Priya Pillai
Priya Pillai

A few thoughts on a career in International Law

Bar & Bench

Priya Pillai

I have received a large number of requests for advice on a career in international law, as a result of my setting up a website in the last few months of 2018. Young lawyers and recent law graduates have been the main demographic, and my phone conversations with many have made me realize the questions and substantial anxiety of many who are interested in pursuing international law as a career option.

There were a few recurring questions, as well as common misconceptions, and so I’ve decided to put down a few thoughts.

Of course, I add a general disclaimer – my advice is based very much on my personal experience since graduating from law school in 2000, and my trajectory of working at international institutions as well as on the domestic application of international law since then. Specific advice would depend on your ultimate goal – whether as an academic, or as a litigator, or advocacy and policy-oriented roles. There are also multiple subject areas of international law as well as varied roles, so do canvass diverse opinion on specific aspects. I will address the general questions that have come up in my conversations in the past few months.

Domestic law v. International Law

The first is the role of domestic law versus international law. I actually disagree with the juxtaposition of these areas in opposition for a few reasons.

Invariably, most lawyers start their careers in a domestic legal system – and the first steps of becoming a better lawyer are in the practice of law. In that sense, the domestic legal system teaches a lawyer the skills of lawyering, including legal interpretation, analysis, writing – all crucial skills. In addition, the domestic implementation of international law is also the testing ground for the development of international law – and a thorough grounding is indispensable.

Another neglected aspect is the increasing correlation between Constitutional law and international law – with the former increasingly determining the effectiveness of the latter (for instance, in the legal determinations in cases in South Africa and the Philippines on the International Criminal Court).

In sum, spending time in a domestic legal system is good, and necessary for a holistic understanding of how international law may be effective. So if you are uncertain about taking up a position in a firm or with a senior, while looking for opportunities in international law, don’t hesitate. It will give you valuable legal skills as well as knowledge of the functioning of law in a legal system – all of which will stand you in good stead subsequently.

Areas of law and specialization

Another question that often came up related to specific areas of international law, and the pros and cons of specialization as opposed to generalization. There are multiple areas of law, including economic law, trade law, international human rights law (IHRL), international humanitarian law (IHL), international criminal law (ICL), as well as dispute resolution, international arbitration etc.

There are therefore multiple areas and choices – hone in on your area/s of interest, and develop a better understanding of these. There needn’t be a stark choice or only one aspect of law, as some areas have substantial interlinkages such as IHRL/IHL/ICL, or economic/trade/dispute resolution, even though they each may deal with distinct issues.

Especially while starting out, it is better to keep a broader range which can then be narrowed down if you so choose. And if you are certain of your focus, do reach out to international lawyers who work in those particular areas for more specific guidance.

Masters programs and internships

I would highly recommend a Masters’ degree in international law. It is rare to find international lawyers without a Masters’, and not completing one can be a disadvantage. It will also help focus on particular areas of interest. In terms of which programs and applications, do your research well in advance.

Typically, applications are due at the end of the calendar year, so figure out which universities you would like to study at, based on the area of specialization, the details of the program, the professors, as well as the scholarships on offer. Get good recommendation letters and speak to others who have got in, so as to clear any doubts regarding the process as well as the program.

Another criterion is to look at those programs that have good ‘clinical’ components. For example, an asylum/refugee clinic, IHL or IHRL clinic etc. Working at these clinics in the course of your studies exposes you to the more practical aspects of the implementation of law, and also gives you an opportunity to work with other organizations. These are in effect internships but that you do as part of your coursework. In addition, you will get a better sense of the organizations working on specific areas as well as an idea of paid internship opportunities (which are still all too rare unfortunately, but they do exist!)

Approaching people for help

This is the internet age, so information is more easily accessible. As are people. Reach out and ask for help – from individuals in the field, from your professors. Keep in mind many are busy and have commitments, so not everyone will respond. But also please do your homework in advance before reaching out! There are a number of lawyers and academics who are willing to help and ‘pay it forward’, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Finally, from experience, this is not the most linear of career paths or for the faint of heart. So if the route of a law firm partnership or something similar is most appealing, it is time to rethink prioritizing international law.

There are many challenges but also great opportunities and amazing work to be done, so the best advice I’d be able to give is to stick with it and to keep going!

Good luck!

Priya Pillai is an international lawyer, with expertise in international justice and humanitarian issues. She has worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva, and with various national institutions. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute, Geneva; an LL.M from NYU; and a B.A.LL.B. (Hons.) degree from NLSIU, Bangalore. She can be reached on twitter @PillaiPriy

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