International Law

Main information

Opportunities to develop an international legal career are many and diverse in terms of the roles available, the locations of employment and the employers. You might be working on human rights cases, advising an environmental NGO or a government department here or abroad, or be part of an international transaction within a major law firm. Your background may be as a barrister, solicitor, academic, policy adviser or caseworker as roles vary from the more familiar ones using advocacy, legal drafting and research skills to working in the “field” in unfamiliar and possibly remote locations. International lawyers can be found in international organisations, courts and tribunals, regional organisations, NGOs, government departments, law firms, barristers’ chambers, universities and institutes.When international law is referred to it usually either means public international law or private international law. Public international law, in its basic form, concerns relations between countries and their citizens. It is vast and covers areas such as international human rights law, developed from the principles defined by the UN, armed conflict, environmental law, trade law, law of the seas and international arbitration. Private international law concerns the relationships between private individuals, associations and commercial organisations. Whilst some roles sit more obviously in one area or the other, there are increasingly areas of crossover. You could find yourself taking your legal skills and experiences from the private to the public arena or dealing with an international issue in a national setting. To help you navigate this complex scene this briefing provides an overview to law and non-law students of some of the options for pursuing a career in international law, the skills you will need to do so, as well as links to resources for further exploration.


Law Fair - people on scales of justice
Working as an international lawyer can be extremely exciting and provide high levels of job satisfaction.  However, salaries can be very variable, job security may be less certain as roles can be of a more short term nature or highly dependent on funding, and you might find yourself working in a developing country where access to resources and general amenities is significantly less than you are used to!  Relatively few jobs can be secured straight after graduating with your degree, but with a careful mix of additional qualifications, experience and good reputation a successful career path can be forged.  The following list highlights some of the types of opportunities that can be found for lawyers working internationally.

International and Regional Organisations

The United Nations employs hundreds of international lawyers not only in its Office of Legal Affairs within the UN Secretariat but also within its many agencies such as the UNEP (UN Environment Programme), the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) or the World Health Organisation (WHO). The UN’s principal judicial arm – the International Court of Justice, established in 1945 – also provides opportunities for students and young professionals.

Regionally, opportunities for full time work, temporary work and work experience can be found in the institutions of the European Union.  The Commission, The Court of Justice of the European Communities, The Court of Auditors, The Council of the European Union and the European Parliament all employ lawyers. There are also opportunities for undergraduates/graduates and qualified solicitor/barristers as lawyer-linguists in the Translation Service of the Court of Justice (and the Parliament). For these roles, candidates need to have the requisite language skills and must have studied a law course to have adequate knowledge of one of the English speaking member states.

Entirely separate from the European Union is the Council of Europe, with its headquarters in Strasbourg. An intergovernmental organisation, it was established in 1949 by the Treaty of London to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.  Its judicial branch, the European Court of Human Rights, is a permanent judicial body which guarantees for all Europeans the rights safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights. Legal Officers are employed in the Registry of the Court to work on applications made under the Convention on Human Rights, to prepare legal case files, conduct research into legal matters and to draft documents of a legal or general nature.

Outside Europe there are other organisations, such as The Organisation of American States and the African Union – both of which employ lawyers for their secretariats. Other organisations to consider are; The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE); The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO); The Arab League and The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).


This area has seen dramatic expansion following the human catastrophes in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia and the worldwide recognition that war crimes of this magnitude and severity must be brought to justice.  The UN Security Council set up its first war crimes court – the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – in 1993.  While this ad hoc court is now close to completing its work, similar tribunals and courts have been set up following war crimes elsewhere.  For example, work for lawyers can be found in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and also in the permanent International Criminal Court that was set up in 2002. The ICC is not part of the UN, but an independent international organisation, governed by the Rome Statute and ratified by 60 countries. Other sources of employment for lawyers with relevant domestic experience may be found in non-criminal tribunals (or compensation courts) which are often established to deal with issues associated with armed conflict, such as housing and property.


Some of the best known include large organisations such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Friends of the Earth, JUSTICE, Article 19, Reprieve and The Aire Centre, all of whom employ lawyers. There are many others which work on broad human rights issues or on the protection of specific rights.


In the UK this could be through the Government Legal Service whose solicitors and barristers advise on a range of European matters in departments such as the MoD, DEFRA, HMRC and BIS. The GLS recruits trainees and pupils annually and offers work experience placements.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also recruits independently for qualified lawyers only. Equivalent positions exist in most countries’ civil services.

The British Army hires qualified solicitors, barristers and Scottish Advocates at officer level into its Legal Services Branch. Specialist legal training in international law is provided and overseas postings are available within 1-2 years after training has been completed.  The work covers general advisory, prosecution and operational law. The Royal Air Force also hires qualified solicitors and barristers as Legal Officers.

Private Sector

The private sector is a major source of opportunity for international legal practice. The areas of law practised within law firms, barristers’ chambers and in-house corporations generally fall into private international law and its associated transactions. With the increasing globalisation of businesses and the need to be able to offer a client service to match, many of the top law firms have opened offices across the globe or have merged with other overseas firms. This is creating opportunities for both trainees and established lawyers to work in a variety of international settings on diverse legal problems. Brussels is an excellent location for the practice of EU law and is a key centre for law firms, appealing to both those who want to work in a traditional law firm and those who wish to work in EU law from different angles.

Increasingly, issues associated with public international law are encountered in private international transactions on areas such as sovereignty, immigration, trade, laws of the sea, etc. While there are few law firms in the UK that work purely in international public law, there are some who are developing this as a practice area. However, students are advised to contrast this type of work environment with similar areas of practice which are worked through NGOs, international organisations and so on. To find firms and chambers with strong reputations in public international law cases use directories such as Chambers and Partners. International law arguments are also often being raised before domestic courts, e.g. international adoption, human rights, etc. In addition, barristers may have the opportunity to act in regional courts such as the ECHR or international courts such as the ICJ.


This is another growing area of opportunities. You could work exclusively within academia or combine research and teaching with practice (solicitor or barrister) and or other field-based roles.  Opportunities can be found on and there are also some, but less frequent, research opportunities in relevant institutes such as the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, The Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa, The Council on Foreign Relations and Freedom House in the USA. For details of further research and fellowship opportunities for students and professionals take a look at the American Society for International Law.


  • Flexibility to work in different settings (with fewer facilities), organisations and locations (with perhaps more spartan conditions)
  • Ability to work in a multicultural, multinational environment
  • Language Skills – French and English are widely used and are the working languages of the UN Secretariat.  Additional languages will be beneficial.
  • Excellent legal skills e.g. drafting, research, advocacy.


Statuette of justice
Before entering this part of the legal profession it is advisable to consider what your legal and other interests are, what type of work you might enjoy most and what type of environment would suit you best. There is no single career pathway that suits everyone, so be prepared to investigate the best route for you. Read up on the subject, talk to international law academics and practitioners, and build up some experience.  The Oxford Law Faculty runs regular seminars on topics related to public international law which all students of the University are welcome to attend.

Entry is usually via an internship, a young professional scheme or through professional (or other) experience built up in the domestic practice of relevant areas.

Starting a career in public international law will usually require the following: qualification as a lawyer in a legal jurisdiction; relevant language skills; international work experience, e.g. a traineeship with one of the EU institutions or an overseas seat as part of a training contract; an LLM in a relevant subject.

A career in private international law will usually require: qualification as a lawyer in a legal jurisdiction and work with an international legal dimension; relevant language skills.


The following should illustrate the types of internship and work experience opportunities that are available – many of them are unpaid. Some are available only to graduates; please check individual sites for details.  Remember that an internship is not the only way to demonstrate commitment to the public international law field. Volunteering in a local domestic organisation in Oxford or in your own locality (especially for those interested in human rights) can prove just as effective. Not included here are the vacation schemes or mini pupillages available in UK law firms and chambers – please see the relevant Solicitor and Barrister Career Briefings for how to access these.


  • The Oxford Pro Bono Publico Internship programme – 5-10 x £500 awards for graduates seeking non paid or poorly paid internships in public sector organisations You can see a list of internship ideas and read about where previous interns have worked . Applications are usually made in Hilary term.
  • The Arthur C Helton Fellowship programme. Through this programme the American Society of International Law provides financial assistance to approximately 10 law students and young professionals per year to pursue fieldwork and research on significant issues involving international law, human rights, humanitarian affairs and related areas.  Applicants can be of any nationality but you must be a current law student or have graduated from law school (UG or PG) no earlier than December 2009. This is an annual award so as a guide applications for those wishing to undertake work experience between April-September 2013 were opened on 15/10/2012 and closed on 7/1/2013 – ONLY THE FIRST 50 COMPLETED APPLICATIONS ARE CONSIDERED
  • The Human Rights Lawyers Association offers bursaries to help people through unpaid volunteering roles and internships.  For the 2012-13 academic year the deadline for applications was7th May 2013 and there are usually 10 awards made from a fund of £10,000.
  • Check with your college as you may be able to apply for travel grants or other financial aid for work experience.  If you have joined an Inn of Court, you may also be able to approach them for funding. Some Inns provide additional awards for the pupillage year.
  • The Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law (ANZSIL) provide financial support for people undertaking unpaid internships in international organisations or NGOs. You must be an Australian or New Zealand citizen or permanent resident. The closing dates for 2013 are 19/4/13 and 18/10/13.
  • Check with the Embassies, High Commissions and businesses in the regions that you are going to for further possible sources.
  • Consider entering essay competitions – although there are relatively few, prize money can be substantial! The Times Law Award (essay competition) is open to all students registered with a UK educational institution, deadline is usually the end of November and first prize is c.£3500.  The Bar Council Law Reform Essay Competition is open to pupils, law degree students, GDL and BPTC students in England and Wales and first prize is £4,000. The Law Society’s Graham Turnbill Memorial International Human Rights Essay competition is open to law students, trainee solicitors, etc and first prize is £500. The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society will launch in 2011 a 2000 word essay competition for students and trainees.
  • The Inns of Court provide funding for their barristers to undertake internships during or just after the pupillage year. See the Inns’ websites for more details.
  • Hauser Scholars Programme provides funding for 10-14 students to undertake legal masters courses (and also 2 research scholars) at New York University School of Law.

Our briefings on Funding Postgraduate Study in the UK and Funding Postgraduate Study in the USA will also be useful in searching for funding opportunities for further study.


Butterflies with international flags on
Pursuing an international legal career will require some creativity and determination with most likely one or more unpaid or poorly paid internships. Success is likely to come through a mix of appropriate academic qualifications, professional qualifications, work experience and network building.   The steps you need to take should be carefully researched as they may vary considerably depending on your current position and desired outcomes. To help with this, you can read the profiles of Oxford Law Faculty members (listed on the University Law Faculty website) who work in your areas of interest. Many of the academics have held a variety of other legal roles and many are professionally qualified.  You can also read further profiles of international lawyers on sites such as the American Society for International Law.  The following elements are considered to be some of the key building blocks for pursuing an international legal career:

  • A good law degree (i.e. LLB or GDL.)
  •  For those pursuing the GDL route, course providers should be researched carefully to check the possibility of undertaking international law options in addition to the seven compulsory foundation subjects. If you are without an undergraduate law degree you might need to take a masters degree in international law in addition to the GDL.
  • Law students at Oxford should consider taking the public international law option or other related topics such as European Human Rights Law or International Trade, and/or a comparative law option – a good understanding of civil law systems, even at a relatively basic level, may prove useful.
  • A professional legal qualification – this will be essential if you wish to begin your career by becoming a practising barrister or solicitor in your home jurisdiction.  There will be many people, perhaps working in policy or advisory roles or in academia, who do not hold a professional qualification but who have made a successful career in international law. Even if this is not a requirement for your future job, having a professional legal qualification may enhance your credibility in the international legal jobs market; give you an opportunity to build up strong legal skills and perhaps particular legal expertise which can be transferred to an appropriate international opportunity at a later date (or while you are looking for the right opportunity) and also provide a “fall back” option for future years.
  • For the more specialised legal areas not usually covered in undergraduate legal study, Masters courses may be an important addition for securing roles.  Having some work experience prior to your Masters course may significantly enhance your learning experience.
  • Build your network of contacts and your knowledge of topical issues through joining student associations and clubs with an international law focus such as ELSA or Young Legal Aid Lawyers and taking part in mooting events.  Not all jobs in this sector will be advertised, so talking with your tutors and practitioners can help you to find out about both full time and internship positions. As your career develops the ability to network successfully will be hugely important.
  • Build your work experience through internships, volunteering and work shadowing.  In our “how to get experience” is a list of the sorts of opportunities that can be found in this area, but there will be many others.  It is likely that a good number of them will be unpaid or poorly paid positions, so see our funding section for ideas on how to raise funds. It is also possible to make speculative approaches for work experience – decide which geographical area you would like to work in and the sort of work you are keen on and then contact the relevant organisations that operate there.
  • For academic careers in international law a PhD/DPhil will most likely be needed.
  • Short courses are available in related areas e.g. Human Rights Law Summer School in Oxford and  Summer Courses in Public and Private International Law at the Hague Academy of International Law.


There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

Your personal circumstances regarding career choices, and whether you should or need to tell a potential employer about your circumstances (e.g. time out from studies owing to depression or health needs) is very personal. Although there is legislation which informs you of your rights and responsibilities, you may find it helpful to see a Careers Adviser. They can help you talk through your particular circumstances, to decide whether you wish to tell someone about your situation and issues, and – if you do decide to inform a recruiter – at what stage in the application process you might do so. Careers Advisers can also help you decide how to present your situation and potential needs effectively (often termed as disclosure). We have Careers Advisers who specialise in matters relating to disability and diversity. To arrange a discussion about your personal circumstances with a Careers Adviser, please contact our Reception Team on or telephone 01865 274646.

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.


The broad advice given in this briefing applies to postgraduate students (and research staff) as well as to undergraduates. Even if job adverts do not ask for a postgraduate qualification, many graduate employers are keen to employ people who have postgraduate qualifications, whether at Master’s or DPhil level, and see them as often offering enhanced maturity and a broad set of transferable skills. Whatever your particular circumstances or career aspirations, the careers advisers here are well equipped to discuss resources relevant to your needs, how best to find jobs and how to market yourself effectively.


Frequent changes to visa rules affect international students and recent graduates wishing to work in the UK.  Now, non-EEA graduates are most likely to gain permission to work by being sponsored by an employer under Tier 2 of the Point Based System.  DPhil students nearing completion could apply for the Tier 4 Doctorate Extension Scheme – allowing 12 months to remain in the UK to look for and start work or self-employment.  For those with entrepreneurial skills and a credible business idea endorsed by Oxford, Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) allows you an initial one-year’s permission to get your business up and running, with the possibility of extending for a further year.  There are more limited opportunities in other visa categories. For the most complete and up-to-date information, check Oxford University’s webpages or the UK Council for International Student Affairs’ website. You can also email the Oxford’s Student Information and Advisory Service on for specialist visa help.



The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • EU Competition Law, Ariel Ezrachi
  • Careers in International Law, ed. Salli. A. Swartz
  • A Guide to International Law Careers, Anneke Smit & Christopher Waters
  • International Law, Vaughan Lowe
  • EU Law, Ewan Kirk


You can get a free copy of the following publications in our Resource Centre:

  • Pupillages Handbook
  • Targetjobs Courses, Conversion & Vocational Law, published by GTI
  • Chambers and Partners, student edition 
  • Targetjobs Law
  • Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook
  • Chambers and Partners Student Guide


The Careers Service has recorded a series of podcasts on various topics.

Online Resources


  • Lexadin – A worldwide law guide with links to law firms, articles of legislation, law schools, court cases, legal articles and legal organisations
  • Hieros Gamos – An American site which has a database of law firms in the United States and 170 other countries.  It includes links to law and government resources of 230 countries covering areas of practice as diverse as human rights to cyberspace law.  The site also links to legal associations and bar associations world-wide as well as the UN and world organisations
  • International Legal Resources Guide – Established in 1995 to serve as a comprehensive internet resource in law and the legal profession.  Emphasis on the USA.
  • Waterlow’s Solicitors and Barristers Directory – A directory of international law firms, often with bases in England
  • Chambers and Partners – a client directory for UK, USA, Asia, Europe and Latin America
  • The Legal 500 International Directories




Please also see the sites mentioned in the work experience list of this briefing and details of pupillages and training contracts in the Law Society’s “Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook”. Free copies of this are available at the Law Fair and in the Careers Service.



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