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Preparing Yourself for a Career in "International Law" in the Private Sector

by April R. Stockfleet, Stockfleet Global Legal Search

April Stockfleet left her position as an Associate Director of Career Services at Harvard Law School in December 2007 to start her own legal search consultancy, Stockfleet Global Legal Search, At Harvard, April advised J.D. students on all facets of the job search and has a particular expertise advising on international legal practice and overseas career opportunities. She was also the primary advisor to over 1200 LL.M. and international students at Harvard.

Many students start law school with an interest in a career in "international law" but without a real idea of what that concretely means.  Sometimes this interest in international law stems from prior foreign language studies or experiences living or working abroad during their undergraduate studies or from their own multicultural background.  However, many students are confused about what practicing international law in the private sector means and will be drawn to elective courses with the word "international" in the title, which often end up being public international law courses.  While there are many interesting career opportunities in the world of public international law, such as work in human rights and in government and international organizations, this piece endeavors to offer advice to students who are interested in the possibility of working in the private sector or in business-oriented law with an international focus and will introduce them to some of the many opportunities that are available to them.

First Year - First Become a Good U.S. Lawyer

Although many law schools are now making an effort to integrate more international law into the first year curriculum, the classic law school first-year curriculum mostly, of necessity, focuses on giving students a grounding in the subjects of contracts, torts, constitutional law, property, criminal law, and legal research and writing.  Being fully immersed in these domestic courses can be quite a culture shock for a student who has just returned from studying or working abroad or who has just completed undergraduate or graduate programs in international relations or foreign languages.  However, over and over during my work as Associate Director of Career Services at Harvard Law School, guest speakers practicing international law either abroad or in the U.S., reiterated one point, "first become a good U.S. lawyer".  A U.S. J.D.'s primary marketability abroad is in being a U.S. lawyer, as employers will not expect U.S. J.D.s to practice non-U.S. law, because large global law firms have locally-trained lawyers in foreign jurisdictions who are experts in those fields.  Instead, the U.S. J.D.'s value is in understanding the intricacies of U.S. law, often corporate and securities laws, and being able to explain them to clients, U.S. and foreign.  For students planning to work abroad, rather than worrying about learning the law of the foreign country in which they wish to work during their first year, they should instead immerse themselves in their core courses, in their meager free time, make an effort to maintain or improve their skills in a foreign language. 

In order to get some international flavor into your first year, there are still many things you can do.  Because there may not be many LL.M. students in your first year classes, 1Ls may not be aware of all the interesting LL.M. students on campus.  The LL.M. program is a Masters in Law, and non-U.S. LL.M. students are lawyers in their own country who come to a U.S. law school to spend one year completing their degree.  Contact your law school's graduate program to volunteer to be a J.D. host to students from countries you are interested in, helping them get settled on campus and offering them advice.  Non-U.S. LL.M.s are usually already practicing lawyers in their own countries, and can offer you a wealth of advice and knowledge about their countries in return for your hospitality.  Consider also starting or joining a language table at your law school for students and faculty who speak certain languages, to improve and maintain your language skills.  Consider also joining student clubs or organizations at your law school which have an international focus and volunteer to help coordinate on-campus speakers from practice (make sure to consult with your Career Services Office to discuss your plans, so you do not duplicate efforts).

Your 1L (Post-First Year) Summer

During the summer following their first year, students will generally find fewer opportunities to practice in the U.S. and British global law firms than they will during the summer after their second year.  Although it is still fine to apply to these firms, your success will depend somewhat up on the strength of the market at the time.  However, that certainly does not mean that they cannot seek other opportunities that will give them exposure to business-oriented international law, either in a foreign-based law firm, or in an international organization or U.S. government department.

Students who would be interested in working in an international or governmental organization, should consider summer employers like the multinational development banks.  These banks, for example, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the African Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (note they listed an internship on the ABA program last spring), and the Asian Development Bank, mostly seek students who are interested in financial law, as first and foremost, these organizations are banks, making loans for development projects and reviewing the projects thoroughly to make sure that they will be able to repay the funds loaned. 

If you are interested in working for the U.S. government, consider opportunities with branches of the government like the U.S. Treasury, the Department of Commerce, the Securities Exchange Commission or the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. Experience in any of these organizations would be very valuable later in private practice, all of them have internationally-focused departments, and gaining experience and connections in these government bureaus and organizations can pay off later in lawyers' careers if they want to leave private practice and make a lateral move to such an organization. 

Other interesting organizations abroad to consider are UNIDROIT and various bodies which oversee international arbitration, such as the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, or the Hong Kong International Arbitration Center.  Another interesting internship which would be relevant to private practice in international organizations would be at UNCITRAL.  An excellent guide with information about international legal employers, published in 2008 by Harvard Law School’s Office of  Public Interest Advising,  is “Serving the Public: A Job Search Guide, Volume II – International”.  It is likely available in your Career Services and Public Interest Advising Office.  Another fantastic site with a list of international organization employers, prepared by the Permanent Mission of Italy to International Organizations in Geneva is

It is important for J.D. candidates to remember, when applying to summer positions abroad, that foreign lawyers may not be familiar with the U.S. system of legal education.  In many countries, law is an undergraduate field of study, so starting off your cover letter saying, "I am a first year law student" may give the impression that you are still in your first year of university study (i.e. 18-19 years old).  You may want to offer a few more details than you would to a U.S. employer, and if you are doing an interview with a non-U.S. employer abroad, you should not be shocked if the employer asks you personal questions (age, marital status) that would be illegal to ask in a U.S. interview, as employment laws vary around the world.  You should also be careful in your cover letter and resume not to overstate or understate your foreign language skills.  Descriptions like “fluent” and “proficient” really do not tell the full story.  Quantify them with a short, meaningful descriptor, for example, “Fluent Spanish – 10 years of language classes in secondary school and university, 1 year spent living abroad in Mexico City”.

Preparing for Interviews

Take advice from your Career Services office on general interview tips, but there may be some cultural and logistical issues to keep in mind when interviewing with international employers.  If possible, see if an international LL.M. student from the country of the employer would be willing to conduct a mock interview with you and up front, make sure to tell them that you are seeking honest feedback and want them to tell you if you do or say anything that would not play well in their culture. 

Interviewing with employers abroad often necessitates interviews by phone or videoconference. While many of the general interviewing tips still apply to phone and video interviews, there are some specific issues to keep in mind. Please click here for detailed advice on phone and skype interviews.

Private Law Firms Abroad

It is also important to note that even if you have difficulty getting a summer internship your 1L year with an top U.S. or British-based firm abroad, do not rule out the possibility of an internship with a law firm that is local to the country where you are seeking to work.  There are many ways of seeking out these internships, but two often overlooked ways are, 1) check your law school's alumni directory for alumni practicing in that country and write to them to see if they would be open to hosting a legal intern for the summer, (if there is a local alumni organization from your law school or undergraduate university in the foreign country, you may want to start by writing to the President of that organization, who may be well-placed to know others) 2) talk to your law school's graduate program and ask if there are LL.M.s from the country/countries in which you seek to work, and invite the LL.M. or LL.M.s to lunch and ask them for their ideas and advice on your job hunt.  Many foreign LL.M. students studying in the U.S. have already worked in their home countries and know the local job market very well.  Of course, you should also speak to an advisor in your Office of Career Services, as they may have information about firms who hire students from your school regularly.  Finally, do not overlook resources such as the ABA's International Internship Directory

Remember, when seeking a summer internship with a foreign-based law firm, that the salaries for summer students abroad are not competitive with those in the top New-York based law firms.  However, you may end up having an experience which helps you gain expertise in a region where you want to work and make contacts in that region, so it may be worth foregoing the high salary, as long as you can make ends meet.  You may also end up working on matters where U.S. firms seek the expertise of a foreign expert abroad, making some potential contacts with U.S.-based lawyers as well.  Sometimes students forget that a job in a foreign law firm is still a law firm job, and while you might not be expected to work late every night, you must still be willing to roll up your sleeves and stay late when there is extra work to be done.  Therefore, you cannot plan on taking off early every Friday for weekend trips or spending every night out with friends.  Some of my advisees in the past also worried about the fact that they were asked to help improve the English on documents written by partners and worried that this was not "legal" work, but remember that if you are helping a foreign partner on a deal, and even if you are editing his or her English, chances are you may be getting exposure and knowledge about higher level issues than you would as a 1L summer associate back in the U.S., in an office with more hierarchy.

When planning to work abroad for the summer, do not forget that you will need to speak with the employer about any work permissions/papers you need to obtain before working in the country.  Usually, the employer will be able to help you navigate these issues, but it may take a few months to get papers through the relevant government authorities.  Also, remember that for travel to many foreign countries certain vaccinations are recommended, and those vaccinations must often be received a couple of months or more before you travel.  Make sure to talk with your doctor or university health services to make sure you receive vaccinations in time.  See also the CDC webpage, with a list of countries and specific recommendations.  Inquire also with your insurance provider about policies on treatment abroad and purchase an additional travel health insurance policy if necessary.

Second & Third Year

Now that many of your required classes are over, you may be eager to jump into the buffet of interesting elective.  However, there are some courses you should consider “core” for international law practice, such as corporations, securities, finance, and antitrust.  Other courses that can be of interest for international practice are international arbitration, intellectual property, and taxation.  However, students should be aware of the fact that a large percentage of the U.S.-trained lawyers working in non-U.S. locations work in the field of U.S. securities/capital markets law.    

You should also consider joining some of the great organizations out there for students interested in learning more about international law, which provide opportunities for networking with lawyers practicing in your fields of interest.  These organizations offer reduced student fees, and will usually include subscriptions to newsletters and magazines regarding international legal topics and discounted registration fees for conferences.  Students interested in international law should consider joining:

Consider also getting involved in your school's team for international moot court programs like the Willem C. Vis Moot Court and the Jessup International Moot Court. Many of the judges of these competitions will be practicing lawyers and it is a good chance for you to meet and network with a lot of current and future lawyers worldwide. 

The Bar Exam

If you are hoping to work abroad early in your career, chances are the best bar exam for you to take will be the New York bar, since many of the international firms are based in New York, and many deals are governed by New York law.  However, once you secure employment with a firm, you should discuss which bars they require, as they may want you to be admitted in another state as well.

Specific International Legal Markets

If you are interested in a particular legal market, there many websites for lawyers in those areas that you can follow to learn a bit more about the market and impress lawyers who work there with your knowledge in interviews.  Some recommended websites are:


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