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International Development

PSJD Career Guide

This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in International Development Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.

What is International Development Law?

What is international development? International development is an intersectional field aimed at improving the economic, political, and social quality of life for people in developing countries. This is achieved through poverty alleviation, development and improvement of educational opportunities, environmental improvements and sustainability, healthcare, rule of law and governance, and economic and infrastructure development. International development law then involves lawyers that educate and train political and judicial leaders, negotiate amongst organizations and various levels of governments, assist with compliance matters related to funding and program development, and provide legal advice to various professionals working on-site.

Where can I practice International Development Law?

International development lawyers work in government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), law firms, and consulting groups.

Government Agencies

Lawyers work for various government agencies both in-country and in foreign countries that supply various kinds of aid to developing countries. This includes working for the Department of State and U.S. Agency of International Development. Other government lawyers that may advise on these issues include other agencies that provide technical expertise or are seeking to develop trade relations on international projects, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state governments. For these lawyers, such work would likely only be part of their portfolio.

International governmental and intergovernmental bodies also require lawyers. This includes the United Nations (UN), World Bank, and International Development Law Organization (IDLO). These organizations have their own programs that lawyers are supporting with negotiations and transactional services, but also serve as a bridge between countries and also support intergovernmental efforts.

Non-Government Organizations (NGOs)

Non-governmental organizations is an umbrella term for organizations that are neither part of a government nor a conventional for-profit organizations. These organizations rely on a combination of government funding, fee for service, and private grants and donations to deliver programs that support various development efforts. Some of the work that their internal attorneys might do includes ensuring visa compliance for its workers in host countries; compliance with international, U.S., and local laws regarding goods imports, taxation, and funds transfers; and preparing contracts and memoranda of understanding with outside vendors and local organizations for program development and execution.

This category includes professional organizations, such as the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative efforts. This includes training judges, helping write constitutions and civil and criminal codes. While the ABA does have Staff Attorneys working both stateside and abroad to support these programs, a great deal of the work is done by their members through pro bono efforts, spending anywhere from a couple of weeks a year to a couple of

Law Firms

Some private lawyers specialize in issues relating to international development. These firms generally assist either help very large organizations or very small organizations. For large organizations, the lawyers are bringing an expertise or relationships to complex negotiations, generally working alongside inside counsel at government agencies or NGOs. For small organizations, these lawyers are likely working directly with the Project Director or Executive Director, serving as counsel on a wide variety of matters. Donors often hire attorneys to ensure that programs comply with aid-recipient countries' laws and regulations, as well as U.S. laws regarding funding international organizations.

Consulting Firms

Various consulting firms assist NGOs and government entities with diverse aspects of project planning and execution. Lawyers working as consultants often assist with compliance issues to complement other cultural or technical issues handled by other consultants in their firms. For lawyers with a background in international development project management, there are opportunities to blend that work with the legal background both in the field and in headquarters for upper management opportunities.

Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?

International development law involves dealing with potentially difficult ethical issues of representation. It means looking at several bodies of law to resolve issues of conflicting laws and regulations. It also means helping clients understand those laws and regulations, and how they might need to develop programs that will conform to those requirements. The ability to move amongst cultural norms when conducting negotiations will also be necessary.

What can I be doing in law school to help my career in International Development Law?

There is no substitute for experience in the field while in law school, which will also set you apart from other candidates. Strong verbal and written communication as well as management and project management skills are critical for success in international development law. Language skills may also be helpful or even required, especially for overseas positions. For example, serving as legal counsel for an organization in Mumbai will require fluency in English, and fluency in a major Asian language will often be desirable, if not required.

Depending on the hiring organization, previous experience in certain areas of the law might be necessary. Expertise in nonprofit tax law is useful when targeting employment at an NGO, while experience in corporate, tax, commercial, or finance and banking law will likely be required for legal positions in microfinance institutions. Past experience and coursework in negotiations and administrative law is helpful for seeking opportunities with government agencies.


The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:

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