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Private International Law


When asked to define “Private International Law” some practitioners will say that you have the NGO’s, Governments and Courts described in the Public International Law section, and then there is everything else. As with public international law, you have to think carefully about whether you are interested in international legal issues as a topic – such as laws impacted by treaties, or criminal disputes heard in actual international tribunals, or if you are just talking about law practice involving parties from more than one country.

In some parts of the world, international practice may not be markedly different from a N.Y. lawyer assisting a company from Maine in establishing a business on Lexington Avenue. That lawyer would need to advise his client on tax matters, commercial real estate matters and insurance requirements in the “foreign” jurisdiction of New York. She would have to make sure that the company was complying with the business laws of both states, and any federal regulatory agencies that applied. Many private international lawyers are assisting clients with their business needs across international borders. They are essentially corporate lawyers, but have to consider the business, tax, real estate and other needs of their global client. Much of the work of “private international law” is done domestically – from your corporate law office in the U.S.

This section seeks to guide you through the various paths to practicing private international law – here or abroad, and has a brief discussion of working in another country. One thing to keep in mind as you consider your own job search is that there is no one path to success. You are not likely to find this job by responding to a neatly posted ad on the law school web site. Rather, to reach your goal, you will do a bit of each of the things suggested here.

Private International Settings

The most common settings in which to practice law for clients with international needs are:

  • Large U.S.-based law firms with international offices;
  • Boutique firms established to deal with specific international issues such as customs, or international anti-dumping laws;
  • In-house counsel position for corporations here or abroad.

Your work will generally be in one of the following categories:

  • Domestic legal work on behalf of foreign clients;
  • Foreign work on behalf of domestic clients;
  • Work involving international law, or laws of multiple jurisdictions.

Within the U.S., much of the private international work is being done in large cities on the coasts (N.Y., D.C., L.A.) with some other cities throughout the country having some international legal work (Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis). If you are interested in serving private clients with international issues, you are not likely to do much of that work out of Indianapolis or Nashville.

Another common interest among students is to get experience working in a foreign country. Typically, it is much easier to obtain a position with the foreign office of a U.S. firm than with a “local” foreign law firm. While it is not impossible, you should be prepared for some obstacles including:

  • The need for business level fluency in several languages;
  • The need to understand the business culture of the foreign jurisdiction in order to be successful at securing clients’ trust;
  • Access to the licensing of other jurisdictions without a local law degree; Lower pay scale for lawyers in foreign countries. In many countries, the law degree is an undergraduate level degree, and starting salaries for lawyers are commensurate with starting salaries for lower level workers;
  • The perception on the part of the foreign employer that you are just looking for a short term employment in a foreign country. You bear the burden of convincing them that you are actually interested in building a career in their country.

Those who are successful at obtaining a law job in a foreign country have often spent several years networking and building their skills and ties to that country so that they are attractive candidates.

Developing a Career Track in Private International Law

Developing a career track in private international law is not that different from developing a successful career track in private practice generally. This section will discuss the common elements of developing your qualifications and expertise, and networking with an eye towards your goal of working on international deals.

Developing Your Qualifications

Similar to getting a job with a corporate firm to do domestic work, the firms or companies you may be targeting will look for excellent academic credentials such as good grades, participation on a journal or moot court activities, and evidence that you are working to develop and refine your legal writing skills. (This can be demonstrated by choosing courses in which you write seminar papers, publishing a comment or doing an independent study with a professor.) You may also consider taking some courses such as comparative law, or any corporate course that spends at least some part of the semester studying cross-border issues. However, as discussed below, it is unwise to fill your class schedule with every “international” class offered at the expense of taking classes that firms typically consider important. You ability to contribute knowledge of US law may be one of your best selling points.

In addition to the academic qualifications, you should begin developing your interest in the county or practice areas that you wish to work in. For example, if you are interested in working in the area of corporate law or finance domestically, you should likely read the Wall Street Journal regularly to keep abreast of business developments. If you are interested in a particular country or region, you should research and find out what lawyers and business people are reading there to stay current, and get a subscription. This is how, over time, you will develop business understanding and cultural fluency for another country.

Developing Your Expertise

The practice areas that are most helpful for International firms are generally corporate (not litigation) areas of practice such as: intellectual property, international transactions, project finance, energy and banking. In some ways, it is helpful to think “inside” the box when considering the practice area that would be useful for an international client. For example, many employers will consider it more important that you have taken corporations, securities law, mergers & acquisitions, and perhaps a finance course at the Wharton school than to have taken a course with the title “International Law.” In addition to focusing your law school studies in the correct direction during the J.D., some attorneys interested in international practice also consider doing an LL.M abroad in EC (European Communities) law, or on a comparative law topic.

in addition to developing your expertise while in law school, many law firms will require that you develop some practical expertise in the U.S. before you are invited to work on cases involving international deals or to work in a foreign office. Your value in that foreign office is often having a solid grasp of corporate law practice in the U.S. to bring to the team of experts in the foreign jurisdiction.

Laying the Groundwork

While you may not be able to expect to work directly as an attorney in a foreign market, or have your first involvement in a deal be for one with multi-national issues, it is often worthwhile to get some experience living and working in a foreign country. You may have already done so by studying or working abroad during college or graduate school. That is great experience to include on your resume. For 1Ls interested in having an international summer experience in the private sector, the GLPF Program is a great place to start.

Gaining employment at a law firm abroad or a firm that does a significant amount of international work for your 2L summer takes significant planning and strategy. Typically, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students are hoping to gain an offer of permanent employment from their 2L summer employer. Much of the hiring has traditionally taken place in the late summer and early fall through On Campus Interviewing (OCI). Students bid for firms over the summer, screening interviews take place in July and very early August and callbacks follow shortly thereafter. To learn more about OCi, click here. The process is fairly compressed and to maximize your success, you should research firms over the summer and consult with CP&P before you place your bids. The challenge is that many firms that do international work are very competitive when it comes to hiring and the international work is often coveted. Although firms with an international practice appreciate applicants with a demonstrated interest and background in international matters, they typically have a significant domestic practice as well. Therefore, you must be able to express your interest in international work, while appearing flexible and willing to work on a variety of matters, depending on the firm’s needs.

Although only one or two students typically spend their entire 2L working for a law firm abroad, a growing number of students who work in a firm abroad do so as part of their summer, with the other part of the summer spent in the U.S. office of that firm. These positions are generally obtained through OCi. If you’re interested, you should research those firms that have an international presence in the country you are interested in, and you should then read about their summer program to see if they have sent students to a foreign office. The time to request splitting your summer with a foreign office of the law firm is after you do a callback and receive an offer from that firm’s domestic office.

Honing your language skills is another long term project that you should be working on. If you are already fluent in more than one language, you will want to work on learning the language and vocabulary well enough to conduct business in that language. If you do not speak a foreign language already, you are not likely to get to a business level of proficiency in the few years of law school. You may consider practicing international law domestically, working in an English speaking country, or practicing European Community Law which is primarily conducted in English. If you are going to do that in a foreign country, you may want to begin learning the language such that you would be comfortable conversing at least casually with your clients in their language, even if your business transactions are conducted in English. Consider the FLAS program as part of your summer plans as a way to improve your skills.

Private International Law - Conclusion

The opportunities for students and attorneys to work in private international law are very competitive, but will likely expand as the practice of law becomes more global. Fortunately, the GLPF program can open the door for Law School students who want to spend their 1L summer abroad. OCR can also yield international opportunities for students during their 2L summer, but careful planning is essential. In addition, to be successful in international practice, domestically or abroad, you will need to create your own contacts, develop your own cultural and language fluencies, and forge your own path – in some instances building your own cadre of clients. The listing of web and print resources in Links to Research Resources is meant to help you develop those inroads as you start down this path. Good Luck!