work. For example, the House and Senate routinely hire legal counsel for committees that deal with international issues. Members of Congress who serve on these committees may also hire attorneys with international law backgrounds.
You could also work for international organizations such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States and the United Nations. Many of these organizations offer programs for recent graduates or externship opportunities for law students. Nongovernmental organizations are another option and include human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and environmental organizations such as the Center for International Environmental Law.
Law firms do interesting work in international law, particularly in the Washington, D.C., and New York areas. The work can include international investment arbitration, advising corporations on transactions, corporate social responsibility matters, foreign sovereign immunities, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act litigation and transnational crime issues.
What courses should I take?
- International Law
- Comparative Law
- Immigration Law
- International Business Transactions
- International Criminal Law: Courts, Crimes and Defenses
- One course offered in the Summer Abroad Program in Aberdeen, Scotland
- One course offered in the Summer Abroad Program in Haifa, Israel
- One course offered in the Winter Abroad Program in Curaçao
- Conflict of Laws
- Foreign Taxation (Graduate Tax Program)
- IP Law Policy - National and International
- Law and Human Rights
- Maritime Law
- Special Topics (Aberdeen faculty)
- Special Topics (Haifa faculty)
- Advanced Topics in International and Comparative Law Seminar
- One Human Rights Seminar
- European Community Law Seminar
- International Environmental Law Seminar
- Military Law Seminar
- Immigrant Rights Clinic I
What co-curricular and volunteer activities should I consider?
First, you need to decide what type of international law appeals to you. If domestic law is your primary interest but you would like to represent international clients, develop expertise in the substantive area in which you would like to practice, whether it is business transactions, tax or securities. For public international law, an externship with the government, an NGO, an international organization or a law firm is critical! For public policy positions, an externship with a federal agency, think tank or member of Congress is an excellent route. Any position that exposes you to public policy development will prove valuable.
Consider taking the Foreign Service exam. If international development is your passion, volunteer with the Peace Corps; many employees of USAID are former Peace Corps volunteers. Make sure you take all the courses relevant to your area of interest and participate in student groups. Research and writing skills are especially important if you would like a public policy position. Work as a research assistant for a professor and write for a journal.
You should definitely join the International Law Society; check the website of our Center for International and Comparative Law (CICL) for information about externships and jobs; and enter international law writing competitions, such as the one sponsored annually by the CICL. If possible, participate in moot court competitions involving international law, work on the Journal of International Law , become a fellow of the CICL or write an ALR paper involving international law. You should also consider joining the American Society for International Law (ASIL) or the ABA's international law section to network with people doing the work that interests you.