Law schools want money. Law schools make money off their tuition. This means law schools want as many qualified students to enroll (within limits, of course) and this also means that they do not want their enrolled students to drop out. Law schools oftentimes try to entice students to enroll in their schools and to stay in their schools by touting what law students find sexy. Law students often find international law sexy. Law schools often tout their international law courses/programs and tout an international law career path so as to appear sexy to their students.

The above poses problems, mostly centered on the fact that there are incredibly few international law jobs for recent law school graduates. Incredibly few.

Let me explain, using the Seattle lawyer job market as the example.

First though, let me give you a greatly oversimplified primer on American law firms. There are the mega firms that do high level business work and there are the boutiques that do high level business work. The boutiques tend to be made up largely of lawyers who once worked at the mega firms. For the most part, only these firms do international business work. Even in a very international city like Seattle, there are really only a handful of firms that truly do much international legal work.

Now let me give you a greatly oversimplified primer on the hiring practices of the mega firms and the high level boutiques. These firms are obsessed with hiring people with high grades from highly rated law schools. Why? Because those “numbers” are the easiest way to “grade” potential lawyer applicants. Is this the best way to grade potential applicants? No, but it is the fastest and the easiest and if you are looking at a stack of 500 resumes and 250 of the people behind them have done amazing things with their lives and seem like truly stand-up people, you need to do additional filtering. This means that these law firms filter down to the ten or twenty they will interview by taking only really good students from the top law schools and maybe only the top 5-10% from a mid-ranked law school.

Here is where the problem arises. Since nearly all international legal work is done by the mega firms and the high end boutiques and many mega firms do not do much (if any) international law and hardly any boutique law firms do any international work, this means that law firm international law jobs are going to be limited only to the best students at the best schools.  On top of this, many (most) big law firms do not have recent law school graduates work on many (or any) international law matters. The feeling is that young lawyers must first become good at corporate law or tax law or dispute resolution or labor law or IP law or whatever before they get tasked with the additional layer of complexity of working on an international matter.

What the above means in real life for law students seeking an international law job with a law firm is that their class rank/school rank is going to be absolutely critical in determining their chance of getting an international law jobs and that even top ranked students from top ranked law schools with fluency in an important language for business are not likely to get an international lawyer job at a law firm right out of law school.

Now to the real point of this post. Too many law schools either intentionally or negligently put into the heads of their students that getting an international law job is no more difficult than getting any other law job.

From my perspective, I feel as though the law schools prefer to leave it up to people like me to burst their students’ bubbles and I have done that more than once. And though I do not enjoy it, I take a certain pride in it, because I believe that by doing so I am helping young lawyer wannabes, not hurting them.

One example highlights my myth busting work. Many years ago, I gave an informational interview to a middle of the class student from a law school ranked in the mid 100s about international law jobs at law firms in Seattle. I met with this student because I am friends with one of her professors and he really wanted me to speak with her. At our meeting I learned that she was fluent in French and was looking for a job in Seattle doing international law involving France. I was blunt, and I told her the following (note that I was less blunt than appears below, but the below has any niceties removed):

  • If we added up all the Seattle-France legal work done by all of the law firms in town I doubt there would be enough work to keep one lawyer busy full time.
  • I do not believe there is a single law firm in town that will view your fluency in French as a plus factor in deciding whether to hire you. In fact, if you emphasize your desire to do France work, I think most firms will consider that to be a negative because they will think that you are more interested in dreaming about France than in doing the nitty gritty legal work the firm generates.
  • What law firms in town do international law? I mean really do international law, not just mention it on their website?

We then talked about the three or four law firms in Seattle that actually do a decent amount of international law and all but my own law firm were mega firms. We then talked about how these firms virtually never hire middle of the class students from middle to lower tier law schools. Sorry, but they just don’t.

By this time, she was convinced that writing Seattle law firms for an international law job was not going to work (I also learned that she had been doing that for six months and getting nowhere) and so we then started talking about her real world options.

And on that, I had this to say:

What you need to do is get the best job you can. Forget about international. Focus on getting a job that will teach you how to be a good lawyer and that will put food on your table. Then after you have been in that job for a year or two, start figuring out how to “make it your own.” And by making it your own, I mean how you can mold it to suit what you really want to do. If you don’t actively mold your work, it will get molded for you and then one day you will wake up as so many lawyers do and really hate your job.

If you find yourself doing dispute resolution and you are enjoying it but you still want to be involved with France you do whatever you can to try to get dispute resolution work that involves France. How do you do that? You do that by educating yourself on French business, French law, French disputes, French anything. And you do that by getting to know every single French person in whatever city you are in and you get to know the French Consul and you get to know French lawyers in France and elsewhere and you write about dispute resolution involving France, etc.

So long as you are doing a good job with your law firm’s core work, they will likely be fine with your making efforts to bring in France related work. Small firms generally are happy to bring in whatever good work they can, but do not expect anyone there to help you much in bringing in the French work because they both won’t know how to do that and they won’t have time to do that and they won’t really care about it the way you do. And if you are doing corporate work, the same thing holds, but for corporate work.

A year later she wrote me a thank you email that said she was in a job she very much liked in a good-sized city doing corporate work for small businesses and that once she was more comfortable with the legal and client aspects of that work, she was going to start working on trying to position herself as the French expert in her city.

Because that is usually what it takes.

For more on what it takes to become a China lawyer/international lawyer, check out the following:

What do you think?

  • ImperiumVita

    As a middle ranking law student in a low tier law school, I can personally vouch for much of what is described in this post. For example, I had lunch with an attorney from one of the larger firms in my metro-area, where I was told point blank my grades and school were not good enough to get a job at that firm or any other comparable firm, much less the international type of job that I wanted.

    I abandoned big law, just as they abandoned me. As I continued my search, I began looking for internships with law firms in the country of my interest. I found an internship doing exactly what I wanted, and had the privilege of traveling to a foreign country as icing on the cake. As globalization and international trade grows domestic law firms in
    developing countries find themselves in need of English speaking
    attorneys. A law student or new lawyer can take advantage of these new opportunities, in some cases even without knowledge of a foreign language.

    I am soon to start a new position with one of the larger domestic law firms in this country… you might be able to guess which country I’m speaking of. My willingness to take internships in the country and learn the legal and business environment first hand demonstrated my seriousness about a career as an international business lawyer. I was a little anxious when they asked for my law school transcript, but it proved not to be a problem.

  • damjand

    What a bummer. The only thing you forgot to add is that we’re seven years into a recession that keeps whittling away law jobs. Like the great Dave Chappelle once said, “‘And you’ve got to learn how to rap or play basketball or something…’Either do that or sell crack.'”

  • chrislanterman

    Great points. As someone who really wanted to get out of law school and immediately start doing work related to China, I found the amount of opportunities to be lacking. Either you’d have to get a job at a big law firm in Seattle (and honestly, maybe only 4 or 5 actually have some sizeable amount of China work, and I’m not sure any would hire a new hire just for China) which means you have to be top 5-10% in grades, and like Dan said, even then you wouldn’t be doing all international work (or any possibly).
    It seems there are two options: (1) learn the craft of a type of law that’s not international (tax, IP, etc.) as Dan suggested, or (2) you can go straight to the source (China, HK, Taiwan, or whatever country you’re interested in) and do work there. In a more developed market like France, it might be harder to do. In China, without good language skills, you may be stuck doing a lot more translation than you want. Also, the salary part is always risky. The few lawyers I know who went straight to China/Taiwan all had better Chinese language skills than me, or had some kind of specialty background like IP.
    For me, I went the with the former route and decided to specialize in tax, and like Dan said, I always have an eye on doing any China work. In a few years with more experience under my belt, I may start thinking of more of a move to China-related work, but for now, being an international lawyer seems like a tall task. You need: (1) knowledge of that foreign country, their laws, and their customs and business practices, (2) knowledge and experience in your own field, whatever that may be, (3) Not always, but language skills are usually helpful, and some language skills usually don’t do any good, fluency with business and legal terms are usually needed. Also, to my knowledge, being this triple threat doesn’t come with any pay increase. A China IP lawyer doesn’t make any more than a US IP Lawyer, so you really have to be interested and keen on doing international work just because that’s what interests you.

  • Eric Meng

    Great post, Dan. I also want to point out that law firms and the practice of law may not be the right path for many young law school graduates these days. Many went to law school not out of a burning desire to be a lawyer (which was probably wrong, but hey, the decision was already made and the debt already incurred) but because of a (probably mistaken) belief that law school was a traditional path to a professional job in the business world.

    As we’ve learned in the past few years, if that ever was true, it no longer is (for most people).

    But if that broad goal was your goal, it also means that you have more ways to get there – compliance (a very, very broad field, and the one I personally have transitioned to), consulting, business more generally. That does not mean breaking in will be easy. You have to be creative in how you position yourself. If you just send your legal resume to these places you will get nowhere. But it can be done.

    Thanks again, Dan. You’re one of the few who is willing to give sincere advice.

  • Brad S.

    I agree with almost everything in the post and comments. I also want to make a distinction between international law as the term used in this post and international law as the term is used in law schools. At the general level, law schools use this term to talk about the body of law composed of treaties, customs, and other agreements between nations. While this information is interesting and certainly worthwhile for those interested in human rights, the environment, and other areas, it is not too useful for students who want to practice the type of international law described in this post. Many students, myself included, take such courses and deprive themselves of time to learn more solid skills that lawyers practicing law internationally will need.