While lawyers come in many forms with JDs, LLBs, LLMs, dual masters, and beyond, all of them share a skillset that has cross-border applicability. As a result, it is not at all surprising to see them head many of the Fortune 500 in addition to rightfully dominating the legal industry and many others where analytical prowess and expertise in compliance correlates with high performance.
The international demands or the modern legal profession have become widely acknowledged in academia as well. In recent years, schools such as NYU have invested significant amounts resources in global legal studies programs that prepare their grads to tackle global challenges. However, 3Ls openly pursuing international legal careers still seem to be a rare breed when compared to those eyeing big law or public service at home.
This state of affairs is certainly not caused by a scarcity of skills, ambitions, or opportunities – all of which abound in US law schools. Rather, it is a result of a lack of awareness of how to get started along the somewhat obscure pathways towards opportunities at organizations such as the World Bank, NATO, the United Nations, and hundreds of others.
Below, explore one path in particular and look at helpful tips on how to get started with T. Alexander Puutio, a recent Fordham grad currently with the United Nations Secretariat.
Q: Tell us how you got started with the UN.
T. Alexander: My legal career had a very conventional preamble to it, and I never imagined myself working on some of the world’s most interesting and largest legal transactions for the UN. During my final year of law school, I joined summer associate positions where I worked on international transactions and disputes in the IT and pharma industries. At the end of the program, I took an interview for an associate position, which I learned I had also passed. However, the ripple effects of the 2008 financial crisis finally caught up with the firm I was with, and HR was unable to commit to an exact starting date on that quarter. Instead of sitting idly on my hands, I decided to take up a three-month internship with the UN’s Asia-Pacific headquarters.
Those three months spent working on international trade and investment segued from consultancies with the organization’s executive office all the way to my current position at the UN Secretariat’s department of management, where I support the organization and its affiliate entities with international transactions and internal financial compliance. The scale, substance, and global ambition of my work is identical to that of big law offices that deal in cross-border transactions, with the main difference being that our team is staffed with ambitious international civil servants instead of partner-tracked associates.
Q: Which courses or programs do you think are most useful for anyone looking at international careers?
T. Alexander: Given how analytical skills are transferable from one subject to another I wouldn’t stress about any course in particular. However, there are some overall topics that will make adapting international legal work much easier. For instance, while I didn’t necessarily appreciate the fact at the time, courses such as contracts, corporations, and international taxation laid out the foundations for succeeding in the vast majority of my transnational assignments. The general principles of contracting, financial organization, and governmental revenue generation are so widely applied in sufficiently similar manners that otherwise highly specific domain-expertise can be used time and again in different context, from setting up investment vehicles in Singapore to drafting license agreements across the EU and the US. At the same time, I often apply the basic tenets of civil procedure in my assignments regardless of whether the country has civil, common, or mixed backgrounds as the essential processes, once perfected in one country, often seem to spill over to others.
Q: How about interdisciplinary topics such accounting and economics, have you found these useful?
T. Alexander: Had I the chance, I would have spent much less time worrying about substance-specific courses such as IP and patents, which I wrote extensively about while in law school. Rather, I would tank up on general principles, such as organizational theory, that have universal appeal and tenacity, which case law and regulations lack. In addition, I would have combined studies in economics and business much earlier, even if through independent studies or courses here and there, given how integral it is to understand the business context of the decisions lawyers help make. I have learned from these shortcomings the hard way, and for the past years, I’ve taken up studies outside working hours to augment my skillset with tools such as valuation, econometrics, and macroeconomics. As long as my bank account can handle it, I hope to continue studying, with my eyes on master’s degree or PhD in economics as the next step.
Q: What personality traits should internationally ambitious lawyers foster in order to succeed?
T. Alexander: I think the most important trait lawyers looking at international careers should have and improve on is tenacity. International careers for lawyers are special in the sense that they require us to step outside the comforts of our own jurisdiction and draft, opine, and agree on matters that go well beyond what any course could have taught us. This can be extremely discomforting, unless the situation is recast as an opportunity and the discomfort harnessed as motivation for learning and improving your skillset. At the same time, careers with international organizations or in big law working on international transactions will take you on a world tour – and not always to places of your own choice or liking. In addition, while mobility is a wonderful gateway into understanding and experiencing global cultural diversity, it can also lead to a sense of detachment from your own community.
Q: How important are language skills?
T. Alexander: It’s not as important as you might think. Many needlessly stress the importance of language skills or knowledge of local laws, both of which can be overcome by a few months of dedicated homework while there. I’ve found that the only thing that can’t be compensated for is the lack of tenacity and grit – everything else will follow from taking the first step and putting yourself out there on the field. Employers are also looking for talent that they can cultivate rather than ready-made packages, and basic language skills and a willingness to learn will be sure to get you through the door eventually.
Q: How would a student get started with the UN and international public service?
T. Alexander: The United Nations system is one of the most rewarding places to work at for lawyers who find their way in. Thus far, I have not had to make any sacrifices in terms of the challenges and scope of the substance matter I want to work on, and I have been humbled by the opportunity to put my transactional skills into use for the world’s largest global organization that, cliché or not, exists to make the world a better place.
Q: What are your tips for the 3Ls and all those who recently graduated on getting started with international careers?
T. Alexander: As in any industry, getting the first footholds in place is key to climbing upward. I can’t recommend more warmly taking up internships and consultancies at some of the more peripheral locations where operational demands often mean more opportunities to launch careers and grow as you go. International organizations offer often unpaid internships, which is of course less than ideal when compared to the paycheck you are leaving at someone else’s big-law desk for the summer. However, initial internships quickly turn into tax-free consultancies or professional positions at locations where each dollar goes much further than it ever could in Manhattan.
When you finally do decide to return, your earnings potential and lateral appeal will more than make up for the slower start. I’ve found the expat communities extremely embracing, with virtually everyone you meet ready to pounce on the opportunity to guide and mentor young lawyers who are following in their footsteps. I too take every opportunity to provide guidance and advise where I can, and I heartily recommend seeking out experts in the organizations you are looking at and shooting off a cold email which will most likely receive a warm response. With regard to some more politically oriented organizations, you might also want to reach out to embassies and consulates, the recommendations and support of which can at times go a long way in helping you move up.
If I had a time-machine here is a cheat-sheet I’d leave on my desk:
- Identify the organization/region you want to work in. Don’t worry about an exact fit at first – mobility between organizations is immense and most international civil servants will work with a number of organizations during their careers. More importantly, don’t worry about losing your private sector appeal – summer associate positions aren’t going anywhere, and when you hit the lateral market, your CV will more than set you apart.
- Find out whether they have currently open internships, consultancies, or entry-level positions. Many organizations such as the World Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the Asian Development Bank also offer induction programs, which they run annually, for young talent.
- Get yourself a mentor in the specific department or organization you will be applying for. You will find that international civil servants are a rather approachable lot, and having preliminary discussions with them will greatly help you focus on the specific opportunities and talent profiles that fit you the best.
- Apply with gusto. As a rule of thumb in the international sector, you should expect every 10th interview to result in an offer, so make sure you have enough lottery tickets in the game with your number on them!