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Careers in International Law

Assembly, including its Sixth (Legal) Committee, on legal and international justice matters. It’s a great gig.

What do you consider international law? What do you consider the practice of international law?

The classical position is that international law comprises the rules governing relations between states. Of course, that position has shifted, mostly as a result of globalization and increased interaction between states. We are witnessing changes in international actors, as international organizations, non-state actors and even individ- uals have increasing influence as subjects and creators of international law. And international law now addresses a wider range of human ac- tivity and penetrates into matters that were his- torically considered the exclusive purview of the state. These developments have created new opportunities for the practice of international law, whether that involves litigation, transactional work or other contexts in which it is necessary to advise on the formation, interpretation, appli- cation, violation or enforcement of international law. Beyond the traditional international actors, such as states and international organizations, non-governmental organizations, private entities and corporations increasingly find themselves in need of international law advice. The number of international courts and tribunals has also grown, and domestic courts and institutions, including legislatures, are increasingly determining and de- bating matters of international law. This is fertile ground for lawyers.

What role did international law play in your work as a private practitioner? Has this changed in your cur- rent role?

When I was in private practice, the cases I worked on were determined by law firm partners, based on the demands of their clients. International le- gal issues came up regularly, but not as often as

I wanted. And – apart from pro bono work – the international legal issues were often tangential or confined to a commercial context.

Moving to the public sector, particularly the for- eign service, was a radical change. I was work- ing at the center of international relations and was routinely asked for advice on issues at the heart of UK interests and activities abroad, from developing policy to curb the illicit trade in con- ventional weapons to the provision of consular assistance in times of crisis. My colleagues and ‘policy clients’ were as committed, collaborative and clever as those in private practice, although the resources available to us were not nearly as good. The work was much more interesting and every day was more rewarding, except pay-day.

Working in international law seems to be very much a “learn as you go” experience, where you constant- ly have to adapt to unexpected issues and learn new areas of law. What types of prior experience can make someone (relatively) more prepared for such a role?

I agree with the premise. Forty years ago it may have been possible to be familiar with the en- tire field of public international law. That’s not re- ally possible today. International lawyers tend to specialize in a few areas, or even one area, such as international trade law, international criminal law, or international environmental law. In the FCO, we try to retain a generalist approach, but it is getting harder and harder. In my view, the best way to deal with the demand to advise on increasingly specialized areas of the law is to develop and retain knowledge of the funda- mentals of international law. Having a good un- derstanding of the international legal framework helps us to keep our bearings as we navigate new specialisms. Of course, one of the enjoy- able things about practicing international law is that as soon as you get familiar with one field something throws you into unfamiliar territory.

ILSA Quarterly » volume 22 » issue 4 » May 2014


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