Career advice for law students interested in international law
I was recently asked by a law student for some career advice on how to get a job internationally, and particularly how to get engaged in international (public and private) legal work.
While my legal background is from doing multinational corporate work, particularly in the IT sector, here are my basic ideas outlining some generic things to think about in terms of your career planning, and some key approaches to pursuing these types of careers.
My background. For the past several years, I have worked primarily in London, and secondarily in Paris, for a very large telecommunications company. I was originally working for another one of this companies’ affiliates in USA, and was able to move internally to another one of their companies in the UK. This made it easier for me to move abroad, especially in terms of sorting out work visas and professional qualifications, etc.
Three Career Principles to Never Forget. In terms of general career advice, there are three principles which you must keep in mind to work in international law related field. While I recognize the risk of my sharing with you a ‘firm grasp of the obvious’ (and I can almost hear some cringing already), most law students do not receive this message framed in this sort of a utilitarian light. So, here it goes:
- The sole purpose of your first legal job is to enable you to get a better second legal job.
- It is all about Brand. Your CV / Resume is a personal marketing tool. It is your personal ‘brand’. The choice of your first job should strongly take into account the value which the ‘brand’ of your new employer will add to your CV, and your future ambitions. This lasts for decades.
- You cannot save the world if you cannot pay the bills. Public international law has some of the most interesting legal work around. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it also has a tendency to attract incredibly brilliant people who will work for a minimum salary. If you are independently wealthy, then great, no problem. If you have large education debts, please do not neglect the fact this will undoubtedly impact your choice of jobs in the short term, even if not necessarily in the longer term.
Your first Legal job. Getting your first Legal job is always a nerve wracking experience at best, and especially if you want to take a track other than going directly into a large law firm. Unfortunately, nearly all major law schools are set up to build a funnel for large firms. For your interests, even if you do not wish to ‘end up’ in a law firm or major global corporation, it usually makes considerable sense for you to go out to find the best ‘brand’ firm which you can, either in the US, UK or elsewhere. You can extract the majority of the benefits from this time by working at a firm for exactly two years (or three years, if in New York City) doing whatever type of legal work - - of course, its even better if your firm or company has a public international law practice, but this is not required. By the end of this time, you will have ‘checked the box’ on your CV, and you can happily move on to what you really want to do. This is by far is the safest option for most, and also incidentally, completes one of the requirements enabling you to be admitted to practice in other common law countries (e.g. the UK). I’m not certain whether this is as helpful in other civil law countries, but I suspect it would be.
There is no question that working at a law firm, and potentially billing in ‘6 minute’ increments gets very tiring. Reviewing e.g. commercial leases can be even less fun than watching paint dry. But this said, you will probably be practicing law for a very long time anyway. Having a good initial first employer on your CV, who has ‘trained’ you is always a good investment for your CV even if not necessarily beneficial in practice to you.
As a lawyer who has graduated from a US law school, you are able to come to Europe with a well respected professional background (speaking generally). In terms of global perceptions, US lawyers are highly respected, maybe in a similar form of the admiration to being world-class in other professions e.g. French engineers, British accountants, or Indian mathematicians - - not to foster bad stereotypes… But, needless to say, the USA legal professional qualification travels well around the world, particularly among global employers.
This being said, there is a particular area of confusion when you first come out of law school. Legal training is not the same around the world, meaning in France, a jurist has may have only attended the equivalent of undergrad and not graduate school (in terms of USA style nomenclature, depending on their qualifications). In the UK, while there are some permutations, most young associates at large law firms will attend around a year and a half or so of graduate school, followed by two years of a training contract to learn how to practice law. In Germany, many associates hold an LLM, or a PHD, at minimum, staying in school much longer. While you probably can research the differences in the number of years of schooling better than me, you should be particularly aware of this issue when you turn up to speak with a new potential employer in Europe. There is a risk of being perceived as wanting to find only a training contract, which is not needed as a USA law school graduate. After your first job, the timing issue goes away as you accumulate more PQE (Post Qualification Experience). The same is true in France, as I understand it.
An alternative path in human rights / non-profit sector for law students. This is an area where my knowledge is limited. But, if I wanted to pursue a career in this field, I would adopt some of the following key approaches. First, figure out who are the heavyweights thought leaders in your particular field of interest, either individuals or organizations - - and, do your best to somehow associate yourself with their organization or sphere of colleagues. You will want to try to figure out who these organizations interact with, and by extension, which of these organizations might hire you. Linkedin is an extraordinarily powerful resource for this research. To test your hypotheses, try calling up or meeting up with the General Counsel of any public interest foundation (if not possible to meet in person, then email / Skype also works okay but is far less effective). Introduce yourself, and ask him or her for some general advice, in particular what ‘outside counsel’ their foundation typically uses - - make clear that you admire the work of their foundation, and look to gain relevant experience by doing similar work in the future. Ask about their Legal department organizational structure (General Counsels (GCs) love talking about this stuff), and what skills they look for over the long term, but not necessarily immediately. If it goes well, you might get some really good information, and maybe even a referral to a firm or sister organization. Senior Executives are very used to people asking them for jobs on a daily basis. But, they get asked far less often for their advice. Use this to your advantage… but do not be a pest.
As an example, from time to time, I have occasionally dealt with some of the affiliates of the United Nations as a vendor. There are probably 20 of them, e.g. World Bank, IMF, UNHCR, IATA, WIPO, Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal. Some of these organizations you are probably more familiar to you than others. There are two consistent traits that I see when dealing with their personnel. First, many of the staff are about to retire, and second, their staff have all consistently bounced around the world working in many different UN affiliates and national governments doing all sort of different roles, both legal and non-legal. I cannot take credit for being the only one to notice the ‘retirement age’ issue with UN staff. This is a well known problem for the UN and its agencies, at least, at a macro level, which might be helpfully to you. While I’m not certain what formal hiring programs may exist by them, you should check with these groups around world, and particularly in Geneva, Switzerland and New York. Also, you should talk with McKinsey & Company Consulting. They do some very impressive pro bono work with non-profits, and like to hire people with diverse backgrounds.
To get the attention of any large organization, and not just the UN agencies, you always want to find a way to get through the door, even if you need to do the unsexy type of legal work to get in the door. Once you are inside, it is often very easy to move internally. If you work for a big organization like the UN, they have a vast array of legal needs, ranging from the basic to the exotic. It is undoubtedly the case that a large portion of the UN’s legal budget goes to HR and Procurement legal advice (e.g. doing building leases, procuring pencils) (whether done in-house or by external firms.) Therefore, this is your opportunity. In the event that a UN agency needs to lease a building in sub-Saharan Africa, some lawyer somewhere in the world needs to review and advise on the tender process (often in combination with other local lawyers). Yes, this is not sexy work, but it gets you a pass into the ‘club’ to work on other more interesting projects in the future.
As a final thought. Having outlined all of above, if you truly want to work in the non-profit / human rights space, it might be the case that being a ‘junior file clerk’ for Google.org or the Gates Foundation is equally beneficial (from a brand perspective to get your next job) as being a senior associate at Skadden Arps. On the one hand, being at a big firm allows you to potentially develop a deep legal specialty, which might be later retooled for a good purpose. For example, undoubtedly, at some point, a brilliant lawyer in some large law firm will figure out how to package up millions of ‘microfinance’ loans using mezzanine financing techniques (i.e. allowing Wall Street money to start funding billions of very small loans around the world) - - in so doing, they could indirectly create prosperity in Africa for a life time.
Also, a newer area which I’m thinking of lately relates to ‘conservation services’ and ‘natural capital’ (see Conservation International) (www.conservation.org). These are, essentially, quasi-voluntary regulatory schemes to allow companies to share and manage ecological externalities (see Jennifer Morris’s speech at Stanford). For me, CI’s approach is just a start: ISO certificate schemes, and business case assessment weighting schemes must become the norm in global commerce - - but few in the world understand how these tools work in practice. These topics simply cross too many intellectual domains, which makes a transition challenging. ‘Deep Greens’ are not well suited to create these innovations. But, you might be the one.
In addition, highly innovative organizations, such as the Gates Foundation, only look great to onlookers because, by comparison, the other large global NGOs have tired ‘business’ models. These major NGOs have been doing the same exact thing for decades. For me, it might be great fun to join one of these NGOs for the express purpose to reshape it, remake it, and help them to reinvent their bag of tricks as an NGO. As a lawyer, you can have this level of influence within these types of organizations - - but, remember, always ask for forgiveness, never for permission when trying to affect major change within an organization.
Keep in touch. If you like this or have other items to add, please drop me a note. I always enjoy hearing from people.
Best of luck,
Also, check out my new venture: StaticLabs