International lawyers focus on laws presiding over the relations between countries. Areas of specialization for international lawyers include treaties, maritime, drug control, human rights, and trade law. “International law” also encompasses “trans-national” law, in which you help entities (like corporations) do deals across borders. International law is a highly-competitive field, and you should think carefully before investing the time and resources necessary to becoming an international lawyer.
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1. Qualifying for Law School
Obtain a bachelor’s degree. In order to get into law school, you first need a bachelor’s degree (4-year degree) from an accredited college or university. It does not matter what kind of bachelor’s degree you get. However, if you want to practice law internationally, then you may want to consider majoring in a foreign language, politics, or international relations.
Make sure the school you choose is accredited. To ensure that the school you choose is accredited, check the U.S. Department of Education’s (“DOE”) Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs for a listing.
You do not need to major in “criminal justice” as an undergraduate. In fact, criminal justice majors are admitted to law schools are admitted at a lower rate than those who majored in journalism, philosophy, or economics. Although you will not be penalized for majoring in criminal justice, there is no automatic benefit in law school admissions for having done so.Participate in Model United Nations (UN). If you hope to work for an international organization, such as the UN, you might want to get involved in a Model UN team. The Model UN program provides students with a forum for addressing global concerns. Student teams participate in conferences where they form a simulated general assembly to draft resolutions, negotiate treaties, and resolve conflicts.
This website offers a guide to comparing the best UN programs at colleges and universities.
Build your foreign language skills. You should start as soon as possible developing your foreign language skills. The more languages you are fluent in, the more likely you are to be hired by an international organization. If you want to work for the United Nations, then you will need fluency in two or more of the official languages.
The six official languages of the UN are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
You should aim for fluency in speech but also in writing and reading.Study abroad . International organizations look to a variety of factors when hiring someone, and experience working and living abroad is one of the most important. Accordingly, you will make yourself a more attractive candidate if you get as much international experience as you can while in college.
Studying abroad will also help you increase your fluency in foreign languages, which is also an important characteristic employers look for in international lawyers.Keep your grades up. Not everyone gets into law school. To increase your chances of getting in, keep your grades up. You want to graduate with at least a 3.0, but of course, a 3.5 or 4.0 would be even better. Admissions committees view a high GPA as an indicator that you are a hard worker who is self-motivated.
The higher your undergraduate GPA, the more selective you can be about what schools to apply to. Even if you do not care about the rank of the law school you attend, a higher GPA makes scholarships easier to get.Build relationships with professors. When you apply to law school, you will need to submit letters of recommendation. Make the most of your four years in college by building relationships with professors who can write you strong recommendations.
A great way to build relationships with faculty is to work as a research or teaching assistant.Study for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The LSAT is by far the most important part of your application, and you will need a score around the 50 percentile in order to get into an accredited law school.
Because of the recent decline in law school applicants, law schools are giving away more scholarships than ever before. A high LSAT will help you qualify for free money from your law school of choice.Register for the test. The LSAT is offered four times a year, in June, September, December, and February. It is offered on Saturdays, but there are special sessions for those who observe a Saturday Sabbath.
Create a free account at the Law School Admission Counsel’s (“LSAC”) website.
Find a test date and location. To do this, start on LSAC’s Law School Admission Counsel’s website Dates and Deadlines page.Study for the test. The LSAT may be the most important factor in your law school application, so take it seriously. It tests reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. Test prep companies offer tutoring, but you can also study on your own.
Your local library or bookstore should have copies of old LSAT exams. Find the most recent to take as practice exams.Take the test. The LSAT has five multiple choice sections and one unscored essay. Four of the five multiple choice sections count toward your score. The fifth is experimental and does not count toward your score. Unfortunately, you will not know in advance which section is experimental.
Follow the rules for test day very carefully. If you fail to follow any of the test day rules, you may not be allowed to take the test. A complete set of test day rules can be found on the LSAC’s website on its Day of the test webpage.Retake if your score is low. Applicants are allowed to take the exam more than once. Schools may choose to accept your higher score, or they may choose to average the two. If you take the LSAT twice but your score doesn’t improve, you should reconsider before taking it a third time.
On average, test takers are able to increase their score only two to three points on a re-take.
2. Preparing to Apply to Law School
Decide if being an international law attorney is really for you. International law is a highly-competitive field. Attorneys who practice in this area often work for international organizations, such as the United Nations or the World Bank. Alternately, international lawyers can work for large firms on cross-border deals involving corporations in different countries. These kind of jobs are difficult to get. Even if you graduate law school and pass the bar, you very well might not be able to get one of these jobs.
Competition to get a job with an international non-governmental organization (NGO) will be fierce. There are very few international human rights jobs, period. In fact, breaking into this field is extremely challenging.
Furthermore, most cross-border deals are done by large law firms, which are the most selective. You are expected to be near the top of your class and to have graduated from a selective law school in order to be hired at international law firms.
Against your job prospects you also should weigh how you will finance your legal education. The cost of a legal education has exploded in the past decade. Students routinely pay over $30,000 a year in tuition alone, which does not include additional costs for living expenses. If you are not careful, you could graduate law school $200,000 in debt.Register with the Credential Assembly Service (CAS). CAS is used by all law schools. You send them your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and evaluation; they create a packet and send it to the law school. The service requires a fee.
Register early and make sure to get your transcripts to CAS in a timely manner.
Solicit letters of recommendation. Now is the time to draw on the relationships you have built up with faculty during your undergraduate career. Ask your professors if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. Only follow through if that professor says “yes.”
If you didn’t build strong relationships with faculty, don’t despair. You can also ask for recommendations from present and past employers, as well as from people associated with church or volunteer organizations.
Some recommenders may need to be prompted to complete the letter. Send a friendly email reminder, or stop in to chat.Draft a personal statement. Law schools require that you write a short statement, typically on a topic of your choosing. The statement is usually only 500 words.
Follow the directions. If the school wants you to write on a specific topic, write on that topic. Also, if they give you a word limit, stick to the limit. Going over, by even a few words, can harm your chances of admission.
Feel free to write about your interest in international law. You may want to write about your experience studying abroad. Whatever you write about, make sure that it is fresh, engaging, and memorable.
You also should feel free to write about any subject that you want. You do not have to explain why you want to be a lawyer (unless the prompt specifies that you should write about that subject).Think about writing an addendum. An addendum can be a great way to explain something that looks bad in your application. A solid addendum will provide context for any information that might raise “red flags.”
Red flags include criminal convictions, punishment for cheating or plagiarism, or semesters with very low grades.
An addendum might also clarify why one LSAT score is much higher than another. Remember to explain in your addendum, not make excuses.
3. Choosing a Law School
Aim for the highest-ranked schools that you can. Because international law jobs are scarce, you need to be admitted into the highest-ranked law school that you can. Get the most recent rankings from U.S. News & World Report. The rankings will include the median LSAT and GPA of the first-year student body.
If you can’t distinguish the differences in schools, then you should meet with your school’s pre-law advisor who can help you distinguish between law schools with national (and international) reach and those schools with more regional name recognition.
To get international law jobs, you should strive to attend a school with a national reputation.Compare costs. As you compare law schools, you should always have costs in the forefront of your mind. You might assume that public schools are always cheaper than private schools, but that is not always the case. The tuition for out-of-state law students is often comparable to the tuition of a private school.
If you want to move to a state and hope to qualify as an in-state resident, contact the law school’s admissions office for information.Research clinical opportunities. Some law schools have international human rights clinics or their equivalent. In these clinics, students work under the supervision of a faculty member to provide legal services to foreign nationals or to those persecuted in foreign nations. Also, students can do research and work on policy proposals affecting international relations.
At Northwestern University Law School’s Center for International Human Rights, students have visited foreign countries such as Malawi, Rwanda, and Uganda to interview prisoners and work on freeing them. Also, students participate in briefing cases brought under the Alien Tort Statute or in international criminal courts.
Study schools. As you narrow your list of schools, you should compare them according to relevant criteria:
Curriculum. The basic curriculum for first year students is pretty much the same at any law school, but after the first year, the classes available might be very different. Look for a curriculum with electives in international comparative law and in human rights law.
Joint degrees with foreign universities. Some schools offer joint degrees with foreign universities. For example, Columbia University offers a four-year J.D./Master in French Law program with the University of Paris. Students in the program complete foundation courses at Columbia and then take French civil and European law while in Paris.
Job placement with international organizations. Given how difficult it is to get a job in international law, you need to make sure that the law school you attend actually places graduates with international organizations or large firms that do cross-border work. Accordingly, you should contact law schools and ask for detailed information on their job placement.Use your GPA and LSAT score to find appropriate schools. These are the two most important factors in law school admissions, and schools will rely on them heavily. Because application fees can be expensive (sometimes close to $100), you will want to be selective about which schools you apply to. Look for schools where your GPA and LSAT fall near the school’s medians.
You can gauge your likelihood of gaining admission to specific schools by using the LSAC calculator. Enter your undergraduate GPA and LSAC score to see your chances.
If you have a 4.0 GPA and a 170 LSAT, then you have a 75% chance of getting into Georgetown and a 45% chance of getting into Harvard.
If you have a 3.6 GPA and a 160 LSAT, then you have a 10% chance of getting into Georgetown and an 85% chance of getting into the University of Maryland.Apply to multiple law schools. Applying to more than one school increases your chances of being accepted. If you don’t get into any school, then you will have to wait a year before applying.
For some great tips on completing law school applications see the University of New Mexico’s Tips on How to Make your Application as Competitive as Possible.4. Earning a Law Degree
Take required courses. Law schools generally require 90 credits or so, spread out over 3 years. Your first year will consist mostly of basic courses: torts, contracts, property, civil procedure, criminal law, and constitutional law.
You should strive to finish near the top of your class. Grades are important in the legal profession, especially when you are starting out on your career. If you finish too low in your class you could take yourself out of the running for job opportunities with international organizations or with large law firms.
Visit your career services office and ask what firms come onto your campus to interview. Career Services should also have information on the GPA required to be hired by these larger firms. Gathering this information can give you some idea of how well you need to do in your studies.Join a study group. Law school is stressful and isolating, and a study group is a great way to meet people. Study groups help with exam preparation, sharing notes and outlines, as well as just blowing off some steam.
If you join a study group, stick with it. No one likes people who join a group only to drop out after a month.
Take exams seriously. Before you can become a lawyer, you have to pass law school. Your grades will also follow you around your entire career. Though the importance of grades decreases over time, poor grades could keep you locked out of jobs, at least initially.
Take appropriate electives. Many law schools allow students to begin taking electives beginning with their second semester. As a future international lawyer, you should seek out courses in international comparative law, as well as human rights law.Look for internships. Government agencies and NGOs often offer internships. Visit the website for International Organization Careers for information on internship opportunities.
Many internships may be appropriate only for the summer, especially if you attend law school outside New York City, Washington, D.C., or another very-large city. However, you should begin researching internship opportunities as soon as possible, so you can learn about what credentials the organizations are looking for.Work as a summer associate for an international organization. During law school, you will have two summers to work legal jobs, after your 1L year and after your 2L year. You can plan on working for an international organization during one or both of your summers.
Some students also try to work for a law firm during their 2L summer. If you want to work at a large law firm after graduation, then it is standard to work for the firm during your 2L summer. If the firm likes you, they will extend an offer before the start of your 3L year.Join the International Law Students Association (ILSA). The ILSA is an umbrella organization for student associations at various law schools around the country. It helps to educate students on international law and employment opportunities. Although many schools have individual chapters, students can join as individual members if their school has no chapter.
The ILSA also runs the Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition. Law schools field teams that compete against each other in an appellate advocacy competition where teams draft and argue briefs concerning an issue of public international law.
Jessup is open to law schools all over the world.Pass the MPRE. The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination is required to practice in all but three jurisdictions in the United States. The exam has 60 questions and tests your knowledge of legal ethics. You will take the exam in your third year of law school.5. Obtaining Your Law License
Apply for admittance to a state bar. Each state admits its own lawyers and administers its own bar exam, so check with the bar of the state where you wish to practice. They will provide you with a list of the necessary steps to take. Register for the bar exam. Nearly every state requires that you pass a written exam. The exam typically includes an essay portion as well as a multiple choice test.
The bar exam is typically offered twice a year—once during the summer (June or July) and once the winter (usually February). If you have to take the bar exam over, you have to pay each time you take it.
Prepare for the bar exam. Prep courses abound. They typically last several months and prepare you for both the essay and multiple choice portions of the bar exam. Costs can run up to several thousand dollars.
If costs are a concern, then you can seek out old study guides published by bar prep companies. Many people sell old guides on eBay and other online retailers.Fill out the background survey. In addition to passing the bar exam, you also need to pass a character and fitness review. This requires filling out a detailed survey on your background.
Common problems with character and fitness include criminal convictions, financial irresponsibility (such as bankruptcy), and accusations of plagiarism. These may not completely block you from admission, but be prepared to discuss them with the character and fitness committee.
Always be honest when filling out the background survey. Often the attempt to hide something is worse than the offense in the first place.Take the bar examination. The bar exam is typically held over the course of 2 days. The first day consists of a multiple-choice exam covering topics such as contracts, constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, and torts. The second day, consisting of essays, is often state-specific.
Expect to wait several months to receive your score. In Illinois, for example, those who take the exam in July will not receive their results until the first two weeks of October.6. Starting as an International Lawyer
Participate in On Campus Interviews (OCI). The largest law firms that hire graduates from your law school will likely come onto campus to interview for summer associates. If you want to work for a large firm, then you should register for OCI, which will take place just before the start of your 2L year (or in the early fall). If you are offered a job, you will work as a summer associate during your 2L summer.
Your career services office will send out detailed requirements for participating in OCI, such as preparing a resume and ordering copies of your transcript. Be sure to follow all policies to the letter, otherwise you could be prohibited from participating in interviews.
Apply for a fellowship. You can begin your career by applying for a post-graduate fellowship. The International Law Students Association has compiled a list of the most popular fellowships for new attorneys. Fellowships provide a stipend for one or two years of employment with various organizations.Apply for an entry-level job with an NGO. Entry-level recruitment is competitive and not widely advertised. You should ask your Career Services office for information on how to find these jobs and how to approach NGOs that interest you about potential job opportunities.
The UN Volunteer program hires new attorneys and pays them a stipend. Employees assist with peacekeeping missions in developing countries.
The UN Secretariat occasionally hires Americans for its Legal Affairs and Human Rights divisions. You have to sit for the Competitive Recruitment Exam.Get a first job. Even if international law is your dream, you might need to take another legal job simply to pay the bills. In your spare time, you can work on international law issues by volunteering with an international organization or doing pro bono immigration work.
Pro bono immigration work can help put your foreign-language skills to use and allow you help non-Americans build the lives that they want.Stay connected to the legal community. As your career advances, be sure to continue to raise your profile by offering continuing legal education courses and joining bar association committees. Some states also run separate International Law sections, which you can join to help with networking.