Generally speaking, international law is the set of rules and customs that governs relationships between people and entities in different countries or autonomous territories, and among sovereigns. This area of law is conventionally broken down into private international law, which focuses primarily on commercial transactions that involve more than one country, and public international law, which addresses international crimes and the worldwide protection of human rights. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two categories as a growing number of international organizations and treaties govern global business dealings. International law attorneys enjoy having the opportunity to interact with people from around the world, learn about other countries and cultures, and address a wide variety of complex legal issues.
Private international law handles issues that involve non-government entities (private individuals, organizations, or business associations) and implicate more than one nation. Most often, these situations arise in the context of international commercial transactions. For example, an international law attorney might help a client start a business in a foreign country, advise a foreign client on how to make its transactions comply with American laws and regulations, or negotiate with a foreign manufacturer on behalf of an American distributor. "It's one thing to be a lawyer and execute a lot of documents, close a deal, but it gets a lot more complex on multiple levels when you deal with cross-border issues. It's not only legal issues that you are involved with, but it's also business and cultural issues that you have to bridge for a transaction to go through," explains Paul Lin '97, an attorney at Jones Day whose practice focuses on international business transactions.
Attorneys who handle private international law matters work both in the United States and abroad for law firms, corporations, consulting firms, financial institutions, and the federal government. They may be exposed to a wide range of issues from nearly all of the other legal pathways. In fact, the vast majority of business attorneys, even those who don't explicitly choose to do international work, will confront cross-border issues over the course of their career.
Private international law attorneys spend much of their time in preparing documents and filings, drafting contracts, strategizing, and negotiating. Many of them travel abroad for several weeks each year; however, travel is becoming less essential due to developments in communication technologies. Some will also appear regularly in court or at administrative hearings (for example, in front of the International Trade Commission or World Trade Organization). However, it is rare for American attorneys to litigate in other countries' courts since doing so requires admission to another country's bar, as well as fluency in the country's language. For this reason, attorneys who work at law firms abroad usually confine much of their practice to explaining U.S. law to foreign clients.
Attorneys who engage in alternative dispute resolution in a foreign country, on the other hand, generally do not need to be licensed to practice law in foreign jurisdictions. International alternative dispute resolution is most commonly used in situations involving a disagreement between companies from different countries.
Public international law deals with the rights and responsibilities that exist between sovereign states and other nations, international organizations, and individuals. It is made up of treaties, custom, and case law from the many international courts and tribunals set up to hear war crimes and decide disputes between countries. Attorneys who handle public international law matters may focus their practice on issues involving human rights or international crimes. They usually work for the U.S. government, the United Nations, international criminal courts, non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, or quasi-governmental institutions like the WTO or World Bank.
Public international law attorneys sometimes gather information for a government or organization so that it can make informed political judgments in the international field. Depending on their area of expertise, public international law attorneys might also argue a case in front of an international criminal tribunal or advise a client on the requirements of a treaty or on human rights issues.
Positions in international law are highly competitive. Therefore, it is important for students who want to practice international law to take steps during law school to cultivate the traits that international law employers value. These students should take advantage of McGeorge’s strong international law curriculum. In particular, they should consider completing the Certificate in International Legal Studies, which is designed to provide a thorough understanding of both private and public international law.
Breadth and Depth
Breadth and Depth
Breadth and Depth
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
As is true for most legal professionals, international law attorneys must have strong analytical, research, and writing skills. It is also important for international law attorneys to be aware of the global impact that laws can have and to be able to see how the laws of different countries interact.
Skills often found in public interest attorneys:
Since they work with people from around the world, international law attorneys must be sensitive to cultural differences to effectively work with international parties. Study abroad and intern positions with firms and organizations that handle international matters can help students develop these skills. Business experience and a demonstrated interest in international affairs are helpful as well.
Furthermore, many international law employers strongly prefer job applicants who have mastered a foreign language. The most commonly used languages in international law are Chinese, French (especially for public international law), German, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, students should do whatever they can to make connections with international law attorneys. Since international law is a competitive field to enter, it helps to have a network of international law professionals when the time comes to search for jobs.
McGeorge's summer and semester study abroad programs allow students to live and learn in a foreign country. Students may also be able to transfer credits earned through study abroad programs run by other ABA-approved law schools (see http://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/foreign_study.html for a complete list). International study is especially beneficial for students who want to work with international law because it demonstrates an interest in international affairs and increases cultural awareness. Some programs will also allow students to practice their foreign language skills. Contact the office of Graduate and International Programs (916.739.7019) for more information.
Some additional co-curricular activities:
Most major cities offer the chance to practice private international law, but opportunities are especially concentrated in major financial centers like New York City, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore. The San Francisco Bay area, and Silicon Valley in particular, is also home to a large number of law firms that represent clients in highly technical international business transactions.
American law firms that specialize in the administrative side of international trade are located almost exclusively in Washington, D.C., although many of these firms have smaller branch offices elsewhere. In Europe, most administrative trade work happens in Brussels and other capital cities. Small boutique firms that handle international matters tend to be situated in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. Public international law is centered in national capitals worldwide.
International lawyers are mostly found in large law firms, though some do practice in smaller boutique firms that specialize in international law. International lawyers also work in foreign offices of U.S. firms, international law firms in the U.S. or abroad, foreign law firms, corporations with international interests (as in-house counsel), consulting firms, financial institutions, the federal government (for example, the Department of Commerce, International Trade Commission, and Department of State all have attorneys who work on international issues), international quasi-governmental bodies like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, non-governmental organizations that advocate certain international policies, such as the Institute for Economic Democracy, the Center for Justice and Accountability, and Amnesty International, United Nations organizations, and international criminal courts.
Attorneys who work at U.S. or international law firms represent almost exclusively corporations and other business entities, both foreign and domestic (including investment banks, companies seeking access to U.S. capital markets, companies based in the U.S., and foreign companies that conduct business in the U.S.). Attorneys who work at foreign law firms will have mostly foreign clients who may not have any ties to the U.S.