"International Law": Believe the Hype?

I've written previously about the obsession among law school applicants with "international law" (which they can't even define, in most cases), and how law schools are responding to that obsession by slapping the "international" label on everything possible and furiously peddling their study abroad programs.

The "international" label is a great marketing tool for law schools, and they are no doubt responding rationally to demand from applicants for whom they compete. However, I continue to question the underlying merits of that obsession. I also have doubts about the quality control among these many study-abroad offerings, as well as the assumptions applicants make about what "international law" actually is, or what an international practice actually looks like.

I've received some interesting feedback from law school students and practicing lawyers alike, all of them questioning this uninformed (on applicants' part) and superficial (on the schools' part) international law "mania." And yesterday, this article appeared in the New York Times about young American lawyers flocking oversees during the downturn. (Not a bad idea, but far less glamorous than most law students assume it will be.)

This post will be long, because I'll let these students and lawyers speak for themselves. It's good stuff for applicants to hear.

From a student at a top-10 law school, thoughts on his study abroad program:

Mostly I find the other students disappointing. People don't seem to think critically. I know that's a huge generalization, but it's all I can say. Students are in this program from all countries of the world, and some are practicing attorneys. But most of them "know" various laws in their respective countries but are incapable of discussing them intelligently. So the professors dumb down the classes for them. All the program directors keep lauding the "internationalism" in the program. But what good are different perspectives if they do not contribute meaningfully to anything? For instance, a professor will ask, "according to the author, what is 2 plus 2?" and a student will respond, "in my country, 5 minus 4 is 1, and that is because historically in our legal system, 4 times 4 equaled 16". I hope my inept illustration makes sense. To make matters worse, the American students are no better. A student even asked the following question: "So, if a company manufactures a product in a given state, is that enough for it to be sued in that state?" I wondered if he was conscious during that entire semester of civil procedure.

From a student earning a joint American JD and and a law degree from another country:

I got offers at both [deleted] and [deleted]! Those two were my top choices (for the firms that actually called me back). I didn't get [deleted], which really depressed me.

I was also very angry, actually, because my dual degree was a huge handicap. I didn't even get callbacks at a lot of places I otherwise would have with my gpa and journal experience. I was very angry at my school for leading me to believe that if I did well, it wouldn't hurt my chances because it was in fact a huge factor. Most firms simply looked the other way as soon as it was mentioned. Even though I was top 10%, got on law review, got a [deleted] award, etc., I found that because I was getting specialized training in a civil law system, I was suddenly a disfigured burden that no one wanted, even though these firms claim to be "international." I was most disappointed about [deleted], [deleted], [deleted] and [deleted].

I would be happy to rant about my dual degree till the cows come home. I hear about the next group of students coming in thinking they are doing something so valuable and I feel bad for them. And it is extemely valuable-just not on the market, and that is NOT what the schools tell us. In fact, it is even worse for the [non-US] students. Many of them (including my friend from this year) get NO offers at all. In fact, he not only got no offers, he got no callbacks after the initial interviews. And he has a B average from [top law school], which is not far off the curve, and he has a business degree from [deleted], one of the top business schools in Europe. That apparently means nothing to the "international" firms. Most of the interviewers didn't even believe that he was getting a JD. They kept saying, "Wait, so, you're getting an LLM?"

In case you haven't seen it-thought you might be interested in an article I just read in Financial Times about the increasing internationalness of commercial legal practice, with corresponding development in law schools. International-this and international-that has been a buzzword everywhere I've gone since I was in middle school, but it's taken me until law school to realize just how much of a marketing tool it is and how little substance there is to it.

Almost all of my interviewers in recruiting this fall responded that their firms had grown more "international" in the past few years. Even I thought I wanted to practice "private international law" when I came to law school, until I found out that it didn't exist. LOL And from what I have seen of international arbitration, I would be tempted to call it a trend. I am taking a class called "international business transactions," which sounded very interesting to me. Little did I know it would be the worst class I would probably ever take. In fact, the article mentions the growth of LLM programs and how useful they are. Maybe so, but [top law school] has one of the top ranked LLMs and this class I am taking is mostly filled with LLM students and they seem to find the platitudinous and simplistic discussions quite engaging. The LLM program seems to offer none of the rigor of the JD. And the FT article fails to mention that an LLM is in no way as marketable as a JD. Many LLMs from [top school] cannot get hired in the U.S. (although, of course, their degrees are quite useful in other countries).

Perhaps people and companies invest abroad more than they used to, and courts (mostly non-American ones) increasingly turn to decisions in other countries for guidance, and law firms (and possibly law schools) are responding to this. But to me, doing law and business remains country-specific and all the focus on internationalness often distracts and shoves quality down. Of course it helps to have cross-cultural experiences and speak different languages, as it always has. But I really wonder about the value of all this international mania in education.

And now turning to the lawyers (some of them also law professors). Their reactions:

  • You'll be happy to know that when chatting with the student at [college] who was calling me for donations, I explained to him that very few people actually practice "International Law". I told him he'd better off getting a job that allowed him to develop his dual focus of economics and near-eastern affairs (already speaks Korean and is learning Chinese) than going straight to law school. Hopefully he'll take the advice to heart. I told him that law schools all offer International Law programs because that's what students want, but he shouldn't use that as a basis for his career.
  • No law student should expect ex ante to have a career in int'l law, given how small the field actually is. But it's no wonder, as Anna suggests, that kids still buy into the myth--because schools like hls, nyu, and columbia (along with many lesser ones) have bloated int'l law programs that perpetuate and use this myth to sell themselves. Programmatic emphasis or deemphasis is a critical way in which to educate (or mislead) students. This naive consumer interest is what justifies having a figleaf of int'l offerings. It's important for the school to be able to say it has *some* offerings in these areas. At the same time, students will in fact be better served if only a small amount of resources are expended in those directions.
  • That's a vicious circle - one of the main reasons that the schools pump up those things is that the prospective students want them. When I stand behind a table for admissions fully 80% of the students ask about international law, and more than half of them say that's what they want to "do" after law school. They have no idea what it is. But it's very very important to them. It's quite mind boggling, really. Over half of them say they want to do public interest law, and most of them have no idea what that means either.
  • [An aside, from someone who practices election law:] I get asked regularly questions about practicing election law, including "which law school should I go to if I want to practice ...?" I then explain that the number of actual practicioners is probably less than 100.
  • [And another aside:] Are these the same people who think "environmental law" means "I heal the planet" versus "I litigate fights between companies as to who pays for it"?
  • I don't think the vast majority of them think about "public international" as a category - I think most of them just like the idea of working overseas.
  • I regularly give a speech where I explain that it doesn't make sense to pursue a "concentration" in international law (or any other subject). I explain that if three people are standing in front of me, one might be interested in international human rights, one in international business and one in international litigation. The three practice areas would have a relatively small number of relevant courses in common, yet all might be considered "international law," along with a variety of other things. I also explain that one can "practice international law" working in the US or overseas, for a law firm based here or overseas, working for our government or another government, working in the public interest here or there. Invariably, none of the people I'm talking to have ever thought about any of that, and express surprise at the variety of things one might do that could be considered "international law." All many of them know is that they want to live in another country.
  • Most of the lawyers who work for "int'l clients" on int'l deals or litigation are actually consulted for their expertise in domestic law. I've done antitrust work on int'l deals. Our work was usually to explain to foreign firms whether US regulators would permit the deal--and then to shepherd the deal through. No int'l law involved--though sometimes int'l travel and clients who in addition to english also spoke japanese or french.
  • A not insignificant percentage of them continue to ask about it in interviews for summer associate positions. When I get the question, I inquire what they mean and if they can articulate that they're interested in cross-border M&A and capital markets work, fine. If not, automatic ding.
  • I would love to see a firm consolidate all of its major document production efforts in some warehouse in Paris or Rome or Tokyo or Singapore and then let all the 1-3 year associates who want international work go work there. And if we can work out the confidentiality issues, it will be a warehouse in Mumbai.

That's a lot for applicants to digest. If there are people out there who've had different experiences with international law, please leave a comment!

I'll conclude by pointing out my own "international law" experience, for what that's worth. When I was a film finance lawyer out in Los Angeles, every single one of our deals involved money from German investors because of a weird quirk in the German tax code. Every once in a blue moon some German would fly in to sign some papers, but despite the fact that I'm half-German, grew up in Germany, and speak German fluently, I never left the borders of L.A. County for a single one of those deals. Fact is, in the age of emails and PDFs and faxes, I never needed to. Each closing also involved contracts with non-US movie distributors covering just about every country on the globe. I'd review the contracts and make sure they were kosher (because they were collateral for the movie loans), I'd look at the faxed signatures (always faxed -- I never met these people), and then I'd slap those puppies in a closing binder (which also never left L.A. County). And here's the kicker: despite my language skills, nobody wanted to conduct business in anything other than English, which they all spoke flawlessly. People still ooh and aah when they hear the words "entertainment law" or "international law," but there you have it. It was a good job, and international film finance can be fun. But glamorous? Jet-setting? Polyglot? Not so much.

Edited to add: Follow-up posting in response to the comment below is here.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).