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Public International Law


Working as a law student or lawyer in public international law can be a great way to start or continue a legal career. Although often the most competitive public sector jobs to get, there are opportunities for law students and lawyers to practice in public international law. This section will discuss some of the different ways in which you can explore an international practice while in school and how best to prepare yourself to continue that practice after graduation.

Public international law is a broad category that encompasses a number of different types of practice areas in a number of different settings. Public international law is distinct from other areas of transnational practice in that at least one, and often both, of the parties to any transaction or litigation are sovereign states. Areas can include international trade law, immigration, international human rights, diplomacy and international criminal law, to name a few. Settings can include governmental, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, and international courts and tribunals. The subject area in which you may choose to practice may be related to the setting in which you practice, although many subject areas cross settings.

The types of organizations and opportunities available for law students and lawyers will be discussed below, followed by information on preparing for a career or summer job in international law. A list of web and print resources is included in Links to Research Resources.

Public International Law Settings

Nongovernmental Organizations

Nongovernmental (NGO) organizations are nonprofit organizations created for a specific purpose, such as to advocate for AIDS funding in South Africa or to expose human rights abuses world-wide. Nongovernmental organizations can exist both domestically and abroad and range from small volunteer organizations to large, multi-country entities. There are thousands of NGOs operating in nearly every country in the world. Some NGOs are direct service organizations, while others concentrate on policy issues or reporting of human rights abuses or country conditions. Many of the organizations are not strictly legal - although they may have an advocacy component, their purpose may be humanitarian relief, health care or economic development. However, even these organizations can provide law students with valuable experiences. Domestic organizations work on issues of domestic human and civil rights, the rights of immigrants and international issues. NGOs working abroad can either be international organizations such as Amnesty International, or tied to a specific country such as the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties in India. They can also include international legal aid organizations such as Legal Aid of Cambodia or organizations in the U.S. or Europe that are dedicated to a specific issue such as the Kurdish Human Rights Project in the United Kingdom.

The larger domestic and international NGOs have formal programs for summer law students, which tend to be extremely competitive and often have early application deadlines. Additionally, some of the international legal aid organizations will hire law students for the summer. Some of these organizations work on general civil legal services issues as is the case with most domestic legal services organizations. However, many international legal organizations have a broader mission that includes human rights.

The smaller, more regional or country specific NGOs may not have ever had any kind of intern working in their offices, let alone a legal intern. Yet, these are often highly rewarding contexts in which to work as it is possible to gain a great deal of responsibility and independence in a short time. It is therefore still worthwhile contacting these organizations for a summer position. For example, if your goal is to do policy work on issues of sustainable environmental development, then working a summer with a NGO in Latin America that is doing that kind of work is a great way to get hands-on experience. However, you should be prepared for a lot of self-advocacy to get this type of summer job and to be properly utilized by the organization. Significant communication with the organization in advance to ensure shared expectations about the nature of the position and responsibilities will be very important.

Opportunities for full-time entry-level legal employment with NGOs are extremely limited and tend to be extraordinarily competitive. The most likely opportunities are with the large domestic and international programs through fellowships. Human Rights Watch has their own fellowship programs, and other domestic organizations like the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights may sponsor students for fellowships like Skadden, Soros or Equal Justice Works. There are more opportunities for experienced attorneys in all of these organizations. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee, Freedom House and domestic organizations tend to hire attorneys with relevant experience in human rights or development work. Particularly in the international human rights area, entry level positions often involve (or require as a prerequisite) some time working in a hands-on context in the field. These positions may be short term or voluntary but provide an important entry point into international human rights advocacy.

When thinking about NGOs, you will eventually need to narrow your focus by geography and/or area of interest. NGOs are often most receptive to candidates who can express a credible and demonstrable interest in the type of work that that NGO is involved with and/or the area of the world that the NGO operates in.

The United Nations and its Entities

The United Nations formally consists of the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, the Security Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat. The United Nations also has a system of organizations that includes the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Bank and the International Labour Organization, among others. It is important to be persistent when looking for summer and permanent positions with the United Nations. Finding information about the different programs and the different entities that hire people with a legal background can be challenging. It is important to note that there is a quota of how many U.S. citizens the United Nations can hire in a particular year, so programs for attorneys and others with relevant experience can be very competitive.

The United Nations and its entities do have openings for experienced attorneys and some internship programs. There are several sites which lists these vacancies (See Links to Research Resources) Additionally, many of the United Nations’ Missions around the world hire people with relevant experience. Finally, several of the United Nations’ organizations, like the UNHRC, have Junior Professional Officer and other specialized hiring programs. Although there is often a formal application process, the role of networking cannot be underestimated in securing a job at the United Nations.

International Tribunals and Foreign Courts

The United Nations is home to several international courts and tribunals that have been set up for specialized purposes. These include the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (housed in Tanzania), among others.

There are also other tribunals not associated with the United Nations. These include bodies such as the International Criminal Court, the Central American Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, the Inter- American Court of Human Rights and others. Additionally, most countries around the world have appellate and other high courts.

International Criminal Tribunals often have internship opportunities appropriate for law students. Additional opportunities may be available in the other courts and tribunals associated with the United Nations. Some of the courts not associated with the United Nations also offer internship possibilities. For example, both the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights have internship programs. Finally, students have been able to secure summer internships with foreign courts such as the Supreme Court of Israel.

As with many of the other United Nations bodies, the courts and tribunals have opportunities for people with a great deal of relevant experience. Opportunities are often listed on the courts’ respective web sites and may be listed at the UN’s official personnel site. Some foreign courts may have longer-term clerkships for graduates of U.S. law schools, especially if the graduate is from that country. Please note that many of these organizations, in particular some of the tribunals, have early deadlines, even for 1L internships. If you want to work for a particular tribunal, it behooves you to ascertain their deadlines as soon as possible.

United States Government Opportunities

The United States government is involved in a great deal of international law work through a variety of its departments and agencies. This work may involve development and humanitarian work done by organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (“USAID”) or foreign affairs and diplomacy work as done by the Department of State’s Office of Legal Advisor. Other governmental departments that may be involved in international work include the Department of Justice, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the Department of Labor, the Treasury Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

USAID and Department of State both have summer internships for law students. Additionally, most of the government agencies offer summer employment to law students. For example, the Department of Justice has the Summer Law Internship Program, which is their second-year paid internships program. Other agencies also have summer programs for second-year students. The one caution is that it may be less likely that you will be placed in a unit or department that works on international issues. You should inquire about that possibility, or the possibility of getting internationally related assignments.

The Department of State has civil service programs for experienced attorneys, the Diplomacy Fellows Programs and foreign services programs for attorneys or others with relevant experience. Additionally, USAID hires lawyers through its New Entry Professionals Program and International Development Intern Program, as well as through its fellowships. USAID also hires attorneys and others with relevant experience through a variety of programs. Extremely interesting, but also highly competitive, positions in public international law are available through the Office of the Legal Advisor of the Department of State. Summer positions are available there during the 2L summer with employment possibilities after graduation.

The Department of Justice hires new lawyers through its Attorney General’s Honor Program and experienced attorneys through lateral recruitment. Please note that the Honor Program has a deadline around labor day for rising 3Ls seeking a position upon graduation. Many of the other U.S. government agencies that practice some international law, like the Treasury Department and the Department of Labor, have honors and other entry level programs or hire through the Presidential Management Internship program. The Presidential Management Intern (PMI) Program is the federal government’s entry level program for graduate students and a great way to get into otherwise inaccessible government positions. Graduating law students can apply for the PMI, and if selected, can choose from openings in any agency that may have them. Additionally, all agencies hire experienced attorneys through regular job openings.

PSJD has an exhaustive listing of United States government jobs that have an international flavor.

Intergovernmental Organizations and Foreign Governments

Intergovernmental agencies are multi-lateral organizations made up of member countries. They may or may not have formal relationships with the United Nations. Intergovernmental organizations may be either international or regional in their scope. Organizations in this category include the Organization of American States, the World Trade Organization and the African Union. Additionally, some foreign governments may hire U.S. attorneys, especially those candidates that are citizens of the country. Foreign courts, especially Israel, have hired Carey Law students as law interns and law clerks. Graduates of US law schools more typically work for foreign governments in private practice via the law firm that they work for. Foreign governments often hire law firms to represent the country in various matters.

Opportunities with intergovernmental organizations are as varied as the organizations themselves, and some may require citizenship in one of the member countries. The Organization of American States has opportunities in the Department of International Law and a graduate student intern program. Likewise the World Trade Organization and the International Organization for Migration have internships for graduate students, as well as other possible opportunities for experienced lawyers and other professionals.

Opportunities in foreign governments can be difficult to find, but may readily exist in the territories and possessions of the United States. For example, opportunities for experienced attorneys exist in offices such as the Public Defender of American Samoa and the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands. Additionally, entry legal government jobs – including judicial clerkships – are regularly available in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories and possessions.

Developing a Career Track in Public International Law

One Step at a Time

Jobs and internships in public international law are among the most competitive jobs to get. It takes hard work, perseverance, the ability to search out the elusive opportunities that may be out there, and the ability to make connections with people working in the field. Below are some of the things you can do to position yourself for a career in public international law.

It is important to note that you may not get there in one step. If you intend to pursue a career path in public international law you may have to do it in several steps in order to get the needed experience and connections. Starting as soon as you can in law school will help you in this process.

Lawyers seeking to do public international law typically first worked domestically in many different areas, developing skills and expertise that can later be translated into the international arena. Starting at a domestic organization that works on issues of human rights, work with immigrants, refugees and detainees, or economic development can be the first step in getting to an international career. International criminal tribunals value experienced prosecutors and defense attorneys.

If you find yourself at a law firm for a year or two, try to pick one with an international focus and one that supports pro bono work. You will need to be strategic in garnering assignments for paying clients related to the international practice areas. In addition, seek out pro bono work to get experience in subject areas relevant to the international arena such as refugee and asylum work and death penalty work. 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.

Specific Tips for Pursuing Public International Law

Courses and Programs at Carey Law

If you are going to pursue public international law then you should take law courses related to your area of interest. 

Like other students pursuing public sector work, those interested in public international law should consider the clinical and externship programs offered by the law school, especially the transnational clinic. If you want to do international prosecution, then an externship with the U.S. Attorney or District Attorney may give you valuable, in court experience. Likewise, the Criminal Defense Clinic or the Death Penalty Litigation externship can provide students interested in international criminal law with hands-on experience in related issues. Other clinics and externships that may be helpful include: the Women’s Law Project, the Civil Practice Clinic and the Mediation Clinic. Use these as an opportunity to gain experience that can be translated into work you want to do in the future.

Two Moot Court Competitions you may participate in are the ASIL sponsored Jessup Moot Court Competition, and the Sidley-IIEL WTO Moot Court Competition which are both great ways to get experience with international issues and cases. Participation in the Journal of International Law or the East Asian Law Review can also provide great experience with international cases.

Finally, you should consider the opportunity to study abroad. Carey Law has half year exchange programs, in English with: ESADE in Barcelona, Spain; Bucerius University in Hamburg, Germany; Tel Aviv University in Israel; Tsinghua University in Beijing, China; and Wasada University in Tokyo, Japan. A full year program, conducted in French, and resulting in a dual degree, is also available in Paris at Paris1/SCIENCESPO. More information.

Another opportunity to consider is the Global Research Seminar, which is an intensive international research course to facilitate engagement between faculty and students in a global setting. As a semester-long seminar that incorporates a 1-2 week field research visit, the GRS recognizes the importance of first-hand experience in providing students with the skills they need to examine thoroughly global and comparative legal issues. More information.

Develop a Focus

Develop a geographic or subject area focus. If you want to do international criminal law, develop your interest and expertise in that area, rather than floating your interests in many directions. If at all possible, develop an area of expertise related to your areas of interest. Get as much experience in this area as you can. Likewise, develop a geographic focus and keep up-to-date with political, economic and social developments in that region or county. This sort of focus can add legitimacy to your application to work on particular issues or within certain regions. One caution - being too rigid in your area of interest can make you too narrow of a candidate. Although it sounds contradictory, try to have a broad view of your area of focus.


Yes, networking is the way many people get jobs in public international law. The jobs and internships in this area can be difficult to find out about - you will need inside information to catch the opportunities as they become available. So what does this mean? How can you put yourself in the position to network?

Get involved in Associations

You can begin networking here at Carey Law. One of the best ways to meet people doing the type of work you are interested in doing is to search out those associations and committees to which they belong. You might consider becoming involved with:

  • International Law Organization (ILO)
  • Carey Law International Human Rights Advocates
  • Carey Law Immigration Clinic
  • Carey Law Journal of International Law
  • Carey Law’s Jessup International Mock Trial Team

Get involved in these organizations and network with your peers. Attend their speaker events and other programs. Consider also getting involved in international organizations in the greater University of Pennsylvania community. Students in these organizations have contacts in the international arena and often sponsor events at which their members can network.

There are countless opportunities beyond the walls of the law school. The American Bar Association (ABA) has a Section of International Law and Practice. Public International Law is part of this section and within Public International Law are many different committees. Research those committees and contact the chairs of the committees most of interest to you. You can also join the committees of your choosing - you will need to be a member of the ABA, but if you want to be involved in public international law, then it is worth paying the membership fee. In addition, various local Bar Associations, including New York and Philadelphia, have international sections.

Likewise, the American Society of International Law (ASIL) has a number of Interest Groups and Networks that you can join at a student rate. Even without joining, the coordinators and chairs are listed on the ASIL web site - you can contact these people to immediately start building your network. In addition, the International Bar Association (IBA) has recently opened its membership to law students. More information is available on the IBA website.

Attend programs

Carey Law hosts numerous speakers and panels relating to international law throughout the year. These programs offer excellent opportunities to meet people doing work that interests you. You can also think about attending conferences, lectures and other programs dealing with international work beyond the Penn campus. The International Law Society at American University Washington College of Law sponsors an International Career Forum each fall. Carey Law students can participate in this forum. The program features panels speaking about strategies, as wells as discussions of different areas of public international law.

Additionally, the ASIL and the ABA have programs and conferences to which their members are invited. Locally, the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia sponsors speakers on a variety of international issues.

Students and Alumni

Current students as well as alumni have had a variety of international experiences before, during and after law school. Students and alumni may be able to put you in touch with organizations and others working in the field.

Additionally, Carey Law has an outstanding LLM program for international lawyers. This year we have approximately 115 foreign-trained lawyers from 46 countries, including judges, NGO leaders, government officials and others. This impressive and diverse group was selected from a pool of 1175 applicants from 70 countries. Most of the students are practicing attorneys in their home countries. For a list of the current LLMs and where they are from, see the LLM student directory. To contact alumni, you can check the alumni network. Reaching out to international alumni can be challenging and you should consider meeting with Elise Luce Kraemer to discuss strategies to connecting with alumni.

Obtain International Work and Volunteer Experience

Most international employers want to hire law students and graduates who have relevant experience. It does not necessarily have to be legal experience. You may have gotten some experience before law school that demonstrates your interest and competence in international work. Additionally, you will want to get relevant experience during your summers, and if possible, through volunteer work during the school year.

Summer Employment

If you want to work internationally upon graduation, you should spend some time during your summers working internationally, and if possible, doing work similar to what you want to do after graduation. There are a number of ways to get international summer work - many of the opportunities available to law and graduate students are discussed above.

See Carey Law Global Fellowship Program for summer fellowships specifically designed for Carey Law students to gain work experience abroad. It is also important to keep in mind that there are also ways of getting relevant experience without leaving the United States. For example, you can work with an organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and some government agencies, where you will be exposed to international legal issues and get experience in areas relevant to work you may want to do in the future. Additionally, if you are interested in human rights and refugee issues you can work with an organization that works with immigrants, refugees and detainees.

Other Opportunities to Gain Experience

There may also be opportunities to get experience in international law through the Public Service Program, including the International Human Rights Advocacy group, or the Carey Law Transnational Clinic.

Write and Publish

Writing about issues related to public international law is a great way to get exposure to the issues, to gain experience researching legal issues, country conditions and other related matters, and to get experience that can go on your resume. Consider joining the Journal of International Law or the East Asian Law Review. Alternatively, (or in addition) hook up with a professor at the law school or university, a private attorney, a group like ASIL or an NGO and work on a project that may eventually be published. Working on an article with an attorney or interviewing practitioners involved in international law is an excellent networking opportunity.

Obtain Additional Education

If you are interested in making a career out of international law or related international fields you can either use relevant education you have had in the past (e.g. an undergraduate or graduate degree in international affairs), or you can consider continuing your education. If your undergraduate or previous graduate degree is not related to an international area, you might also consider a specialized LL.M. degree that will give you the experience and skills necessary to pursue an international law practice. American University Washington College of Law has a specialized LL.M. in International Legal Studies. Additionally, Columbia University School of Law has a Human Rights Fellowship that leads to an LL.M. degree, and Notre Dame has an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law. These are just some examples of LL.M. degrees. You can also look into Masters degrees or other related LL.M. degrees relevant to your area of interest both in the United States and abroad.

It is important to keep in mind that obtaining further education does not guarantee that you will be able to obtain a position in international law after graduation. You need to consider the cost of the program, the time commitment and the degree to which it will make you more marketable to the employers that you are interested in.

Obtain and Improve Foreign Language Skills

It is always a good idea that you pursue proficiency in a language in addition to English. Work at many U.N. organizations is done in French, English, and sometimes Spanish. However, you should make your second (or third) language specific to the region in which you are interested. Consider the FLAS program as a way to enhance your language skills.

Other Personal Qualities and Skills

In addition to a relevant language, experience and focus, you will need to have other qualities and skills that demonstrate your desire to do public international work. Qualities that can be important when working abroad include flexibility, a sense of adventure, independence, open-mindedness and ability to deal with ambiguous and often chaotic situations. These are qualities that can be demonstrated by previous time spent living abroad and extensive travel.

It is also important to remember that public international employers, like domestic employers, are looking for good lawyers. Although the other experiences and skills mentioned above are important, if you want to do legal work you need to hone your legal skills while in law school, through your internships, and in your postgraduate work. Use every experience possible to develop good lawyering skills such as analyzing, negotiating, research, writing, persuading, ability to deal with complex issues, problem solving and oral advocacy, to name a few.

Public International Law - Conclusion

The opportunities for students and attorneys to work in public international law are growing and are becoming a bit easier to find. However, as with any job in public service, seeking work in the international arena is a self-directed endeavor that takes creativity, perseverance and an entrepreneurial spirit. This publication was meant to give you some ideas about the opportunities available for law students and lawyers and resources for seeking that type of work. Links to Research Resources, contains listings of web and print resources that you can use to begin developing contacts and researching internships and employment.