Over the years, many aspiring young professionals have come to us already burgeoning with preconceived notions of how to launch a career in international law. Needless to say, there are many myths associated with this field. Therefore, before you go any further, let’s “bust” some of the most common ones.
“There are a core set of international law courses that I should take.”
To break into the field of public international law, we recommend that you don’t pigeon hole yourself by pursuing a narrow focus of courses. International law is an interdisciplinary field that crosses many law subject-matter areas. That being said, you should definitely take the core public international law course offered at your institution, as well as several upper level international law electives. As a general rule, when deciding on what advanced courses to take, you should “take the professor, not the course.”
“I need to specialize in a sub-area within international law.”
Contrary to common perception, you do not have to specialize in a narrow area of international law. Instead, take a critical mass of courses in international law so that you are able to present yourself as someone who is ready to enter a career in public international law and has a passion for the field. To obtain your first job in this field, you will need to cast a wide net, and throughout your career you should be open to seizing unexpected opportunities as they arise.
“To be competitive, I should participate in a lot of on-campus activities while in law school.”
Always remember, quality is more important than quantity. There are only so many hours in a day. Therefore, you should limit your engagement in school activities to high impact activities like the International Law Journal, the Jessup Moot Court Competition, and the Jean-Pictet Competition in International Law. Otherwise, you should get off campus and go to downtown events hosted by organizations like the American Society for International Law or the American Bar Association’s international law section.
“I will definitely be competitive if I am the member of a law journal.”
Whether you are on a general law review or an international journal, our advice is that you should write your student Note about an international law topic. In addition, you should work hard to be selected for the editorial board, and to have your student Note selected for publication. That’s what will make you stand out!
“A study abroad program will give me the international experience I need.”
Study abroad can help in terms of exposing you to another culture, developing your foreign language skills, deepening your expertise, and broadening your network of contacts. Study abroad is most helpful if the program has an international law focus and an externship component. Semester and year-long programs are more helpful than shorter summer programs. It’s better to spend your summer on an international law-related internship.
“I should learn another language to prepare for a career in international law.”
Au contraire. For English speakers, proficiency in another language can certainly be helpful to an international law career, but it is not a requirement for most placements since English is now largely the language of the field.
“Since I want to practice international law, I can take the bar in any state.”
The conventional thinking is that International law attorneys should be barred in New York or California since these are the most difficult bars and suggest that you are one of the best. But with decreasing bar pass rates across the country, the most important first step is to pass a bar — any bar. Many international lawyers then waive into the DC bar — which unlike other States, does not require a minimum years of practice as a prerequisite.
“Now that I am in law school, I don’t need to put my GPA on my resume.”
Depends. You should put your GPA on your resume if you are in the top 50 percent of your class. And, if you are in the top 50 percent and know your specific class ranking, you should indicate that on your resume as well.
“It is really important to put an interests section on your resume.”
Think again. Most employers do not care about your hobbies or interests. But if you have something really unique or impressive, listing it can potentially create a connection with your interviewer.
“I should use an international law-related paper for a writing sample for potential employers.”
No. It is better to provide a short sample of your writing in any area of law that has gone through several edits so that it showcases your writing ability. If you have written a thoroughly edited journal article, that would be appropriate to use as a writing sample, especially if it has been accepted for publication.
“Only established mid-career professionals have business cards, not law students.”
What? You don’t have a stack of business cards? Every young professional should have them. And don’t just have them, actively distribute them as you network with mid-career professionals.
“The best way to network is to go on informational interviews.”
Informational interviews may sometimes create relationships with attorneys that may lead to employment down the road. But it is even more valuable to use your time and energy to build your professional network by going to international law events, joining international law organizations, and volunteering to help them out.
“I do not need to dress professionally to go to professional events.”
You most certainly do! Remember, you are not Mark Zuckerberg. No matter what legal field you are trying to enter, the dress code is always business professional.
“I should only apply to jobs for which I have the required years of experience.”
This one may surprise you: If you have excelled at what you have done then you should apply even if you are short a few years. Employers use years of experience as a proxy for skills. If you can make the argument that you attained the requested skills in a shorter time frame, then make it.
“My first job will determine my future opportunities.”
Partly. Law school combined with the first 5 years of your career will become a platform for the rest of your career. But many international lawyers bounce from private practice to government or international organization and NGO jobs throughout their careers.
“I should build skills in domestic law before I look for international law positions.”
Depends on the field of international law. International Law employers generally like to see evidence of a passion and commitment for international law. But some international law employers are looking for excellent lawyers, no matter their background/experience. And if you want to work in international criminal law for an organization like INTERPOL, UNODC, or the International Criminal Court, you can gain valuable skills working first as a federal prosecutor or a district attorney.
“If I take a corporate job, it will prevent me from working in a human rights non-profit later.”
This is an often recited myth. In reality, a corporate job could provide you with transferable skills that are also applicable in the governmental or non-profit world and vice versus.
“I cannot practice international law and work in the private sector.”
Not true! Many individuals work in the private sector and have an internationally focused portfolio. If the portfolio is international, for example, if it deals with international commercial transactions or international litigation, then it will provide you with skills that will transfer to a career in international law.
“I have to work at top 10 law firm when I leave school in order to have a career in international law.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt! But many lawyers launch successful international law careers from mid-size or “off-Broadway” firms. The practice of law has become so international that you can get international law work in almost any firm — but you need to actively seek it out to put yourself in a position to get it.
“I have to clerk for a court after graduation in order to be competitive in international law.”
Not really. However, you should consider clerking if you want to teach law in the future. And many judicial clerkships are highly prestigious, and therefore will open doors at the start of your career.
“It is not possible to clerk internationally.”
Actually, there are post-grad judicial clerkship opportunities at the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, European Court of Human Rights, Court of Justice & Court of First Instance of the EU, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. In addition, some American law school grads garner judicial clerkships in high courts of foreign countries.
“International law is not a particularly lucrative career.”
So you want to be rich? Well, most people go into international law for the exciting experience and travel opportunities, not for the money. However, there are some potentially highly lucrative options in international law, such as a career in sovereign representation or international arbitration. Working for the government will provide you with a decent wage and working for a non-profit will provide you with a living wage.
“I need to be in DC or New York to practice international law.”
Nope. The most public international law in the U.S. is practiced in DC, and a lot of international trade and investment work is centered in New York. But there are firms that specialize in trade and deals with the Pacific Rim countries on the West Coast, and firms that specialize in trade and deals with our two greatest trading partners, Canada and Mexico, in many border states. In addition, many large and mid-sized firms throughout the country are engaged in some international law work.