Subject Overview

International Law & International Economic Law Subject Overview


In a globalized world, lawyers need to be trained in more than domestic law. Increasingly U.S. lawyers practice in fields where they may have foreign clients, deal with foreign parties or foreign governments as well as with foreign and international laws and regulations through transactional work, and litigate or arbitrate with foreign parties or on issues that concern foreign and international law.

In response to this reality, U.S. law schools have greatly expanded their curricula in the two fields in this area—International Law and International Economic Law. The different courses are offered to capture the fact that lawyers in these related fields largely practice in different settings and for different clients.

It is not unusual for law students interested in the globalized world to be unsure about exactly what an “international lawyer” does. For that reason, this subject overview covers both international law and international economic law and offers both an explanation of each field and a description of the types of careers available in that field. Accompanying this subject overview, you will find two separate pathways: one for public international law and one for international economic law.

Most lawyers focus their practice in either public international law or international economic law. However, it is common for lawyers practicing in one to follow the development of the law in the other field and to engage in work through international organizations and associations, the international sections of U.S. bar associations, or through pro bono projects that involve the other field.

Students with a strong interest in international relations should take courses in both fields. Students seeking an introduction to either field would benefit most from the core courses listed in the accompanying pathways.

Students who hope to pursue a career in public international law or international economic law should consider looking for internships that would place them inside a government department, international organization, or non-governmental organization (NGO) of interest as a way to further their chances of gaining full-time work later.

Students seeking to pursue careers in international law or international economic law should also consider pursuing an LL.M. in their field of interest. It is fairly typical for those practicing in both fields to have LL.M. degrees.

What is International Law?

“International Law” embraces what has traditionally been called public international law. This field of law has expanded rapidly in the modern era (1945 to the present) and involves the states of the world, individuals, international organizations, and NGOs that focus on international issues.

States make international law by negotiating, ratifying, and implementing treaties; developing customary approaches to legal issues; and engaging in international arbitrations and appearing before international courts and tribunals. Individuals are now recognized as having specified human rights under international law and also duties to comply with international law. International organizations have created the institutional structure for negotiating and maintaining international treaty regimes thereby making them effective.

NGOs work to raise the profile of the international issue of concern to each organization and in doing so constantly engage both with states and international organizations. International law has developed in every area of interest to states and individuals, including, but not limited to, human rights, the conduct of war, national security, criminal law, environmental law, labor law, family law, the law of the sea and outer space, and cultural heritage.

Taking the introductory course in International Law exposes students to the players in the international system and the sources of international law, which include treaties, customary international law, jus cogens, and general principles and equity. Students are also exposed to how international law is received into domestic law and practiced by states, international tribunals, and organizations. The International Law course provides the foundation for every other course in the field of public international law.

Lawyers practice international law in these and many other areas usually by working for governments, international and inter-governmental organizations, international courts and tribunals, and NGOs with a special focus, such as human rights or environmental law.

International Law Careers

Working for the U.S. Government

As a major developed country, the United States is engaged in every aspect of creating and implementing international law. A large number of federal departments and agencies focus on public international law. The State Department is charged with most aspects of foreign relations and with negotiating and implementing treaties, appearing before most international courts, tribunals, and arbitral tribunals.

In addition, virtually every cabinet level department in the federal government, such as the Department of Justice, Department of Commerce, Treasury Department, Department of Defense, and Department of Agriculture, has an office of international affairs and thus works on the oversight and enforcement of an international treaty, rule, or standard, or litigates or arbitrates on international law issues.

Congress shares many aspects of international law making with the Executive Branch. Consequently, lawyers with international expertise are hired to work on House and Senate committees with international law oversight—such committees include House Ways and Means, and Senate Foreign Affairs—and on the staffs of members of Congress.

Another area of employment for those interested in international law is with the branches of the military. Lawyers in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) of each branch have as their areas of expertise various aspects of international law, particularly the law of war, international humanitarian law, and all aspects of national security law.

The type of work an attorney would do for these government employers would be to advise the relevant government department, government committee, or military branch about the applicable international law; oversee the implementation of government programs; undertake enforcement actions; and engage in litigation or arbitration required under relevant U.S. statutes implementing international obligations.

Through STCL Houston’s Government Process Clinic/Academic Internship, students can seek to arrange an internship at one of the government agencies that focus on public international law. Through the law school’s Criminal Process Clinic/Academic Internship, students can seek to arrange an internship at a federal prosecutor’s office that pursues international criminal law cases.

Working for International Organizations

A great deal of the creation and implementation of international law is done by and through the work of international organizations. The largest of these organizations is the United Nations, which serves its member states through the work of not only its Security Council and the General Assembly but also through more than twenty UN agencies covering all of the areas that require international cooperation, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The United Nations maintains its own career website which helps a lawyer determine both how to enter this area and what a career path looks like. It is possible to find an international organization or an inter-governmental organization devoted to virtually every field of human activity, such as human rights, maritime law and law of the sea, international humanitarian law, energy, arms control, economic development, and fostering the rule of law and democracy.

Some of the types of work done for these organizations would include working on acts, rules, and regulations for the negotiating and rule making bodies; serving as a legal advisor to the organization; working for one of the international tribunals or courts established and maintained by international organizations; and providing assistance to an international organization’s executive body or dispute settlement system.

Through the law school’s International Process Clinic/Academic Internship, students can seek to arrange an internship with an international criminal tribunal or other international organization.

Working for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Lawyers working for NGOs are typically drawn to this career path by a commitment to the subject matter pursued by the organization. NGOs focusing on international law are generally structured in two ways: as international NGOs or as NGOs devoted to work in specific countries.

In the first category are large, established organizations that are based in developed countries but have offices or national chapters all over the world. Examples of such NGOs include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Greenpeace International. The second category of NGOs serves a particular region or country and operates out of that country.

Given the difference in both focus and resources, NGOs differ widely in the types of jobs that are available. Information about careers and the types of work available in the larger international NGOs can be found on their websites or those of their national chapters. In the case of local NGOs, lawyers usually have a connection to the country and must become entrepreneurs to seek out funding through grant programs in order to work for a local NGO.

What is International Economic Law?

“International Economic Law” is the term for what used to be called “private international law.” The focus in this area has always been on how individuals and firms have conducted business internationally—by trading goods and services and investing in other countries.

The actors in this field, however, are not just individuals and firms. In the reconstruction of the world economy after World War II and in the subsequent decades, states created and now maintain international organizations that focus on developing the law governing international trade (World Trade Organization), international finance (International Monetary Fund), and development (World Bank and regional development banks).

In order to facilitate trade, states have put in place international treaties dealing with the transport of goods by air and sea, international contracts for the sale of goods, the international protection of intellectual property rights, and many other agreements covering other aspects of international business. Industry groups and associations such as the International Chamber of Commerce have created soft law—voluntary rules and standards for companies—that is indispensable for transacting international deals.

In recent decades, states have strengthened the ability of firms to conduct business by negotiating hundreds of treaties aimed at creating investment rights and protections. States have also increased economic development by granting each other preferential market access for trade in goods and services through the creation of hundreds of bilateral and regional free trade agreements (like NAFTA) and customs unions (like the European Union).

The resulting growth of trade and business coming from these efforts by states also spurred the need for dispute resolution mechanisms that would be acceptable to both sides in a transnational deal. States facilitated this by concluding treaties to aid in transactional litigation and arbitration.

Taking the introductory course in this field—International Business Transactions—allows students to learn about all of the major aspects of international economic law. The course covers the law of international trade at the multilateral, regional, and national levels; the different types of transactions companies engage in, such as the sale and distribution of goods, international licensing of intellectual property, international investment, and international construction contracts; and a wide variety of treaties and soft law instruments that facilitate international trade and transactions.

A student hoping to pursue a career in international economic law should begin here and then take advanced and more specialized courses in international trade and transactions. The later courses in the International Economic Law Pathway offer the opportunity to gain exposure to not only the law but also to the drafting work that would be needed for international business deals.

International Economic Law Careers

Working for Law Firms and In-House for Corporations

Most lawyers working in the field of international economic law work for law firms or for corporations in their legal departments. The work they perform differs not as much with regard to type as with regard to the client. Law firms working in this area work for a wide variety of business clients. By contrast, in-house counsel focuses on the legal work needed by a corporation engaged in a particular industry, such as intellectual property, high technology, energy, or commodities.

Lawyers working for law firms and corporations typically practice in three capacities. First, lawyers may engage in transactional work, which involves negotiating and drafting the necessary documents for the deal, and securing the financing for the deal. Second, lawyers may do regulatory work, where they advise clients about—and guide them through—the domestic and international regulations and proceedings regarding areas such as trade law, customs, export controls, economic sanctions, intellectual property, international taxation, investment law, and anti-corruption laws. Lawyers’ third capacity is international litigation and arbitration when disputes do arise.

Law firms and corporations hire entry-level attorneys to work in each of these practice areas. In large U.S. cities with a diverse industrial base or a port, one will typically find a cadre of attorneys practicing a mix of transactional, regulatory, and dispute resolution work in international economic law. The center for international trade-related regulatory work is Washington, D.C. The litigation work connected to international trade and customs is in New York and in Washington.

Attorneys licensed in the United States can work for firms and corporations abroad as long as they limit their work to advising on international law or U.S. law. Since any of these jobs tend to be highly competitive, it is important for students to focus on taking courses that reveal to prospective employers an interest in international topics and competence in the skills employed by transactional, regulatory, and dispute resolution lawyers.

Students hoping to work for these employers in certain industries should consider courses on the International Economic Law Pathway as well as coursework relevant to practice in that particular industry. Examples of practice area and industry specializations include intellectual property and energy law—both has its own subject overview and pathway.

Those students interested in focusing on international transactional work would benefit greatly from pursuing the Transactional Practice Certificate. This program provides students with the chance to gain knowledge of business and corporate law while also training them in negotiation and drafting skills, including the chance to focus on the drafting that would be done for a series of international transactions.

Students who have a stronger interest in pursuing a career as a litigator or arbitration counsel (or ultimately as an arbitrator) should review the Civil Litigation & ADR Pathway to supplement the coursework listed on the accompanying International Economic Law Pathway.

Working for Industry/Trade Associations

Almost every major industry or trade association in the United States hires attorneys who focus on international trade-related issues. The private sector associations have a stake in representing their industry before Congress and government agencies. These associations push for international agreements—along with U.S. statutes and regulations flowing from these agreements—that will aid their industries.

These associations hire lawyers to advise them on relevant international economic law and proposed international agreements so that the association can effectively carry out its advocacy and lobbying functions. Most of these associations are located in Washington, D.C. Lawyers hoping to work for certain industries are attracted to these attorney/advisor positions because they can serve as a bridge to employment with government agencies that address international economic law matters.

Working for the U.S. Government

The United States has a large number of departments and agencies that focus on various aspects of international economic law. All of these agencies either negotiate or implement international trade-related agreements. All of them are located in Washington, D.C.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is in charge of all U.S. trade negotiations at the multilateral, regional, and bilateral level.

The Department of Commerce has two relevant divisions, the Bureau of Industry & Security and the International Trade Administration, which cover export controls and import relief laws respectively. These two agencies hire entry-level attorneys. By obtaining a job within one of these divisions, a young lawyer can gain substantive knowledge of the regulatory work done by that agency. Such positions also further an attorney’s ability to secure future employment at a law firm or a corporation.

Other government departments—the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Agriculture—play a role in developing and overseeing aspects of trade policy (or resolving disputes within this space). Aspects of trade policy covered within these federal agencies include customs, export controls, foreign direct investment, economic sanctions, and food trade and aid.

In addition, there are many other agencies that play a key role in pursuing U.S. obligations and interests in international economic law, such as the International Trade Commission and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Lawyers working for governmental agencies provide legal advice to the agency, oversee licensing or enforcement actions, and draft regulations and procedures that implement U.S. obligations under international economic law.

Through STCL Houston’s Government Process Clinic/Academic Internship, students can seek to arrange an internship at one of the government agencies that focus on various aspects of international economic law.

Working for International Organizations

There are many international organizations that focus solely on international economic law. The largest of these that focus on international trade is the WTO—located in Geneva, Switzerland. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—both located in Washington, D.C.—focus on international financial issues and economic development, respectively.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris plays a crucial role in negotiating and overseeing implementation of international agreements and soft law of interest to developed countries. The UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva plays a comparable role regarding developing countries. Other international organizations, like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London, develop international law connected to key aspects of international trade.

These organizations tend to hire attorneys who have already gained specialized knowledge and who have practiced in the areas of international economic law that they cover.

Working for International Economic Law NGOs

There are NGOs that play a crucial role in the formation of international economic law. These non-governmental organizations usually have a particular focus, such as anti-corruption (Transparency International in Berlin and national chapters worldwide), the linkage between the environment and trade as well as trade regionalism (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Geneva), and legal assistance to developing countries for WTO disputes (Advisory Centre on WTO Law, Geneva). Most of these NGOs are headquartered abroad. These NGOs, like international organizations, tend to hire attorneys who have already been employed in the fields that they cover.