International Lawyers Recommend Flexibility


Hang in there and be persistent was the message from panelists at the World of Law Public International Panel last Wednesday evening. The event, sponsored by the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, focused on careers in international law, both domestically and internationally based.

Catherine Newcombe of the United States Department of Justice Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT) directs programs in Eurasia, particularly the former Soviet republics. OPDAT posts federal prosecutors at embassies in host countries to help those countries reform their justice sectors. In addition to helping countries draft laws, OPDAT helps them enhance their skill at dealing with global crime and implement new legal institutions.

“We do a lot of work with prosecutors offices to go from Soviet-style to modern staffing techniques… [for example,] to develop for the first time ever written job descriptions,” Newcombe explained.

Clive Baldwin of Minority Rights Group International, a London-based organization, oversees international advocacy and works on strategic litigation. One of his goals is to enable local attorneys to litigate for their communities.

“Litigation was something I set up when I joined [Minority Rights Group] four years ago,” Baldwin said. “A lot of human rights groups appreciate that you need litigation, strategic litigation, on minority rights. We try to work with lawyers in particular countries to have an impact on communities and the lawyers who’ll represent them in the future.”

Newcombe’s background was unusually focused toward her present career, and her background in Russian became particularly timely in the early 1990s.

“I’ve been speaking Russian since I was 14, majored in it at Amherst, studied in the Soviet Union and then the wall came down,” she said. “I experienced what it was like in a country that didn’t have democracy.”

Baldwin, on the other hand, came to human rights law by a more circuitous route after studying economics at “an ivy league in Princeton who’s name I won’t mention.”

“I worked for a year at what is now Human Rights First, and then went back to the UK to qualify as a lawyer…I did my training with a human rights law firm, and did a lot of work on mental health litigation. I left to do international work.”

He spent time doing human rights work in Kosovo with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which he joked is often called the “Organization for Sitting in Cafes in Europe.”

“We made it up as we went along,” he said. “[There was] a complete variety of work from human rights monitoring to working on what the system should be, drafting laws to applying law to the area. I dealt with minorities, which was a key area.”

When asked by the moderator what a typical day at the office looked like, both attorneys were puzzled as to how to respond.

“There’s no typical day, which is what I like about my job,” said Baldwin.

Over the prior week, he had been working on challenging the Bosnian electoral system, working on indigenous land uses in Kenya, and writing an amicus brief on discrimination against the Roma.

“In Kenya, we’ve brought the government to the table and [we’re] seeing how the community has responded over the years and seeing the government take them seriously.”

Newcombe spent her previous week in Vienna. Her current projects include work in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Ukraine.

“Ukraine has a history of corruption from the Soviet system…I called up Strasburg to talk about helping Ukrainians implement their money laundering law.”

She is also working on a new criminal code for Georgia and advising the Georgian parliament.

“We have incorporated the jury trial for criminal proceedings. Some of my European colleagues chastise me for exporting the jury, but this is the first time many of the Georgian citizens are part of the criminal justice system.”

Both lawyers found it hard to give a template for how to find a job in International law, though both advised sticking with it and looking for openings and new directions throughout your legal career.

“It still looks very difficult to get into,” said Baldwin. “Probably for a year or two after graduation that’s the case, but a couple of years later it’s much more reduced and manageable.”

Baldwin also recommended being flexible and “willing to live anywhere.” He felt knowledge of a country was important, but his organization cultivates lawyers from within the country. MRG doesn’t look for any particular work history, but Baldwin felt a general understanding of international human rights law and how it works would be useful.

“We look for people who think broadly and can be creative in how law is applied, to see how it can be used in a different way in a certain circumstance.”

OPDAT sends out US attorneys who have had practical experience trying cases for the United States. Many US attorneys may participate in OPDAT as a break after spending five or ten years in the DOJ.

“We send people overseas all the time,” Newcombe said. “We don’t generally take people right out of law school and into OPDAT, but the DOJ Criminal Division does have an honors program, and areas like fraud and tax have an increasingly international nexus.”

Like MRG, OPDAT tries to build up the indigenous legal capacity in other countries. It also sends American attorneys for long stretches.

“I have staff attorneys in these countries, from the best law schools,” explained Newcombe. “We send attorneys for a year, not two weeks. It’s important in terms of quality of service and acceptance by the country. My colleagues in Georgia and Russia develop tools that we wouldn’t have.”

Both agreed that networking and who you know is still important in getting job leads, though not as crucial as it once was.

“The UN has a website that advertises a lot of its jobs, but it’s not all there,” said Baldwin. “It’s still the case that knowing people in missions is the best way of finding out what’s going on. If you’re willing to go to the difficult places there are jobs there.”

Getting your foot in the door and learning about various organizations by doing internships and externships, is important, Newcombe thought.

“Show them your value added,” she said. “Maybe you think the work it does is great, but it might be the pits to work there. You have to be a self-starter.”

Newcombe ended with words of encouragement.

“You’re entering a world that was much smaller when I graduated from law school. Our area has grown and is arguably one of the more competitive areas, but if you stick with what gives you satisfaction for your personal interests and passions you can find a place and help find solutions to compelling problems.”

(Visited 36 times, 1 visits today)