What Does It Take to Be an International Lawyer Today?

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Harvard Law School Women’s Alliance (HLSWA) DC Chapter (I’m now part of the HLSWA-DC Programming Committee) recently held a panel and cocktail reception with international law practitioners, hosted by the global law firm Freshfields. The panelists discussed international dispute resolution, international trade law, human rights, and international development, as well as — of course — career opportunities and career development for aspiring international law attorneys. Here’s the rundown of participants, all prominent HLS alumnae:

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Harvard Law School alumnae panel, left to right: Shara L. Aranoff, Neha Sheth, Christina Biebesheimer, Caroline S. Richard, and moderator Ana Reyes. October 28, 2015.

  • Ana Reyes (moderator), Co-chair of HLSWA-DC and Partner at Williams & Connolly.
  • Caroline S. Richard, Senior Associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer US; Adjunct Professor at American University Washington College of Law.
  • Christina Biebesheimer, Manager in the Governance Global Practice at the World Bank, and Former Chief Counsel of the Justice Reform Practice Group.
  • Neha Sheth, Attorney at the U.S. State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser's office of Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs; and Former Attorney of the Legal Adviser’s office of Human Rights and Refugees and the Office of Claims and Investment Disputes.
  • Shara L. Aranoff, Of Counsel at Covington & Burling LLP; Former Commissioner of the U.S. International Trade Commission; and Former Senior International Trade Counsel of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.

One of the fantastic things about the panelists was their cumulative years of experience. The more senior members of the panel brought the necessary historical perspective to comment on how generally the field of law has changed, and how international law in particular has changed.

Evolution of International Law

Previously, “international law” as conceived by U.S. law firms was essentially U.S. administrative law related predominately to the movement of physical objects across boarders. Today our increasingly globalized economy, with digital products and outsourced services means that international law issues can touch a staggering amount of operations and interactions. Today's international lawyers are a growing and multidisciplinary bunch, having to go beyond legal research into economics, anthropology, and other areas. U.S. lawyers now commonly grapple with questions like how many bank branches can a client have in a particular country, can a client's cheese be marketed as "Parmesan," and can a client's bio-engineered products be sold in a certain jurisdiction. Recent years have seen major changes:

  • Establishment and strengthening of International bodies, like the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as increased enforceability and sophistication of public international law -- with accompanying accountability on international commitments beyond "naming and shaming" violators, via hard data and studies that empower all players, including local or grassroots movements.
  • Growth of human rights law, including subsets related to women's rights, LGBT rights, indigenous people's rights, economic justice, and environmental justice, as well as the impact of human rights law on business operations.
  • Proliferation of non-physical goods and services, like digital products, intellectual property, and workforce outsourcing, and the necessary expansion of laws to cover their trade.
  • Spread of rule of law within developing economies, with the concept that law and justice as necessary parts of the development equation because they bring fairness (including reduction of government corruption), predictability, stability, and mechanisms for peaceful dispute resolution.
  • Growth in international dispute resolution (particularly international arbitration), international investor protections, and legal challenges to events that may have occurred decades ago.
  • Increased transparency of international proceedings via technology, for example, webcast court proceedings, digitized pleadings, awards, and other court records.

Public International Law

Although there aren't many places lawyers can practice public international law within the U.S., there are many federal government players overseeing areas with international law elements: the Department of State, of course, but also the Departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Defense, as well as the intelligence community. Beyond assisting international governing bodies or multinational corporations, law firm attorneys can get involved in international law issues through pro bono efforts, supporting:

  • Individuals, like asylum seekers or refugees.
  • Nonprofit organizations, like Doctors Without Borders operating within multiple countries and filing amicus briefs before international bodies.
  • Sovereign nations collecting data, complying with international reporting requirements or other obligations, modernizing their laws, and challenging how their constituents are treated by other countries.
  • All this is done smoothest when lawyers understand the different social and historical contexts they're working within. The law can be a lever for positive social change, but that lever is most effective when discussions are held respectful that concept Americans might take for granted -- for example, norms of age of adulthood and ability to contract -- are not universal.

Private Legal Issues with International or Cross-Border Elements

Even when working on private cross-jurisdictional matters rather than on public international issues, it's critical for American attorneys to understand basic public international law concepts related to bodies like the International Trade Commission (ITC). After all, many corporations now have global operations -- and thus have to worry aobut corporate governance, shareholder rights, investor relations, securities exchange regulations, accounting and financial reporting, tax, real estate holdings, employees, manufacturing, environmental impact, liability limitations, civil procedures, corruption, and other legal questions that differ in different jurisdictions. Even many personal representation matters can have international elements -- fertility treatments and surrogacy, adoption, family-based immigration, recognition of LGBT marriages and other marriages, divorce and dissolution of marital assets, parental rights, tax, trusts and estates, and more.

It's also critical for American lawyers to understand that legal conventions we take for granted in the U.S. -- like attorney-client privilege, the ability to take depositions, or the enforceability of certain contractual terms -- may not exist in other countries. Your mistaken assumption that U.S.-style attorney-client privilege exists in a particular country, for example, may lead to inadvertent disclosures or other corporate risks or even a legal malpractice claim.

Resume-Building Career Advice

The panelists also offered career development advice for lawyers and law students interested in pursuing international legal issues. The point that international lawyers are still a small community of people so that, as is so often the case, introducing yourself to people in the field (also known as networking!) is key. As a career consultant for lawyers, I discuss this with groups and individual clients regularly, so I was thrilled to hear the panelists specifically talk about:

  • Networking with established public or private international law attorneys. The panelists specifically recommended informational interviews, stressing that in the international law community, practitioners are often very willing to share ideas, career advice, and mentoring. As aways, when asking for an informational interview, make clear that you're not looking for job search assistance. Instead, ask about their day-to-day or other well researched, intelligence questions about the practice area. Ideally, some of these people will become mentoring contacts or part of your greater professional network.
  • Demonstrating genuine interest in the practice area. Even if you're unable to get direct experience in international legal issues in your current role or position, there are other ways to demonstrate genuine interest. The panelists suggested taking on a pro bono case, writing articles, publishing in professional newsletters, and becoming active in international law-related professional associations.
  • Become a niche expert. The panelists mentioned that it's difficult to break into international law as a generalists. Instead, they recommended picking something and becoming an expert in it. Learn to discuss it fluently so that you become known, and sought after, as an expert on that legal question. Building a niche expertise will also help demonstrate you're serious about the field of international law.

Modern and Emerging International Law Challenges

The legal sector remains a tough hiring market, attorneys are always looking for hot or expanding practice areas where they can establish themselves and, hopefully, get career growth and job security. The panelists mentioned a few trends and growing challenges in public and private international law, but the biggest discussion was on the impact of the rise of China as an economic world power. Legal questions include:

  • China's willingness (or lack of willingness) to accept international law and enforcement judgments of international bodies, private arbitration panels, foreign courts, and foreign arbitration panels.
  • The impact of China changing from an inbound investment nation to an outbound investment nation, with expanding investments in developing countries in Africa and Latin America. China attaches different legal and procedural strings to those investments than the World Bank does, not requiring the same reporting or compliance standards.

Conclusion -- International Law Touches Everything!

Whether you're interested in building your legal career in international law or not, one thing is clear: nearly every attorney needs to have some understanding of the basic international laws, treatises, and covenants that impact their practice area. In our global world, few things are "just local" anymore.