International laws - as enshrined in customs, charters and treaties - act to regulate the ways in which different nation states interact with one another. Accordingly, international law experts work with their clients - who may range from nation states and non-government organisations to businesses and individuals - to draft, apply, and, where possible, enforce international agreements.
Broadly speaking, you may find yourself working with one of three branches of international law: public international law, which concerns the treaty obligations between different nations and individuals; private international law, which involves determining which jurisdiction's laws are to apply in transnational cases; and supranational law, which encompasses the functioning of bodies with international jurisdiction, such as the European Court of Justice, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Represented within these three branches are internationalised versions of many specialities with which you’ll already be familiar, such as banking and finance law, environment law, and intellectual property law.
International law has a reputation for attracting graduates who possess a humanitarian streak or a strong sense of global citizenship. Indeed, there are opportunities for international lawyers to apply their skills in a way that directly improves the world around them. This could involve drafting internationally binding human rights agreements, prosecuting crimes against humanity, defending our global environmental heritage, or advocating for the interests of underrepresented minorities. In this sense, it can be an immensely rewarding profession that, naturally, includes innumerable opportunities for travel abroad, especially to locations of particular significance to international law, such as The Hague (home to the ICC) and New York City (home to the headquarters of the United Nations).
While there are limited ways to enter directly into an international law career - for example, by pursuing graduate positions with DFAT, the ICC, or the Australian Human Rights Commission - many aspiring international law practitioners first complete postgraduate degrees or relevant internships. Work experience with international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) is also a common option. Studying or working abroad is highly favoured, as is a strong command of two or more languages. In later pursuing opportunities to practice international law, they lean strongly on their credentials and experience.
One shouldn’t overlook the challenges inherent in practicing international law. To begin with, it’s a very competitive speciality that attracts a disproportionate number of highly qualified graduates. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has been Australia’s most popular public service employer among graduates for several consecutive years.
Once hired, graduates must contend with the limitations of international law when it comes to enforcement. Because most international law is consent-based - that is, it relies on the willing participation of both plaintiff and defendant, or of all parties to a treaty - lawyers may sometimes feel that their efforts are ineffectual. The question of how to develop and apply effective international laws is an area of open debate - and while the infant nature of this speciality will attract some graduates, others may find it frustrating or demoralising.
Broadly speaking, it would seem that international law fares reasonably well during recessions. Following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, for example, many nation states agreed on the need for more rigorous regulation of international transactions. This created the need for international lawyers with financial and legal acumen. Having said that, it’s also true that recessions can result in some nation states reducing their investment in international activities, while, domestically, causing law firms and public agencies to lay off staff, freeze their recruitment programs, and negotiate reduced salaries.
Despite this, there are many opportunities for determined graduates who enter international law. Your own career prospects will depend largely on the particular subsection of international law to which you dedicate yourself, be it international banking law or international environmental law. Some lawyers ultimately move into non-for-profit organizations or advocacy groups, where they can use their skills to prmote the development and enforcement of international law.