Academic Advising

How to Prepare for Global Legal Practice: Advice to JD Students

The International Law Curriculum

As the leading law school in the United States (and possibly the world) in the field of international law, NYU’s “international law” curriculum is exceptionally rich. But which courses constitute this curriculum? That is a particularly tricky question to answer, not least because a number of NYU’s faculty include transnational or comparative law insights into their ‘domestic’ courses, such as civil procedure or contracts. One way to answer that question is through the course topics section in NYU’s annual listing of its courses. Each year some 50 courses, seminars, or clinics are characterized, by their respective instructors, under ‘topic’ as dealing with “international law,” “comparative and foreign law,” and/or “international litigation and arbitration.”

The substantial number of NYU courses identified by their respective instructors as dealing (at least in part) with “international law” indicate the extent to which virtually all subjects that were once solely governed by national or domestic law now include aspects governed or affected by the sources of international law, such as treaties.  This category includes obvious introductory survey courses such as “international law” (offered as both a first year elective and as a second/third year offering) or “international human rights,” as well as offerings addressing legal regimes characterized by one or more multilateral treaties such as courses on “international trade” (dealing with the rules governing and emerging from the World Trade Organization), “international criminal law and courts” (dealing with the rules of, and case law emerging from, among other venues, the International Criminal Court), or “international humanitarian law” (addressing the rules governing the conduct of war under, for example, the post WWII Geneva Conventions).  But the ‘international law’ topic category includes some less obvious options, such as “managing and understanding sovereign debt risk,” “Chinese attitudes toward international law,” and “the regulation of foreign corrupt practices.” (The inclusion of these three respective courses can be explained by the fact (1) sovereign liability is constrained by international law governing sovereign immunity (even if generally given effect by national law); (2) despite international law’s claim to ‘global’ (and uniform) application, national practices giving it effect vary; and (3) international as well as national laws constrain the giving of bribes by private businesses.)  Clinical offerings designated as ‘international’ include the clinics on “global justice” (focusing on human rights), “international organizations,” “international transactions,” and “United Nations Diplomacy.” 

Courses identified as dealing with “international litigation and arbitration” might be described (particularly by Europeans) as involving “private” international law.  Because these courses usually deal with the rules regulating contracts or property and/or the transnational venues for adjudicating such rights, these courses are associated, not always accurately, with private law practice. Notably, nearly all these courses are designated by their instructors as also dealing with ‘international law.’ Prominent courses in this category include NYU’s offerings on international commercial arbitration (usually dealing with disputes between private parties) or both general survey or more specialized seminars on international investment arbitration (dealing with disputes brought by investors against the countries in which they invest).  It also includes courses that address which national laws ought to govern a dispute (“conflict of laws”); how national law intersects with either commercial or investment arbitration or with disputes in US courts that have other transnational dimensions (“international litigation and arbitration”; “international business transactions)). Courses in this category also include those where students are evaluated on the basis of their skills in oral or written advocacy.  Most of these simulation courses, such as “international litigation and arbitration,” “international arbitration and the CISG,” and “investment arbitration law, practice and written advocacy simulation,” as well as the clinical offerings and other courses listed each year also fulfill upper level students’ ABA  requirements for an additional three credits in upper level ‘experiential’ learning (beyond their first year course in lawyering).

“Comparative and foreign law” courses deal with the foreign law of a particular jurisdiction (e.g., China), region (e.g., Asia), or religion (e.g., Islamic or Jewish law). They may also compare the rules of a number of jurisdictions on a particular topic (as do “international or comparative antitrust” or “comparative intellectual property”) or compare a nation’s laws or practices with its international obligations (as does “Chinese attitudes toward international law”).  

Students should keep in mind that these topic designations are only helpful tools.  In reality, many of NYU ‘international’ offerings reflect contemporary realities that blur distinctions between public/private, international/domestic, or foreign/comparative.  The basic international law survey course, for example, may address both “public” international law and the rules governing transnational investment flows; that course may also include an introduction to how international law intersects with domestic law. It may include an introduction to the foreign relations law of the United States and may, in addition, pay some attention to how other countries handle the same international rules, thereby introducing a dose of ‘comparative’ international law. Clinical offerings in this field, such as the “international transactions clinic,” may, depending on the client-oriented project, call upon the students’ knowledge of US law of contracts or other applicable US laws as much, if not more so, than their grasp of ‘public’ international law. 

Another example of the limited descriptive values of these designations are NYU’s rich array of internationally oriented colloquia. These two credit seminars – which tend to be structured around presentations of works in progress by prominent scholars and short student commentaries on such works -- vary from year to year depending on faculty interest.  While these colloquia are frequently designated under one or more of the three topics listed above, the diversity of their subjects – e.g., ‘global governance,’ ‘the law of Goggle,’ ‘globalization and development’ – defy such easy categorization. These seminars may demand that students adapt knowledge gained from more traditional courses. Students in a Guarini colloquium on the ‘international law of global digital corporations’ will be asked to consider, but not necessarily, apply the territorially grounded rules of either national or international law, for example.  

Navigating the Curriculum and Beyond

As the above description suggests, the NYU JD student interested in engaging in ‘global practice’ faces an extraordinary but bewildering array of selections as well as numerous pathways in optimal sequencing of these courses through three years. NYU’s ‘international’ curriculum reflects the fact that over the past 50 years, the transnational regulation of persons, capital, markets, and power has developed to such an extent that today practically every subject taught as part of the typical “US” or “domestic” legal curriculum has a transnational, international, or comparative legal dimension.

The basic survey course on international law reflects the “internationalization” of law.  Although the contents of that course differs depending on the instructor, it typically covers a common core.  It introduces the basic ‘sources’ of public international legal obligation (generally created by and applicable to states), namely treaties, customary law, and general principles.  As is suggested by the description of NYU’s curriculum above, these sources now address everything from family law to the protection of intellectual property. In addition, that course introduces non-traditional forms of transnational regulation – sometimes called ‘soft law’-- that are vaster still. They include rules promulgated by market players, international financial institutions, or hybrid public/private entities. Beyond that common core, instructors in the basic international law select from a large number of specialized legal regimes (most of which are the subject of specialized NYU courses or seminars), including  statehood and diplomatic immunities, international organizations, human rights, the international use of force, international humanitarian law, international environmental law, trade (or WTO) law, international investment law and arbitration, foreign affairs and the (US) constitution, and international criminal law and criminal tribunals. Given its coverage, we recommend that NYU students seriously interested in this field take, as early as possible in their law school careers, the basic international law survey course (offered each year for 3 or 4 credits). While that course may or may not have the title of “public” international law, the course is equally useful to those aspiring to practice in the “public” or “private” sides of the aisle (the interpretation of treaties, for example, is as important to economic regulation and transnational civil litigation as it is to those engaged in human rights advocacy.) 

Beyond that basic recommendation, there is no designated set curriculum – no single right way – to become an international lawyer. While students often anticipate practicing in only one of international law’s various sub-specialties, the typical JD graduate may find herself pursing, in the immediate wake of graduation, tracks that she never anticipated – perhaps opened up by a seminar or a summer internship during law school. Those contemplating a ‘global’ law career are, no less than most JD graduates, likely to find themselves engaged in various ‘careers’ in law.  They may go from a clerkship to private practice and from there to one or more government positions and thereafter to a policy position or to the general counsel’s office of a private enterprise.  Given this reality, even JD students focused on becoming a ‘human rights lawyer,’ for example, would be wise to take full advantage of the breadth of NYU’s rich and diverse offerings. 

A good international lawyer needs to be, first and foremost, a good lawyer with a solid foundation in the finely honed doctrine and techniques of his or her own legal system. To this end, we recommend that all NYU students, even those aspiring to specialize in international law, should take those upper level US law courses that most employers like to see on a law school transcript.  While opinions differ on what courses, apart from those required in the first year, should be included on such a “short” list, most would include at a minimum courses in corporations, taxation, evidence, and federal courts.

The good international lawyer, irrespective of eventual specialty within the field, should also acquire a cosmopolitan training in international law’s most significant sub-regimes. To give an example: while an NYU student who aspires to be a human rights advocate should naturally take advantage of some of NYU’s ample human rights offerings, the most effective and creative human rights lawyers are often those: who are educated about other international institutions (such as the WTO or other global governance institutions), know something about other ways to adjudicate transnational disputes (such as arbitration), or who have some sense about how states other than the US approach the matter of ‘rights.’ The same rationale would justify course selections, whether within the ‘international’ curriculum or not, that develop skills in oral and/or written advocacy.

Writing high-quality research papers is especially important in international/comparative law and global governance. Many of the major problems of practice require novel insights.  Its best practitioners are helping to make law or shaping institutions, whether within government agencies or international organizations, in NGOs or private firms. Making a mark as a student by thinking through a hard problem and publishing one or more papers either during law school or shortly after graduation provides a running start and impresses prospective employers.  A seminar, ideally in the 2L year, that requires or offers the option of writing a substantial research paper often provides the best opportunity to start such a paper—as does participation in any one of NYU’s law journals. Carrying through one or more serious research efforts to completion is especially important for those who think that they may seek, at some point, an academic position.  Those interested in making a significant contribution to scholarship at some point in their careers should bear in mind that it is important to develop a mentorship relationship while they are still in law school with those who have devoted their lives to developing such scholarship, namely NYU’s permanent faculty. Those interested in positions in academe should make their interests known to such faculty members as well as seek other opportunities (from seminars to directed research to becoming teaching or research assistants) that expose them to the challenges involved in producing creative scholarship. Of course, such students should also take full advantage of the non-credit programs offered for prospective academics. 

Well-chosen summer internships and summer employment are a key part of the JD experience.  Such experience can often provide a basis for research papers, inspire upper level course selection, or further clinical work. NYU offers tremendous support for students seeking public interest summer internships anywhere in the world, including in international organizations, and faculty members are also glad to provide advice and to utilize their own very extensive sets of contacts where appropriate. Students should also be aware that New York University provides a huge range of language courses at different levels during each semester.  Although law students have many demands on their time, for some students these opportunities to consolidate language expertise prove very helpful and may enhance their prospects to be hire by particular employers, including US firms with foreign clients or offices abroad. They may also help students contemplating one of NYU’s semester abroad programs and make enhance the benefits of participating in those programs. 

As a guide, the well-rounded prospective global lawyer may want to consider course selection along the following lines:

  • Spring term, first year: international law elective
  • Second year: basic foundational courses in the international/comparative field, including courses on international trade, international investment, conflicts of laws, human rights, or commercial arbitration (including at least one seminar requiring significant writing); foundational US law courses 
  • Third year: more advanced courses, clinics, and seminars in the international/comparative field (including to develop an area of concentration within the international/comparative field and perhaps leading to the eventual publication of a significant piece of writing).