International Law

We take as a principle that ‘international law’ refers to either public or private international law as areas of practice; this briefing does not cover being a qualified lawyer overseas.

Public international law

Traditionally, Public international law deals with the law governing relations between nations. With the rise of human rights acts, it now also concerns how states treat their own citizens.  It includes:

  • International Human Rights Law
  • International Environmental Law
  • International Trade Law
  • International Boundary Disputes
  • Law of the Sea
  • International Criminal Law
  • Law of Armed Conflicts

Employers include:

  • National governments (e.g. the Government Legal Service)
  • Intergovernmental organisations (e.g. United Nations, European Union, Council of Europe)
  • International Criminal Tribunals and Courts
  • NGOs (e.g. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, JUSTICE, Friends of the Earth)
  • Private law firms with a public international law practice area. A good list can be found at Chambers’ top ranked firms
  • Armed Services
  • Academia

Private international law / International business law

Traditionally, this deals with the legal issues which arise in cross-border transactions between individuals, corporations and organisations (sometimes this is referred to as ‘conflict of laws’).  This area includes:

  • Taxation, Financial Securities and Banking Law
  • Business Arbitration, Trade Transactions, Corporate Governance and Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A)
  • Intellectual Property and Competition Law
  • International Arbitration

To find potential employers, search for firms with relevant practice areas (e.g. ‘M&A’ or ‘International Arbitration’) on the Chambers & Partners website.

Public / Private divide?

In an increasingly globalised world, the division between public and private international law is becoming blurred.  Top corporate law firms describe their public international law practices as serving the relationship between nation states and private corporations (for example in investor-state dispute or advisory work). Lawyers increasingly take their skills with them as they move between public and private areas of work, with many training in the private sector at the start of their career.

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Academia

Researching, publishing and teaching, having studied higher degrees (usually a doctorate) in an international law specialism.

Lawyer

A practising solicitor/barrister (other titles exist outside the jurisdiction of England and Wales eg Attorney ) working in relevant practice areas to international law.

Paralegal / Legal assistant

Supporting lawyers in their work, such as drafting documents and collecting, analysing and summarising information. Could go on to study as a Chartered Legal Executive to become a ‘fee earner’, or pursue qualification as solicitor/barrister.

Project officer / assistant

Working within an organisation with a link with international law, often an NGO or intergovernmental body. Providing administrative, project management or field work support to a project which relates to the field, not working in a legal capacity. Projects could range from awareness campaigns to research work, to direct support for beneficiaries (e.g. refugees).

Support roles

Every organisation, whatever their cause or values, has a range of support roles, which keeps everything working smoothly: from finance, to marketing, to HR, to IT, to senior management.  Direct-entry roles exist within most organisations to support these departments.

Caseworker

Providing similar support roles to a legal assistant in some cases, but usually also face-to-face advice for clients (e.g. prisoners, immigrants and asylum seekers).

Policy advisor / analyst

Working in an organisation with a remit for advocacy – seeking to question, analyse and propose solutions to policy and political agendas.

There is no one route in to a career in international law, and it’s worth remembering that there are roles for those who are not qualified lawyers too, particularly in supporting functions within the same employer, which can be more instantly attainable.

Requirements for entry

To work as a public international lawyer you will usually need:

  1. Qualification as a lawyer in a legal jurisdiction
  2. Relevant language skills
  3. Relevant international experience (e.g. an overseas seat as part of a training contract, YPP programme, a traineeship with an intergovernmental body and possibly more experience too.)

A Masters-level law degree (e.g. LLM, BCL or MJur) in a relevant area can be helpful, particularly for academic or EU roles, but this can be substituted for by relevant professional experience for those that move later into these areas.

To work as a private international lawyer you will usually need:

  1. Qualification as a lawyer in a legal jurisdiction
  2. Relevant experience with an international practice area (e.g. relevant seats during your training contract)
  3. Relevant language skills, if required

 

Qualifying as a lawyer

Full details are available within our advice for Solicitor or Barrister routes, but it’s worth pursuing international law options where you can: if you’re taking a law undergraduate degree at Oxford, the final year option of public international law, or other related topics such as International Trade, Human Rights Law, EU Law would be advised. If you don’t have a legal undergraduate degree, research your postgraduate (GDL) course providers to see which allow you to take international law options in addition to the core subjects. If you don’t have an undergraduate degree, a masters degree in law is likely to be particularly beneficial when competing against those educated in lengthier legal training.

If you have already studied or are studying a law degree/ GDL your LPC (solicitors) or Bar Course (barristers) is the next step in your training, followed by a training contract (solicitors) or pupillage (barristers). This vocational stage of qualifying is unlikely to be as highly specialised around your interests, as very few chambers take on only human rights cases, and you will be required to work in different practice areas for your training contract.  However, both Pupillages and Training Contracts provide a solid base in legal knowledge and skills and will leave you with a professional qualification which might be extremely useful for you to deploy whilst you are looking for international law roles more suited to your interests, post qualification. However, it also means that an interest in the law itself, not just the cause, is essential. Gaining a broad understanding of the law in different contexts eg private practice firms and government departments can also be very helpful in giving you a very solid understanding of legal knowledge and concepts.   Remember, if working on other areas of law isn’t something that will motivate you, it might be worth considering working in the field, but not as a lawyer (look for vacancies in project support, communications, policy, and research to explore other ideas).

Changes to Qualification as a Solicitor: the Solicitors Qualifying Exams (SQE 1 & 2)

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in the process of  introducing a new system for qualification as a solicitor and this will ultimately replace the current route (of Qualifying Law Degree/GDL + LPC + Training Contract). The new route is beginning to be phased in from September 2021. Fo all those who have already started their law journey ( ie started a law degree, LPC or training contract) there is the opportunity to remain within the existing system to qualify - so long as the relevant courses still exist.  For anyone who is at the very early stages and who has  accepted an offer of a place or paid a non-refundable deposit for a Qualifying Law Degree by 21 September 2021 (inclusive) can also continue in the old system so long again as long as the courses still exist.     

From Sept 1st 2021 (unless you fall into one of the transitioning cohorts), to qualify as solicitor you will need:

  1. A degree (or equivalent)
  2. To have passed SQE 1 (legal knowledge & application of it) and SQE 2 (practical legal tasks)
  3. To have completed 24 months of legal work experience
  4. To be of satisfactory suitability and  character

Please see the Solicitors briefing and the SRA for full details.

LLM or equivalent

A LLM degree (or equivalent legal Masters-level course) is sometimes sought for public international law roles. However, it’s worth remembering that those who wish to work as lawyers will usually pursue their initial legal qualification and work to develop excellence in their professional work first, and then might choose to return for LLM study later in their career. This allows more time to develop as a professional and gain experiences which will enhance your learning, and crystallise professional interests which could inform the choice of masters course itself.   If you choose to take an LLM, it’s worth researching funding options and scholarships available, for example the Hauser Scholars Programme provides funding for 10 students to undertake legal masters courses at New York University School of Law.

Skills needed

Skills will vary depending on the exact job, but common attributes which are sought in job postings include:

  • Demonstrable interest in law as applied/relevant to other jurisdictions
  • Strong legal professional skills, such as research, drafting, advocacy
  • Flexibility and adaptability (either to work in a firm which also serves other practice areas, in a different role or to work in challenging environments)
  • Strong cultural awareness to function within a multi-national environment
  • An analytical mind and good judgement
  • Language skills are an asset, particularly for intergovernmental organisations who often require proficiency in their working languages, e.g. French and English for the UN

Getting experience

This section illustrates some potential sources of internships, work experience and volunteering. Vacation schemes and mini pupillages are also available in UK law firms and chambers, and these are not listed here.

  • Also see our related information for work experience advice for other sectors, e.g. Solicitors, Barristers, International Organisations, Charities and Government and Public Services.
  • Remember to save your search for work experience and internships on CareerConnect to receive email alerts.
  • The Bonavero Institute here in Oxford also offer 3 programmes:  The Summer Fellowship Programme (graduate students with a previous law degree from all faculties/departments and final year undergraduate law students), The Samuel Pisar Travelling Fellowship in Human Rights (Law Faculty only), and the OPBP Turpin and Millar Scheme. Deadlines for applications are usually at the end of February each year

Intergovernmental organisations

Professional associations

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

Academic & research institutions

Local voluntary work in Oxford

Funding for work experience 

Internships and summer jobs are governed in the UK by National Minimum Wage law, which means that if you are carrying out activities that class you as a “worker” by the employer, then you should be paid. Full details of Employment Rights and Pay for Interns are published by the government.

If you are undertaking a learning and development opportunity such as a micro-internship, or volunteering for a charity or statutory body, or shadowing or observing, then you may not be eligible for the National Minimum Wage. The organisation may reimburse you for your travel and/or lunch expenses, but they aren’t obliged to do so.

Opportunities which are offered outside the UK will be subject to domestic law and regulations which may differ from the UK.

Funding internships & study

  • The Arthur C Helton Fellowship programme.
  • The Human Rights Lawyers Association offers bursaries
  • 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.
  • Hauser Scholars Programme at NYU School of Law
  • Future Legal Mind Award
  • Commonwealth distance learning scholarship – for citizens from low/middle income Commonwealth countries
  • Check with the Embassies, High Commissions and businesses in the regions that you are going to for further possible sources.
  • 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.
  • Enter essay competitions (few competitions, but sizeable prize money)
    • The Times Law Award
    • Graham Turnbull Essay Competition
    • Bar Council Law Reform Essay Competition
    • Hogan/Smoger Access to Justice Essay Competition
    • Junior Lawyers’ Division Essay Competition (Law Society)
    • UKELA (UK Environmental Law Association) Andrew Lees Essay Prize
    • Marion Simmons QC Essay Competition
    • Commonwealth Law Student Essay Competition
  • Check with your college as you may be able to apply for travel grants or other financial aid for work experience.

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

There’s no ‘one way’ to work in international law, and so you might like to start by reading about the experiences of those who have already found employment within the field. Consider which profiles align most closely with your interests and ambitions, and what you could learn from their routes in:

Advertised roles

  • Check websites for the organisations mentioned throughout this overview regularly – their vacancies may be picked up by websites listed under ‘External Resources’, but many will only actively place opportunities on their own pages.
  • Sign up for email alerts from vacancy websites, including our own CareerConnect.
  • Be aware that some opportunities (such as the YPP at the United Nations) function as ‘competitions’ – different roles and different nationalities are welcomed each time the competition window opens, and those that are successful are placed on a list from which departments can offer employment. Most are employed within a year or so, but being successful in the competition is no guarantee of employment, and from application to contract is rarely a speedy process!

Unadvertised roles

  • Build your network of contacts and your knowledge of topical issues through joining student associations and clubs with an international law focus such as The European Law Students’ Association (ELSA) or Young Legal Aid Lawyers. Take part in mooting events. Not all jobs in this sector will be advertised, so speaking 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 very important.
  • It is also often 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.

Sector Information

  • Oxford Human Rights Hub – facilitates the exchange of ideas and resources through it’s website, blog, seminars and conference.
  • Human Rights Careers – information on different areas of work, how to gain relevant skills and has a jobs blog with current vacancies.

Directories of firms & organisations

The following directories promote firms, their lawyers and their specialist practice areas and are aimed at helping clients searching for specific firms and legal expertise. They can also be useful to give an additional perspective to your research of law firms/chambers.

  • Chambers and Partners – Research firms and rankings within preferred practice areas
  • Legal 500 – Research firms within preferred practice areas
  • HG: Practice Areas – A useful summary of key firms and other organisations around 260 practice areas

Sector vacancies

Please see the sites mentioned in the work experience list of this briefing and details of pupillages and training contracts in the “Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook” published by lawcareers.net.  
General legal job boards (such as Legal Week, The Lawyer, Law Society Gazette Jobs) do occasionally carry public international roles, but they’re rare. It’s more common to see roles listed directly on organisation websites. Use the organisations and associations mentioned here to find post-qualification and other supporting roles.

  • EuroBrussels – Covers vacancies in EU institutions and law firms operating in Brussels, as well as NGOs, political organisations and think tanks
  • EPSO – Competitions for permanent roles and recruitment for temporary posts within the EU
  • Government Legal Profession
  • W4MP – Work for an MP, a job site for those with an interest in the policy and government roles
  • Idealist – Global job site, particularly strong for NGO roles
  • Devex: Jobs and Devnet Jobs – search by keyword for law-related vacancies within the development field
  • Guardian: Jobs – Occasional vacancies for law/rights related work
  • Human Rights Careers
  • LinkedIn Jobs

Professional associations

Further Reading

You may find these books useful reading material
 

  • EU Competition Law, Ariel Ezrachi
  • Careers in International Law, ed. Salli A Swartz
  • Careers in International Law: A guide to Career Paths in International Law, D Wes Rist
  • A Guide to International Law Careers, Anneke Smit & Christopher Waters
  • International Law, Vaughan Lowe
  • EU Law, Ewan Kirk
  • EU Law 2013/2014 Q&As, Nigel Foster

Student Guides

The following guides and directories, which are written entirely with students in mind, offer extensive websites for all those looking to deepen their research on legal careers

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and Insight events and many are being recognized for their approach to being inclusive employers. To find out the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in, explore their equality, diversity and inclusion policy. Search their website to see if they have any specific staff networks, look out for external accreditation such as whether they are a Disability Confident employer, a Stonewall Diversity Champion or part of the Mindful Employer charter promoting mental health at work. Check to see if they are partnering with organisations such as Rare Recruitment, SEO London, MyPlus Students' Club (disability), EmployAbility (disability and neurodifference) and there are many more that are working for specific communities. A key place to look is to see what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability,  gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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