I often get asked the question: “How do I become an international lawyer?” It’s actually a tough question to answer. The reality is that there are so many ways for lawyers to have an “international” career today, that it really depends on what you're looking for. However, I’ve got a few tips. In this post, I list the first three which focus on things that you should be doing before you even start applying for jobs.
1. Do your homework
When I was at law school, based on my limited experience and minimal research, I thought there were only a few international law type jobs out there and they all seemed hard to come by. These included working the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, becoming an international law professor, doing trade law at a firm or somehow figuring out how to get a UN legal job or work with an international tribunal.
The reality is that there are so many ways to have an international career, it’s critical to spend some time figuring what kinds of jobs are out there and which are of interest to you. In Canada, some of the other options include becoming a JAG lawyer with the Canadian Forces, working in the international division of a government department (including the International Legal Programs Section at the DOJ), joining an NGO with an international focus or doing merger and acquisitions work with a big firm (where knowledge of the international aspects of transactions is critical).
Once you start looking outside of Canada, the list is almost infinite. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the speaker list from the upcoming American Society of International Law Conference in March. Speakers range from lawyers working in international arbitration to environmental law, from foreign service officers to human rights lawyers, from experts on maritime boundaries to experts on national security and counter-terrorism, from competition/anti-trust lawyers to lawyers working at the World Bank. The list goes on. There are also good resource guides that can help in identifying career options such as PS Law Net's online section about international careers, McGill Law’s international law and public interest career guides, and the British Institute of International Law's Guide to International Law Careers (edited by Windsor Law Professors, Christoper Waters and Anneke Smith).
2. Do a skills assessment - what skills do you have/what skills do you need
Once you’ve figured out your general area of interest (and don’t worry, you aren’t committing yourself for life!), sit down and figure out what skills you need and what you bring to the table. Look at job postings to get a sense of what the required skills are and what the desirable ones are for your ideal job. There are many different places to look depending on what you are interested in doing but a few obvious choices: Human Rights Jobs, the UN International Law Job Board and PS Law Net.
Law students and lawyers often simply focus on their law-related skills. This is a mistake. When we review student applications for Canadian Lawyer Abroad’s internship program, beyond relevant legal skills, we are also very interested in relevant language skills, evidence that someone is self-motivated and adaptable, has leadership skills and is able to communicate well. And don’t forget about your volunteer experience. When you're starting out, often volunteer experience is more relevant than your paid employment. Make sure to highlight all of these skills on your CV. (While it’s beyond the scope of this post, spend a lot of time on developing a good CV and keeping it up to date. While you may be a great candidate for a position, if you can't demonstrate this in a clear and concise fashion on your CV, you will be overlooked.)
Clearly if you want to work internationally, it helps to get international experience. Often it can be tough initially to get paid positions so consider going on an internship. Canadian Lawyers Abroad has a great internship program for law students, as do many law schools. For lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association has an international program that allows young lawyers to get experience with an international human rights organization. You may want to look at the CANADEM GPS Program which advertises that it can help kick-start an international career by helping to find a six month "hands-on, in-country placement" with UN offices, multilateral organizations, etc.
But you can also develop your skills at home. Many of the skills that are needed for international jobs are hard skills. So if you want to eventually want to prosecute serious crimes in a post-conflict country, get experience working as a crown prosecutor in Canada. If you want to work on women’s human rights issues internationally, work or volunteer for an organization in Canada that advocates on behalf of women. If you want to eventually work on legal reform projects that foster private sector development, develop expertise in an area of corporate law.
When I worked for the UN Mission in East Timor – a peacekeeping mission that was tasked with nation building – not only was the hunt out for prosecutors and human rights lawyers, they needed lawyers with expertise in areas such as administrative law, tax law, constitutional law, oil and gas law and in particular demand were lawyers with drafting skills.
3. Find a good mentor
I can’t say enough about the importance of finding a great mentor. This is a person who will not only give you practical advice but who believes in you. They are willing to listen to you as you advance in your career and make thoughtful suggestions about how you can achieve your career goals. They can also provide some perspective when you run into bumps in the road.
Next up: Landing your dream job (eventually).