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  • August 16, 2017

    The Many Paths to Practicing
    International Law

    International law is a fascinating and fast-growing legal field. What does it take to get into this practice area? While an attorney can certainly plan to focus on international matters from day one, involvement in international matters can be varied and nuanced, and may simply arise out of clients’ needs.

    Matthew A. Koch

    In looking at career options, international law is one of the more fascinating and fastest growing legal fields.1 The complex issues, new opportunities, and potential for international travel often captivate new attorneys or attorneys looking for change or to grow their careers.

    International law can – but doesn’t necessarily – have a set progression path. Most attorneys can contemplate a career course, for example, of an employment lawyer advising clients on employment regulations and policies, defending clients in front of administrative agencies and courts, or focusing on labor negotiations. While an attorney can certainly plan to focus on international matters from day one, involvement in international matters can be varied and nuanced, and may just arise out of the needs of a particular client or clients.

    Of course, there are many ways that attorneys, new or experienced, can find themselves working on international matters.

    Here are some of the more common areas of international practice – and what it is like to practice as an in-house counsel.

    Private Practice Law Firms

    Much of the international law work in law firms is focused around business clients and advising them in international or intercompany transactions.2 This may have a traditional corporate or contact law component, and experience in the tax and intellectual property areas can be particularly valuable as clients attempt to not only navigate their own home country regulations but also international and local requirements.

    Matthew A. Koch Matthew A. Koch, U.W. 1998, is the general counsel and vice president of Corporate, Campus, and Legal Affairs for Direct Supply, Inc. in Milwaukee. He previously served as the interim leader of Direct Supply’s Product Supply Chain and is former president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel.

    Using one of the world’s largest law firms as an example, Baker McKenzie lists over 300 attorneys in their international commerce and trade practice area webpage. Representative legal matters for their international practice attorneys includes a long list of legal areas from joint ventures (common in international transactions as a foreign company attempts to enter a local market in partnership with a local established company) to international commercial agreements, regulatory matters, and dispute resolution.

    This does not mean that someone cannot pursue international law at smaller law firm. It may come in different forms. For example, one may have a local client who is looking to expand its sales into another market or source parts or products from another country, and accordingly there will be contracts to negotiate, different laws to consider, intellectual property to protect, and local in-country counsel to engage. Even if it is a matter of assisting and coordinating with local counsel in the particular country, a practitioner at a small firm can provide a new opportunity of how to look at and understand the international implications.

    An interrelated field of practice is immigration law. To oversimplify, immigration law involves helping potential employees (and employers), their family members, and other individuals from other countries enter a home country temporarily (e.g., on a visa), obtain work authorization, seek citizenship in the home country, or address the home country’s attempt to deport the individual from the home country. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) alone has more than 15,000 attorney and law professor members who practice and teach immigration law.

    Government, Agencies, and Organizations

    Attorneys looking to find international experience can take many paths. Take, for example, Christine Lagarde, the current International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director, who attempted to start her career by applying to a French college which prepares students for civil service.

    It is reported that Lagarde failed to gain admission and instead decided to pursue a career as an associate at a law firm. Ultimately, after becoming the Finance Minister in France (among other posts), she appointed as the managing director of the IMF in 2011 and was considered by Forbes last year to be the sixth most powerful woman in the world.

    Of course, Lagarde’s story is extraordinary, and there are many channels to international public interest law. Examples of employers include the federal government (U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of State, Department of Justice), international and local nongovernmental organizations or NGOs, intergovernmental agencies or IGOs (the IMF, United Nations, World Trade Organization), and international tribunals and courts.3 Such work may be international law specifically, or applying a knowledge of and interest in international law.

    An In-house Perspective

    So, what experience may an in-house attorney have with international law? For corporate counsel, the opportunity to work on international matters follows the client’s needs – where they operate; where customers, distributors and suppliers are located; and the nature of the client’s business generally. The relative size of the business, of course, comes into play: a Fortune 500 company is likely to have global operations and more international legal needs. However, if a smaller company has, for example, a worldwide supply chain, there are still many international opportunities.

    In fact, 62 percent of in-house lawyers recently surveyed reported that they have cross-border work; 20 percent reported that at least half of their work was multinational or cross-border.4

    Our legal department works with customers who operate internationally, suppliers who are based in or manufacture in different countries, technology and innovation companies who may be looking to expand into or out of the U.S., employees who may require sponsorship, and local counsel for our own operations in Asia.

    Like many areas of the law, in-house counsel may not hold specific expertise in all areas of international law, but rather an ability to issue spot items such as Foreign Corrupt Practice Act (FCPA) requirements, choice of law and venue, and applicable compliance considerations.

    Many Other Paths

    Practicing international law can ultimately mean many things – and there are more potential opportunities than discussed here. There are those attorneys who only practice international law and others of us who need to support our clients with international issues when and as they impact our clients. International law may also take one into academia, consulting, or other areas of business, government, or public interest.

    In the end, however, international law will undoubtedly continue to evolve, as will the opportunities for those who pursue it.


    1 See “International Public Interest Law,” Harvard Law School.

    2 See, e.g., Brown University’s Law Careers Advising website.

    3 See International Public Interest Law, Yale Law School.

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    International Practice Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Betty Eberle and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the International Practice Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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