Frequently Asked Questions about Planning for a Career in International Public Service

 

Q: How important is it to have in-depth knowledge about the organization?

A: Prior to applying for an international position you should research the organization to ensure that it will be a good fit. Your effort may also impress the interviewer with your knowledge of and interest in the organization. Your research can begin with the organization’s website and articles or journals about the organization or the issues addressed by the organization. Informational interviews with an alumnus or fellow student also go a long way to understanding the organization’s philosophy, objectives and typical work assignments.

Q: What activities or organizations are important to international work? 

A: Your own interests should be your primary guide for choice of classes, extracurricular activities and organizations. For those who come to law school with established interests within the public international arena, law school can be a time to deepen your knowledge and broaden your experience within your chosen field and to learn about related fields.

For those who come to law school with many interests and who have not yet defined their career goals, law school can be a time to explore and better define your interests. You should try to make choices that make sense in terms of your overall career goals, skills, or interests. Consider your options carefully and refer back to the personal assessment questions earlier in this chapter. See also the narratives of Maame A.F.Ewusi-Mensah, Chartey Quarcoo and Anna Rotman.

Q: Is fluency in another language essential? 

A: The short answer is no, but the better answer is “it depends.” For many international legal jobs, fluency is important and proficiency may be essential. As you will see in the narratives, some attorneys in the field believe that the need for proficiency in more than one language cannot be overstated. Most international positions will state in the job description whether a specific language is required. If you are planning for an international career you should begin exploring the jobs and locations of interest to you and decide early on what if any language courses would be helpful to you in reaching your goals. Many students fulfill their language requirements by taking a summer course or part-time course while still at law school. As noted by Karen Doswell of USAID, the federal government will enroll an employee in language training when it has been determined that a certain language competency is necessary to successfully complete an overseas assignment. See also the narratives of Adam Smith and Julia Harrington.

Q: Is U.S. citizenship required for international work? What about U.S. citizens who desire to work overseas for a foreign government?

A: Citizenship requirements for international work vary among government agencies, IGOs and NGOs. With few exceptions, however, non-citizens are not permitted to apply for competitive civil service jobs. For U.S. government positions and U.S.- based NGOs, questions about citizenship requirements should be raised with each organization or agency. For further information for non-citizens working in federal jobs see http://www.opm.gov/employ/html/citizen.asp. A brief explanation may also be found on the USAJobs website at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/EI9.asp. Questions concerning employment of international students are discussed at the Immigration and Naturalization website at http://www.region12.nafsa.

org/r12hiringintl.htm.  For those U.S. citizens who want to work for foreign governments, it becomes even more difficult as most foreign countries prefer their own citizens. 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.  See also the narratives of Larry Johnson, El Cid Butuyan, Clifford Sarkin and Adam Smith.

Q: How important is it that I be on a competitive law journal?

A: This may help you to stand out as an applicant for an ‘honors program’and other positions within the U.S. government, post-graduate fellowships, and other similarly competitive U.S.-based employment opportunities. In general, however, being on a competitive journal is not likely to make or break your chances for a career in public international service. Many employers look favorably upon applicants who have published on subjects relevant to the job in question, or served on an international law journal. For many jobs, however, what is most important is having relevant work experience. See also the narrative of Adam Smith.

Q: Is it important to work abroad?

A: For most public international jobs, experience living and working abroad is extremely helpful personally and serves as an important professional credential. In some cases, experience working abroad is essential, as with many positions related to human rights, international health, development, democracy building, or humanitarian assistance. However, international work may be U.S. based. See Chartey Quarcoo’s narrative about working for the DOJ’s criminal division.

Q: Is regional experience/expertise critical? Can skills be substituted for regional knowledge?

A: As noted in many of the narratives in this chapter, regional experience is critical to most international jobs outside of government. Regional experience is especially important if you want to work for an NGO or an IGO. The reason for this is that it is difficult to learn about culture, language, foreign government operations and the needs of the people from afar. It is difficult to substitute skills for experience, unless the skills you have are desperately needed in the foreign country where you desire to work. For example, the Tribunals and the International Courts of Justice often look for litigation experience, and an extensive background as a prosecutor or litigator may make up for the lack of understanding of the culture. Also, if you have had experience with the World Bank and have a background in project finance, it may be possible to secure a development position overseas. As we emphasize throughout the Guide, one of the best ways to gain regional experience is to work in a foreign country, even if just for a summer. The knowledge you gain from a summer abroad will go a long way in convincing a potential employer that you have some understanding of the region and its culture.See also the narratives of Barbara Finamore, Carol Pier, Valerie Dabady and Stephen Rickard.

Q: Are judicial clerkships useful? 

A: Like being on the board of a very competitive law journal, holding a judicial clerkship can give you a leg up on the competition for U.S.-based jobs, especially with the government, by indicating that you have good research and writing skills. It is doubtful whether a clerkship in a U.S. court would give you a competitive edge with non-US employers. If you are interested in working in a specific country or region, you may be able to arrange a clerkship abroad. U.S. law students and graduates have worked at the Israeli Supreme Court, for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the Land Claims Court in South Africa, among other places.See also the narrative of Katherine Mueller.

Q: Is it possible to find a paying job right out of law school? 

A: Yes, but you should be willing to explore short-term opportunities such as fellowships, consultancies, “honors programs,” “junior officer programs” and other similar positions. See Chapters 3-6 for specific information about entry-level opportunities in various job settings. See also Chapter 7 for information about fellowships. See also the narrative of Kenneth Roth.

Q: What are the typical timelines for obtaining an international summer internship or post-graduate position? 

A: Timelines can vary widely, but for the most part, plan well in advance, be persistent and patient. For summer internships you should begin your assessment of the international market in the early fall. Students should apply as early as possible (after Dec.1 for 1Ls). Of course, you may not get a definite response until the following spring. The exception is government internships where the timelines are more definite and tend to be earlier than other organizations. Fellowships also have clear deadlines for applications as well as response times, and are usually strictly followed. (See Chapter 7 for more information on Fellowships) It is always best to have backup applications so that you are not caught short in the spring without any offers pending.For post-graduate opportunities, it is also best to plan well in advance. In reality, however, many organizations do not respond until they have determined their needs, and positions are generally filled as openings arise. The exception again is for government agencies that may offer several international slots to graduates and will have specific deadlines for applications, some as early as the fall before you graduate. It is best to check with the contact persons listed in this book or with more updated listings on the organization’s website.

Q: What are the typical working conditions for overseas international positions?

A: Working and living conditions vary considerably. There is no question that taking an overseas position, particularly in a developing country, requires flexibility and adaptability. However, there are few students who regret the experience of working overseas. It is important to know yourself as well as to learn as much as possible about the organization and its location. Medical and health issues should always be looked into before traveling or living overseas. Kerri Sherlock, HLS ’02, while working as an investigator for Physicians for Human Rights in Chiapas described the most extreme conditions best. “I stayed in a one-room hut with two parents and ten children. When I was hiking through the jungle, I was completely dependent on total strangers for housing, food, guidance and my personal security. However, the members of the community continually surprised me by their kindness and concern for my well-being.” Kerri also adds, “I think it is important to remain constantly alert and as cautious as possible and to conduct investigations with at least one other person.” Karen Doswell, a Foreign Service legal advisor with USAID, explains that with the recent increase in terrorism, security at U.S. Embassies and USAID missions overseas has affected our ability to live and work overseas as easily as we did before. Evacuations and office closings due to threats or civil unrest are more common now than they ever have been before. In the developing world one is generally exposed to more disease, car accidents and crime than in the U.S. and the constant vigilance needed to defend against these things can take a psychological and physical toll.Unlike Kerri’s and Karen’sexperiences, many students with overseas internships report fairly comfortable living conditions with every effort made to accommodate most needs. However, clearly the threat of terrorism and political unrest create more serious consideration for overseas work than ever before.

Q: How can one find information on the safety, security and health concerns in a particular region?

A: Before deciding to accept a position overseas, be sure to learn as much as you can about the civil or political unrest, crime rate, and terrorism activity in the countries in which you will live and work. Medical and health issues also should  always be looked into before traveling or living overseas. The availability of hospitals and emergency medical treatment in the country in which you will be living is critical.The U.S. Department of State (DOS) and the U.S. Embassy abroad utilize a variety of means for communicating with the American public, including the Internet. Updates can be found on the DOS Bureau of Consular Affairs home page on a daily basis. In the event of a crisis overseas be sure to contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate if you need help. See http://travel.state.gov. Travel warnings and alerts are updated at this site on a regular basis. Presently there are 27 countries on the State Department’s warning list and 9 countries on the travel alert list. The site includes requirements for U.S. Citizens, documentation, tips for traveling abroad and overseas citizens’ services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides extensive information and guidance for Americans living overseas through its Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or through its home page at www.hhs.gov. HHS provides notice and information about present health and security risks in areas affected by earthquakes and natural disasters, including the recent tsunami, and other risks and provides guidance about measures that can be taken to minimize those risks. More information can be found at : http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/tsunamis/abroad.asp. It is always best, of course, to consult with those that have lived or worked in the country or area you are considering. Also, do not hesitate to discuss any concerns with your prospective employer.

Last modified: December 13, 2011

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