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International Law: The Who, What, Where, and Why

This article is about what constitutes international law, what characterizes an international law firm, sectors of international law, career options in international law, and showcases a few specific international law firms such as our firm Urban Thier and Federer.

Often we are asked about whether you can trust a non-international law firm with your international law case. We will attempt to frame out a paradigm by which you can make your own decision. Square One: the Difference Between International and Domestic Law

Let’s talk first about the difference between international law and domestic law. Simply put, the difference between international law and domestic law has to do with the identity  of the bodies, entities or persons and the situations involved. Domestic law is (basically) all about John Doe or company X and his/its behavior and actions within the borders of his/its own country. International law is all about behaviors and actions of persons, companies or states and countries in cross border situations.

Domestic law arises from legislature that is created by a group of people within one country. This group of people is elected or appointed, and they’re the ones that get to create and enact laws. International law deals much with domestic law, but in addition also has to consider  international treaties and customs. Treaties come out of agreements created formally between states or countries. Customs are traditions or conventions that are practiced as normal in a state, country, or entity.

The Skinny on International Law: There’s Public and Private

International law is divided into two spheres: public and private. Traditionally the two spheres have been fairly distinct, but with the recent rise in human rights acts and situations (how states/countries treat their own citizens), the distinctions have become somewhat less defined and there has been some cross-over.

Public International Law

Public international law covers multiple sectors: international human rights law, international environmental law, international trade law, international boundary disputes, law of the sea, international criminal law, and international humanitarian law. Examples of public international law firms include Baker & McKenzie (with an international law firm ranking of #1 at Ranker.com), Hogan Lovells, and Allen and Overy LLP (ranked #7 at Ranker.com).

Private International Law/Int’l Business Law

Private international law (sometimes also referred to as international business law, international corporate law, international inheritance law, depending on the area of law involved) deals with legal issues between individuals, corporations and organizations involved in transactions or issues that occur between two or more countries.

Private international law, or international business law, covers taxation, financial securities and banking law; business arbitration, trade transactions, and mergers and acquisitions; intellectual property and competition law; and international arbitration, as well as international inheritance/probate matters and international family law. Examples of (private) international business law firms include Boyer Law Firm, Roberts Law Firm (Global business Legal Solutions) and Markowitz International Law.

Entities that require the services of public international law firms run the gamut. National governments require their services, as well as intergovernmental organizations (for example the United Nations and the European Union), international criminal tribunal and courts, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, for example, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), and the armed services.

About International Trade Law

International trade law falls under the umbrella of public international law. International trade law firms deal with two main areas: 1) applying domestic law to international trade, and 2) international law governing trade flows that are treaty-based.

On the Domestic Side

International trade lawyers working on the domestic side cover areas such as export control, embargoes, economic sanctions, and import relief actions. The latter–import relief actions–concern matters such as anti-dumping, customs classifications, and countervailing duties and safeguards. Countervailing duties, or CVD’s for short, are also known as anti-subsidy duties.  These are basically trade import duties that are designed to neutralize negative effects of subsidies. Dumping is what happens when foreign manufacturers sell goods in another country at prices that are less than fair value. This typically causes harm to the parallel industry in the target country. Anti-dumping duties are intended to bring the goods back up to fair market value.

In countervailing duty cases, a government may provide subsidies–for example tax breaks–to manufacturers.

On the Trade Flow Side

Working in the area of international law governing trade flows, international trade lawyers will advise on matters such as World Trade Organization rules, North American Free Trade Agreement parameters, and bilateral investment treaties. (The World Trade Organization is the primary arbitrator of international trade disputes. It contains a Dispute Settlement Body created especially to make rulings on disputes between member states.) Lawyers in international trade law firms are experts in the implementing of domestic and international trade rules. As such they counsel clients who are caught in disputes relating to these rules.

Lawyers working in treaty-based international law practice something called global regulatory law. Their main work revolves around resolving disputes. They will also involve themselves in lobbying for the purpose of helping to develop new international rules. Clients of international trade law firms include organizations doing business in international and foreign jurisdictions, corporations, trade associations, and national governments.

Top-ranked international trade law firms include Fish and Richardson, and Sidley Austin.

A Related Topic: International Arbitration

International arbitration comes into play when there is a case or a potential case between bodies, usually residing/operating in two different countries. It is the most common form of dispute resolution. International arbitration attorneys are basically international litigators in a justice system that crosses countries, says Donald Donovan of Debevoise & Plimpton. He explains it as a justice system recognized by national and international law, however not run or controlled by any particular country or state.

Cross-border disputes of a commercial nature are the typical kind of case heard in international arbitration. Joint ventures for corporate transactions such as mergers and acquisitions are examples of the kinds of disputes heard by international arbitrators. Often these disputes occur in industries such as oil and gas, telecommunications, privatized public utilities, and construction industries. For those interested in a career in international arbitration, Donald Donovan recommends having a deep interest in working with different cultures and different legal systems. He says that it’s important to have an appreciation for other ways of doing things. In other words, not just assuming that your home country’s way of doing things is the right way and the only way.

Carol Lamm of White & Case recommends taking comparative law classes in order to get to know a number of legal systems.  She speaks of the importance of having an intellectual curiosity about international law, not just an ability to study it. She speaks these words of advice to people who are interested in a career in international arbitration. Top-ranked international arbitration firms include Debevoise & Plimpton, Freshfields, King & Spalding, and White & Case.

International Enviro law

International environmental law, as a distinct subcategory of public international law, began to come into its own in the 1970’s with the Stockholm Conference on the Environment (1972). In the years since the conference, international environmental law has captured increasing interest and has become one of the fastest-growing areas of international law.

International attention and global desire for action over concerns such as ozone layer depletion and global warming have brought increased focus to international environmental law.

Other topics of high concern are desertification, destruction of tropical rainforests, plastics pollution in the oceans, endangered species trade, deforestation, wetland protection, oil spills, nuclear air pollution, hazardous waste dumping, groundwater depletion, international pesticide trade, and acid rain. There is unprecedented international cooperation among intergovernmental organizations for the protection of the environment. This cooperation is being borne out in the form of treaties, agreements, and resolutions, as well as international laws and regulations.

Following are a few of the most frequently cited multilateral agreements related to the environment: Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, Law of the Sea, Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Convention of Biological Diversity. A 2015 U.S. News & World Report ranking listed the top best law firms for environmental law as Greenberg Traurig (Law Firm of the Year), Alan Matkin Leck Gamble Mallory and Natsis LLP, Arnold and Porter LLP, and Baker Botts LLP. These were the top four environmental law firms of 2015.

International Criminal Law

International criminal law is a body of public international law that  deals with conduct regarded as atrocities. This body of law brings perpetrators of such conduct into accountability and punishment. The core crimes under international criminal law include genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. The most important institution of international criminal law is the International Criminal Court. This Court exists to prosecute individuals for the crimes just mentioned. The International Criminal Court is a permanent tribunal. It was founded in 2002, with its official seat in The Hague, Netherlands. However proceedings can take place anywhere.

International Humanitarian Law

International humanitarian law is also known as the law of armed conflict or the law of war. It falls under the category of public international law.

The purpose of international humanitarian law is to protect innocent people who are not participating in acts of war and to regulate and curtail the means and methods of warfare. The idea of it is to limit human suffering and collateral damage, and to keep warfare from becoming unnecessarily cruel and extreme.

The law of war or humanitarian international law includes the Geneva Conventions, The Hague Conventions, and subsequent treaties as well as customary international law. The purpose of it is to balance concern for the protection of the innocent civilian with the necessity of military action.

War crimes result from serious violations of humanitarian international law. International humanitarian law firms include Allen and Overy, and BrettonWoods Law. International human rights lawyers are not as plentiful as lawyers practicing in other sectors of international law, partly because there isn’t an abundance of opportunities for practice in this arena.

It’s also because some lawyers don’t regard it as a stand-alone practice area. Some see human rights as a part of other legal disciplines, such as public law, immigration, family, and housing. As such, they see lawyers who align themselves with those disciplines as the ones who will also adopt human rights cases. International human rights lawyers challenge discrimination and defend the rights and freedoms of global citizens regardless of where in the world they live. Human rights lawyers find it valuable to know a number of languages to aid in human rights work, especially French, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin.

International Law Firms, Big and Small

Greenberg Traurig

The third largest law firm in the United States is also an international law firm called Greenberg Traurig. This firm was founded in 1967 by Larry J Hoffman, Mel Greenberg, and Robert Traurig. Currently, it has 37 offices spread across Latin America, Europe, the UK, the Middle East and Asia. Its largest office is in New York City.

Greenberg Traurig employs over 1600 attorneys in the United States and 1800 attorneys worldwide.

The founding partners of this particular international law firm were Jewish. At a time in history when Jewish lawyers found it difficult to find a place in “white shoe firms,” the partners modeled it on Jewish law firm practices in New York City. At the beginning, the firm hired mostly Jewish and Hispanic attorneys. Until the early 1990s, Greenberg Traurig was exclusively a South Florida law firm, but in 1991, it began to expand with the addition of an office in New York City. Less than 10 years later Greenberg Traurig opened an office in London, and then expanded to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and Wilmington.

Today the firm operates in the UK as Greenberg Traurig Maher LLP, and in Warsaw, Poland, as Greenberg Traurig Grzesiak sp.k.

Holger Siegwart

Holger Siegwart is a smaller example of an international law firm.

This firm is a boutique law firm which means that it practices law in a niche area: German law, cross-border representation, and cross-border litigation. Holger Siegwart is the founder of this international law firm. He practiced law in Germany for many years before establishing his international firm. He now handles cross-border representation and litigation.

Central International Law Firm

Central International Law Firm
 is a South Korea-based full-service international law firm, established in 1962. It represents clients–including Fortune 500 companies–in Europe, the United States, and Asia, with legal services in intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, licensing, inducement of private capital, patents, trademarks, and copyright law. Supporting Central International Law Firm’s lawyers and patent attorneys is a pool of 250 engineers and staff.

Linklaters LLP

Linklaters LLP was founded in 1838 in London, England by two men, Julius Dods and John Linklater. They named the firm Dods & Linklater and practiced corporate law. In 1920, the firm–by then known as Linklater & Co–merged with another highly-respected London firm and became Linklaters & Paines.

For the bulk of its history, Linklaters was predominantly a domestic commercial law firm. It had a few offices overseas. However by the late 1990’s it was experiencing explosive growth, opening offices in Amsterdam, Bangkok, Beijing, Budapest, Bucharest, Bratislava, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, Rome, São Paulo, and Shanghai. This global expansion led the firm to shorten its name to Linklaters. By 2013 it had opened additional offices in Japan, Dubai, South Africa, Washington DC, and Seoul, South Korea.

In 2015, it was the world’s fourth highest-grossing law firm. The 2012 Global Elite Brand Index named Linklaters as the third-strongest global law firm brand. Today it’s a multinational law firm that employs over 2000 lawyers in 29 offices across 20 countries. It has an international law firm ranking of #4 at Ranker.com.

So You Want to Work in International Law

International law firm jobs come in all shapes and sizes. The first and most obvious is that of a lawyer. A lawyer or attorney or solicitor/barrister (UK) or Rechtsanwalt (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) can practice in international law in multiple fields.

Paralegals or legal assistants are part of a lawyer’s support staff. Paralegals draft documents and collect, analyze, and summarize data and information. A project officer or a project assistant is typically part of an organization that has a connection to international law. This type of organization could be an intergovernmental body or a non-governmental organization (an NGO).

A project officer in this context administrates the project or provides management or fieldwork to support a project. This person does not work in a legal capacity. He or she could be involved in a diverse range of projects-–anything from research work to direct support to awareness campaigns. Academics in the area of international law do research, publishing, and teaching. Typically these academics will have a doctorate and an international law specialty.

Caseworkers are also part of a lawyer’s support staff. Sometimes they function as legal assistants. They often meet one-on-one with clients (for example immigrants, prisoners, and those seeking refuge or asylum) to give advice. Pursuing a career in international law does not mean a person has to be a lawyer, as demonstrated in the section above. There are multiple career paths open to people who want to go into international law but don’t necessarily want to be a lawyer or attorney.

Those who do want work as a public international lawyer typically need to be qualified as a lawyer with the requisite credentials, have language skills specific to the area of the world where he or she wants to work, and have relevant international experience. This type of experience can be gained in an internship with an international law firm or organization, or in a traineeship for the same.

private international lawyer typically needs to be qualified as a lawyer with the requisite credentials, have experience in a particular international practice area, and have language skills relevant to the area that he or she wants to work in.

Do You Have These Attributes?

It’s helpful for people who are interested in working in some capacity in international law to have certain attributes or characteristics. Solid professional skills in areas such as research, drafting, and advocacy are very helpful in the context of an international law position.

It’s also good to be flexible and adaptable. These qualities are helpful whether a person is working in a geographically or culturally challenging area,or just in a firm with multiple areas of focus. High cultural sensitivity and awareness are extremely valuable for anyone moving into the international law arena. These attributes help smooth transitions into life in a host country as well as in relating and functioning graciously in a multinational setting. Although knowing multiple languages is not always critical, it’s definitely helpful to be able to speak more than one language.  Some intergovernmental organizations require proficiency in their working languages–for example, English and French in the United Nations.


Having basic skills is one thing; gaining experience is another thing. Experience can be gained in the context of internships or similar training arrangements. Intergovernmental organizations frequently offer internships or traineeships.

A partial list of intergovernmental organizations includes The African Union, World Trade Organization, International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, Institute of Immigration, Organization of American States, Court of Justice of the European Union, Council of the European Union, European Commission, European Parliament, and the Council of Europe. Some professional associations also offer internships. These include the International Bar Association, The American Society of International Law, The Law Society, The European Law Students Association, Student Training Exchange Program, and the American Society of International Law.

Another source of potential internships or training positions can be found through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These include advocates for international development, Amicus, Amnesty International, The British Institute of Human Rights, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group. There are many more nongovernmental organizations; a simple search online will bring up extensive listings. Professional associations are another source of internships or traineeships. For example, law societies, law student associations, the International Bar Association, legal action groups, legal aid practitioner groups, and immigration law practitioners associations.


International law is a giant and far-reaching category of law that contains many sub-categories, beginning with public and private. For every branch of international law, there exists a plethora of international law firms dedicated to that branch and even more law firms that are equipped to handle multiple categories of cases. Some law firms employ literally hundreds or thousands of attorneys or solicitors, based in all countries of the world.