I started paving my path in international law in my last year of law school when I was selected to join my law school’s moot court team to participate in the Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot. While preparing for the moot, I realized that international dispute resolution was the area of law in which I wanted to practice. It was like no other area of law. There are no strict, dogmatic rules or written codes—just a very logical system of intuitive norms of dispute settlement that transcends boundaries and makes perfect sense. Even more remarkable is that our contemporaries formed this system in the second half of the twentieth century, so international dispute resolution is still considered a “work-in-progress.”
International Law Is Unique
Unlike any other area of law, international arbitration is not limited to any specific set of issues. The dispute that eventually gives rise to arbitration may occur in any sector where business is done, such as the energy sector, corporate relations, construction, commodities, shipping, insurance, light industry, and many others. Therefore, an advocate trying an arbitration case must know the procedural rules that govern the arbitration proceedings and also have a thorough understanding of the rules that regulate the specific sector where the dispute arises—be it a shareholders’ dispute or the failed investment in the oil sector of a developing country. As you can imagine, an arbitration lawyer spends countless hours of preparation and meticulous studying of the client’s case.
My way to the real-life world of arbitration was not quick. After graduation, I practiced as a corporate lawyer specializing in international M&A transactions for six years before transitioning to international dispute resolution. I practice international arbitration to this day, and I never regretted making that transition.
Various Career Paths in International Law
My practice of international law has been predominantly evolving within international law firms. However, a law firm career is not the only way to practice international law. There are many other opportunities.
Academia is one of the most exciting career paths to pursue in international law. As a law professor concentrating in international law or niche areas of international law, such as international arbitration or conflict of laws, you can become a go-to expert in a specialized field of international law. Notably, international law professors are the most sought-after experts that our clients retain to present the intricacies and analysis of their cases to an international panel of arbitrators. Not to mention that as a law professor, you may dedicate most of your time studying your favorite aspects of international law and developing your scholarship and expertise. A dream job for an international lawyer!
The federal government’s largest employers of lawyers interested in international law are the Departments of Commerce, State, and Defense. One of the benefits of practicing international law at the federal government is participating in policymaking. For example, lawyers at the US Department of State will have timely policymaking work and the opportunity to work alongside policy-makers. Unlike junior lawyers at private firms, young government attorneys are much more likely to receive an immense amount of responsibility early in their careers.
In-house Practice of International Law
There is an opportunity to practice international law in-house for corporate lawyers working in companies and organizations involved in international trade, tax planning, or international mergers & acquisitions. While most law firms have a transparent career progression system for their attorneys, each company has its own bureaucratic ladder within the legal department.
International Organizations and Nonprofits
International organizations and nonprofits offer an international lawyer a wide variety of options. The United Nations Office of Legal Affairs and the legal departments of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have the most active legal shops.
The United Nations Office of Legal Affairs provides a unified legal service for the Secretariat and the principal organs of the United Nations. It contributes to the progressive development and codification of international public and trade law. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund attorneys can be assigned to leading operations or participate in settling investment disputes between countries. Conveniently, the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes operates under the umbrella of the World Bank Group.
Legal positions in the private nonprofit field include Amnesty International USA, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, World Policy Institute, and the American Society of International Law.
Career Outlook for International Lawyers
The career outlook for lawyers choosing international law as their area of specialization looks promising. While globalization brings the private and public sectors closer together, the demand for international lawyers rises. Increasingly, larger organizations are establishing offices in foreign countries to handle international law issues. This development has created a niche for lawyers with advanced degrees in international affairs, language skills, cultural awareness, and overseas experience. Moreover, developing countries need lawyers to assist in their legal transformation, and organizations like the United Nations need lawyers to interpret their charters.
That said, unlike in other practice areas with their clear and transparent career progression system and career prospects, there is no international law career ladder to climb or road to follow. If you are interested in international law, do not be discouraged by the lack of international work at the beginning of your career or the length of time it takes to develop your career and hone your skills. Like in no other area, reputation, prior experience, and a solid network of connections are crucial for building a career in international law. However, with due perseverance and hard work, you can build the career of your dreams in international law. I wish you the best of luck pursuing your career in international law!
For more in depth information on this practice area, watch the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on international law. The speakers provide invaluable insight into how they broke into their respective positions, the pros and cons, and what a typical day in their practice entails. (Note: This is not for CLE. The recorded program and materials are exclusively for ABA members.)