Careers in International Public Interest Law
Deciding to enter the international public interest field can be an exciting time. However, as you embark on your chosen career path you may have more questions than answers. The international public interest field offers an array of topic areas, career paths and settings in which to work. Additionally, many practitioners find themselves moving between topic areas, career paths and settings. As you consider what your initial job will be, consider these six primary areas of international public interest work:
- Business and Human Rights
- Intergovernmental Organizations other than the United Nations
- International Development and Relief Work
- International Law and Justice
- Non-Governmental Organizations
- United Nations and its specialized agencies
CLS students have been successful at obtaining meaningful positions in the international public interest world. As you prepare to begin your international public interest job search, click on the links below to learn about strategies for securing internships and jobs, and resources at CLS to help you through the process.
Once you decide to pursue a career in international public interest, you next need to figure out your short- and long-terms goals – both professional and personal - as well as what interests you. To do this, we suggest some honest self-assessment. We are here to help you with this. Below are some things to ask yourself and think about, in order to have a better idea about what type of International Public Interest you would like to pursue. Don’t worry if you don’t have answers to all these questions. Many people are not sure what exactly interests them; other people are interested in everything. You will refine and change your ideas as you gain more experience. Thinking about these questions now will give you a better idea of which direction(s) to start to explore.
- Why did you come to law school?
- Who you want to serve? For example, specific communities? Individuals? Causes or Issues? A specific country? Region of the world?
- How do you want to spend your time? For example, do you like interviewing victims and witnesses? Devising creative new legal theories and strategies? Participating in hearings and lobbying? Reporting on human rights violations? Advocating with governmental agencies? Organizing grassroots efforts?
- What timeframe appeals to you? Are you more interested in short-term projects with immediate results? Or long-term assignments, focusing on eventual systemic impact? Or both?
- What work environment do you want? For example, does working in a small office appeal to you, or would you prefer a larger office? Do you enjoy an informal setting, or does more formality and hierarchy appeal to you? Would you prefer an office of lawyers only or multi-disciplinary staff? Do you want flexible hours? Are you willing to travel? How important is having a support staff to help with your work?
- What are your short-term and long-term career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
- What geographic region do you want to be in? Where do you want to work? For example, a rural setting? Urban? Internationally? Regionally? Europe? South America? Asia? Africa? Middle East? Australia/New Zealand?
- Do you have family obligations that you need to consider?
- How important is prestige to you?
- How important is the level of your income?
- How risk averse are you?
- What have you found interesting in law school?
- Outside of law school, what hobbies and activities have you been drawn to?
- What legal issues interest you?
- What skills, experience and knowledge do you have already?
- What skills, experience and knowledge do you want to develop?
- What organizational strategies and tactics appeal to you? For example, are you interested in working with individual clients on their individual issues? Would you rather focus on the “big picture”, bringing change to benefit a group of people, or to change legal precedent? Would you like to do grassroots work, helping a community bring about change for itself? Would you like to be in a courtroom? In a legislative setting? What about being behind the scenes, reporting on human rights violations? Or using media and social media to bring change? For example, international tribunals? Domestic courts? Implementing international law? Refugee and migrant protection? Relief and development work? International advocacy? Research and documentation?
- Does a traditional legal approach appeal to you, or do you prefer organizations with a more holistic or multidisciplinary approach? For example, some organizations focus on courtroom advocacy and policy reform. Other organizations have economists and sociologists working alongside community organizers. Does this type of less traditional legal approach appeal to you?
- How important are ideology or political compatibility? Do you see yourself as an advocate, activist or both?
- What else is important to you?
Some students come to law school with some type of international work experience while others haven’t any at all. While past experience is always a plus, you can use your time at CLS to gain the knowledge and skill-set necessary to be an effective International Public Interest lawyer and attractive to potential employers. One key aspect to building your International Public Interest Law credentials is academic preparation.
Classes, Seminars, and Clinics
CLS offers a wide variety of international public interest classes and seminars in an array of topics that are taught by leading scholars and experts in the field. As a 1L, there are several international electives that you should consider taking. This will provide you a great introduction to the field at an early stage in your legal career. As an upperclassman you have access to not just great classes and seminars but also a range of clinics, including the Human Rights Clinic, the Environmental Law Clinic and the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, as well as the UN Externship. The law school also offers International Public Interest focused institutes and programs, such as the Human Rights Institute and SJI programming, and study abroad opportunities. You can also gain valuable experience through volunteering with student organizations working on issues that interest you.
Additionally, during your time at CLS, you should consider joining a theme-related journal, such as the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, and the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Also consider direct research with a professor working on a topic of interest to you.
University Wide Resources
Other schools at Columbia University offer a wide variety of international public interest experiences. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the varying opportunities each school presents, such as classes, capstones, programming, and list serves that publicize important opportunities in the field (such as fellowships and job postings). Below are a few of the resources provided:
Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health:
Columbia University School of International Public Affairs:
Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights:
Lastly, if you do not have language skills, you may want to consider learning another language while at CLS. You may be able to cross-register at another school in the Columbia University system.
Networking is a very important tool for finding an International Public Interest Law job, internship, or fellowship sponsor, yet it is something that students often forget about or try to avoid. Statistics show that a tremendous number of successful job applicants learn about job openings through contacts, or “word-of-mouth”. These contacts are often gained through networking. Even if a job opening is posted, networking can give an applicant an early “foot in the door”, either by letting the applicant know that the job will be posted, or by putting the applicant in a more favorable position because he/she has already met with the employer in an informal meeting prior to the job posting. Networking and informational interviews also give the applicant invaluable information about the organization, the legal field and issues, and the lawyers who work on those issues. It is also often fun and inspiring to meet people doing the work you want to do.
Remember to look at SJI’s national social justice network of alumni counselors, and ask fellow students, professors and former supervisors if they have contacts where you are looking. Also, take a look at SJI’s International Public Interest Law Toolkit’s section on networking.
Internships and Fellowships
Enough cannot be said about the importance of work experience. International public interest employers are just as interested in your work experience as they are in your commitment to their work. Therefore, the more work experience you can demonstrate in the field the better. CLS sponsors internships in International Public Interest Law during 1L and 2L summers through the Human Rights Internship Program and Guaranteed Summer Funding.
Depending on the extent of your work experience in international public interest, you may also want to consider a term-time internship. Most competitive applicants for International Public Interest jobs will have extensive internship experiences, and NGOs frequently hire individuals who have previously interned with them. Making use of the variety of New York-based international public interest organizations to develop your expertise and increase your contacts is an important advantage of studying at CLS.
A term-time internship can also be a good way to develop experience in a new subject area, and expand your network. SJI posts part-time and internship opportunities in a weekly email to all students. However, many New York-based international public interest employers would be happy to take on CLS interns during the year so feel free to contact employers that interest you.
During your 3L year you will need to consider permanent employment opportunities. While the international public interest field is quite competitive it is possible to secure a rewarding job upon graduation – particularly if you were strategic during your time at law school. While some employers directly hire 3Ls, others will receive job offers through fellowships. The Law School offers several CLS-specific fellowships. For more information, please click here.