Commencing Your International Search in Government

Typically, students begin their search with summer internships. Although it is always helpful to know where you are heading in a career search, it is not always the case in exploring international careers in government. The paths areas diverse as the opportunities. Law students have taken different roads to arrive at their international careers, and the following examples highlight these differences. 

Prior to commencing her career at the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Legal Adviser, Elizabeth Wilcox (HLS ’98) was a fellow for the International Rescue Committee helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and later she served in the U.S. Treasury’s Department Honors Program. Katherine Mooney (YLS ’01) spent a year at the Kennedy School of Government as research assistant to a project supporting Russian reform, and then followed the director of that project to the Pentagon as his special assistant and spent three years working on policy related to the former Soviet Union and arms control. Renee Matalon (HLS ’81) worked in private practice for several years before joining the USAID. Karen Doswell (Georgetown Law Center ’92), Foreign Service Legal Advisor at USAID, stresses that while there is no single criterion that assures employment with USAID, the majority of the lawyers currently practicing in the Office of the General Counsel came tothe Agency with at least three years of private practice experience.

Citizenship and Nationality

Matters of citizenship and nationality must be examined separately for every position. However, there are some agencies that require U.S. citizenship and these agencies usually include the Department of State, DOJ, CIA, DHS and DOD. For those U.S. citizens who want to work for foreign governments, it becomes even more difficult as most foreign countries prefer to hire their own citizens, with the exception of foreign consulates located in the U.S.       

Additionally, if you work for an IGO, most require that you be a citizen of one of its member countries. However, language skills, experience working outside the U.S. and specialized skills can be useful to foreign governments and each country and government agency should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

Requisite Skills and Attributes

Though many of the skills required for government service are the same basic ones described in the Entering the Profession section of this site, there are a few additional areas that become important for international government work. These skills and attributes include a commitment to public service, an understanding of and appreciation for the complexities of international work, outstanding academic performance, language skills and the willingness to be flexible about the type of work.

Language Skills

To the question of whether or not knowledge of a foreign language is essential for government employment, the simple answer is no. As described in the introduction to this Guide, speaking a foreign language is preferable though not essential to securing employment in international organizations. The government will generally specify if a language is required, and unless the placement is overseas it is usually nota prerequisite. The federal agency most likely to require language skills is the State Department, and that is usually only when a placement is overseas. The federal government will generally enroll an employee in language training if competency in a foreign language is necessary to successfully complete an overseas assignment.

Negotiation and Litigation Skills

If you are working for an international court or litigating matters for a federal agency, there is no question that prior litigation experience including law school courses like civil and criminal procedure, federal courts, trial advocacy and evidence, can be very helpful. Also, since many matters are negotiated in the international context, including treaties, conventions and agreements, it is always helpful to have had a course or some experience in international negotiations and cross-cultural transactions.

Outstanding Academic Performance

Similar to obtaining a coveted clerkship, competing for the few summer internships available at the State Department, USAID, the USTR and other government agencies with international departments requires a strong academic record or skills such as analytical ability, writing and oral presentation skills, special honors or achievements, and publications.

Flexibility

Because international work is not as neatly defined as other specialized areas, those interested in international positions should be flexible in terms of work assignments. In many international agencies and departments there are small support staffs, so interns are usually asked to perform some ‘non-legal’ tasks. The international departments of the federal government tend to be hardworking agencies, and a great deal of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of each employee. There are very few government jobs that don’t require a certain amount of administrative and technical work, and it is no different for international work. Travel is often a prerequisite even if you are domestically based. If you are working overseas even more flexibility may be required, as the culture in which you live may impact available resources and lifestyles, forcing you to follow local customs and traditions in carrying out your responsibilities.

Commitment to Public Service

In addition to outstanding legal skills, first and most importantly, the government cares deeply about commitment to public service. This commitment and desire can be demonstrated in many ways through prior government or public service experience, volunteer or community service, writing for a public policy or related journal, and utilizing the interview to show your passion and interest in working in the international public policy arena. Harvard Law School alumni working at the USAID have emphasized that the most successful USAID employees are those who are truly passionate about economic development and believe in the Agency’s mission.

Appreciation for the Complexities of International Work

An appreciation for international work can be demonstrated in many ways through prior government experience or other related substantive work experience, international law courses, working and living abroad, membership in international organizations and language skills. Rebecca O’Brien (HLS ’05) worked her 2L summer at the U.S. Department of State at the Office of Legal Adviser. Her interest in international work began at a young age, but more importantly she gained terrific work experience at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. foreign policy think tank, and at McKinsey & Company in its global strategy practice before starting law school. She also focused her academic career in the international area by serving as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University and by taking courses in international law, comparative law and Islamic law at HLS. Students interested in an international governmental career should try to focus their courses and work during law school on international law. Public international law, international trade law, international criminal justice and human rights, international negotiations, and administrative and regulatory law are courses relevant to work in this field.

Politics, Contacts and Networking

While not essential, political contacts or references that are well acquainted with your legal skills and work ethic can certainly help. In international government careers, politics plays less of a role, and your interests, knowledge of international law, languages and work experience are far more important than who you know. The exceptions, of course, usually include the White House, Capitol Hill, and other more political positions. Because many of these jobs are highly competitive and require more than the typical clearances and background checks, factors other than political connections take prominence.

Last modified: December 10, 2012

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