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.