CAREER PATHWAYS: INTERNATIONAL LAW
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International law was traditionally divided into two sub-fields, public
international law (dealing with relations between states) and private international
law (dealing with relations between natural persons, or corporations situated in different
states and operating on the international plane). Over the past decades, these traditional
divisions have been further fragmented into a vast array of specialized sub-fields
of international law, including international environmental law, international criminal
law, international economic law, international trade law, international commercial
A. Survey of Substance
Most attorneys wishing to pursue an international law practice typically
start by advising clients who have an international presence or encounter cross-border
issues in their usual course of business. Many law students will be surprised at
how often international or cross-border issues arise. In fact, it is increasingly
likely that even attorneys who intend to practice exclusively in a domestic practice
area (say, family law) will encounter a situation with an international facet at some
point in their careers. Accordingly, understanding cross-border implications of these
transactions—and the ability to counsel clients to favorable outcomes—is a very valuable
B. Typical Practice Settings
For aspiring American public international lawyers, careers in the traditional
public international law realm usually start at the U.S. Department of State, Office
of Legal Adviser (the chief legal affairs bureau of the State Department). Please
be advised, however, that career appointments in the Office of Legal Adviser are extremely
competitive, with hundreds of applicants (if not more) for each available position.
Alternative career routes exist. Many law students and attorneys apply for career
Foreign Service Officer positions with the State Department. Although a law degree
is not a technical prerequisite for a diplomatic career, many successful diplomats
have previous legal training, and exposure to international law courses is a natural
plus in the application process. Moreover, another classic point of entry for aspiring
public international lawyers is the JAG Corps of a given U.S. military branch. Given
the global reach of the U.S. armed forces, JAG officers are tasked with researching
and resolving international law disputes on a daily basis, whether the dispute stems
from international maritime borders, a status-of-forces agreement with a foreign nation,
or a family law issue involving an American service member and a foreign spouse.
Regardless of their posts of duty, JAG officers become extremely adept at working
within foreign legal environments and with counterparts from other foreign military
and civilian bodies.
With respect to private international law, attorneys are likely to practice
in this area if their clients negotiate service or purchase contracts with firms abroad
or attempt to arbitrate a dispute before an international commercial arbitrator.
Most large law firms have dedicated departments devoted to international commercial
arbitration. However, smaller firms or even solo practitioners with expertise in
a given field, or with particular language expertise, are able to develop a very lucrative
niche practice given the demand for multi-lingual, U.S.-trained attorneys.
In addition to working in private practice or in-house, private international
lawyers can also find practice positions in international organizations or in the
legal affairs departments of large international, non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Large philanthropic organizations that distribute grants abroad also rely on private
international lawyers to navigate the complex regulatory climate of cross-border financial
transactions, including tax implications in the home and client countries.
C. Typical Tasks
Given the breadth of positions falling under the aegis of “international
law,” it is difficult to characterize certain tasks as typical or atypical. As a
general rule, however, a requirement that all international law positions share is
the ability to understand foreign legal cultures and institutions. International
lawyers routinely deal with practitioners from different legal backgrounds, and an
understanding of different languages, cultures, and social conditions is critical.
Similarly, international lawyers typically review documents drafted in other languages,
legal documents prepared in countries with different evidentiary standards than the
U.S., or financial documents prepared to comply with foreign financial disclosure
laws. The ability to work effectively with support staff from different disciplines,
including translators, accountants, executives, and government employees is vital.
D. Related Areas of Practice
Immigration law is often a related practice field, both in the traditional
sense (individuals applying for adjustment of status in the U.S.) but also in the
increasingly diverse corporate immigration field (immigration issues that arise following
executive corporate relocations, mergers, etc.) and the like. Similarly, international
family law is a growing field, particularly with respect to international adoptions,
international child custody disputes, and disputes arising under the Hague Convention
on the Abduction of Children.
A. Primary Courses
- Public International Law
- Private International Law
- International Business Transactions
- International Economic Law
- Comparative Law Seminar
- International Economic Law
B. Secondary Courses
- Conflicts of Law
- Immigration Law
- National Security Law
- Admiralty Law
- Summer Abroad Programs
- U.S. Taxation of International Income
III. Related Opportunities
Like career appointments, internships within the State Department are
extremely competitive, with several hundred applications for each available position.
Internships with particular U.S. embassies or consular offices abroad may be less
competitive but are awarded on a case-by-case basis. It is usually advisable to contact
the Political Affairs Office in the U.S. Embassy or Consulate and inquire as to any
available internship opportunities for U.S. law students. Please keep in mind that
these positions—including unpaid internship positions—often require U.S. citizenship,
an extensive background check, and other conflict-of-interest checks.
At the University of Memphis, students working at the Child and Family
Litigation Clinic may encounter cases arising under the Hague Convention on the Abduction
of Children or cases involving immigration issues. An externship in immigration law
is offered with the Community Legal Center. Experience in a clinical or externship
setting will greatly improve your opportunities for pursuing a longer term position
in international law.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also administers
a very large number of development programs throughout the world. Often, these contract
activities create opportunities for students to work on USAID projects under the supervision
of USAID contractors or subcontractors.
Furthermore, there are a number of civil rights and human rights organizations
that provide opportunities for students to research issues of international law, foreign
law, or conflicts of law.
- Practicing Law in the Office of Law Adviser
- U.S. State Department
- Judge Advocate General's Corps, U.S. Army
- ABA Section on International Law and Practice
- Jessup International Moot Court Competition
- Global Network of Public Interest Law for NGO's
- American Immigration Lawyers Association (which has a job bank)
- Global Alliance for Justice Education
- A comprehensive listing of USAID and other development jobs
- The International Bar Association
- Article on International Law on TBA website
- American Society of International Law
- The United Nations Page on International Law
A. Law School Faculty
B. Law School Adjunct Faculty