Broadly speaking, international law encompasses two bodies of law: conflicts of law (also known as private international law) and public international law. Together, these cover all legal issues that cross national borders.
Conflicts of law refer to questions of jurisdiction, such as which country’s substantive or procedural law take precedence in an international dispute, and in which court such disputes may be tried or mediated.
Public international law governs the relations between different nation states and regulates the operations of several international bodies. International law is primarily consent-based (i.e. individual nation states abide by it voluntarily) and can have global or regional applications.
International law covers many global issues, such as commerce and trade, environmental management, human rights, and conflict resolution.
With most international lawyers representing nation states, the clearest path towards a career in international law is through an involved government body, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Of course, the nature of international law is such that many careers will require you to travel abroad to cities like The Hague, Paris, Geneva, Brussels and New York. Fortunately, Australian lawyers have a strong presence in the international law community of each of these cities. However, their paths to success in this field are often circuitous, with many first completing relevant postgraduate degrees before proving their worth in supporting roles (such as relevant internships) or the corporate sector.
Finally, you can choose to pursue roles in private firms that provide representation and counsel to clients involved in international disputes. Some famous examples abroad include Doughty Street Chambers, Baker Mckenzie and Latham & Watkins.
International law practitioners work on a vast range of tasks, from brokering bilateral trade deals to prosecuting crimes against humanity.
Even lawyers who aren’t directly involved in international law may contribute by influencing public policy or participating in discussions of international legal issues (such as the treatment of refugees or the legality of various military initiatives). Practicing international law in Australia likely means spending some of your time in Canberra, which is home to numerous embassies, as well as the headquarters of agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
People who work in international law use their skills to address some of the most pressing issues of our time, from human rights violations and refugee policies to conflict resolution and sex trafficking. As a result, their work can be very meaningful, even when it’s high pressure.
On the other hand, there are rarely very many opportunities to work as an international lawyer, and, when these opportunities arise, they usually go to lawyers who have already gained extensive experience in international law or another practise area.
The international law sector includes lawyers who represent the government abroad, and are therefore considered to be public sector employees, as well as lawyers who specialise in international law but work within private firms. You can learn more about career progressions and salary expectations within those sectors by referring to the appropriate sections of this guide.