Passport to an international law career

If the thought of practicing law abroad appeals to you, there are a few things you need to know before diving into the world of international law. It is not the kind of field one can briefly dabble in;  working and living abroad is a big commitment.

And unlike other specializations, it is not exactly growing at lightning speed. American students typically work domestically after law school. But this puts those who are committed to the field at an advantage, said Professor Cesare Romano, who runs the International Human Rights Clinic at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

“The honest answer is, [it is] not really [growing], which is kind of sobering,” he said. “That being said, that is a great thing. It means the selective minority of people that are committed have an interest that is not fleeting. They have greater chances of eventually succeeding in their search for a job.”

That disparity translates into better job prospects for marketable candidates, Romano said.

“One thing that has not been affected by the crisis affecting the legal sector in U.S. is the availability of jobs in international law,” he said. “I always recommend students to go in that direction, because it’s a place you can hedge your bets against scarcity of jobs domestically.”

However, getting a job at popular international institutions, such as the United Nations or The International Court of Justice, is still by no means easy.

“Everyone and their dog is trying to do that,” Romano said. “Unless you’re in the top five law schools in the U.S., you hardly have a shot. But there are hundreds of organizations that do hire Americans. When you start thinking outside of the obvious ones, then all of a sudden that unlocks a whole range of potential.”

But Americans must also be aware of the competition they are facing. Foreigners study law at the undergraduate level and often earn an LL.M. degree. Though LL.M. degrees are available domestically, it is the road less traveled for Americans.

“When [international employers] are hiring, Americans are looked at as a bit undereducated in comparison to Australians, Argentinians or Italians, and that is a problem,” Romano said. “On the other hand, an LL.M. is financially taxing, and our students are usually already overburdened [with debt] by the time they finish their J.D., so it’s sometimes not a feasible option.”

But if money is no object (or you can land a great scholarship), go for the LL.M., Romano said. It can lead to better job prospects.

Professor Mark Drumbl, who is currently living in Amsterdam, serves as director of Washington and Lee University School of Law’s Transnational Law Institute. Five years ago, he pushed to make international law a required course for all Washington and Lee first-year students. Harvard Law School, The University of Michigan Law School and Georgetown University Law Center have done the same. This, however, is not the norm for American law schools. Drumbl said there are two justifications for making it a requirement.

“The logical reason is our sense that you cannot be prepared for the practice of law without any exposure to the reality of global legal practice,” Drumbl said. “The practical justification is, we feel that by exposing students to international law in their first year, it opens them up in terms of marketability.”

Read the rest of the story in the free digital Fall issue of the National Jurist magazine here.