Law & Legal Studies

What Can You Do With an International Law Degree?

What Can You Do With an International Law Degree?
From criminal justice to policy and human rights, these fields for international law degree-holders to forge a career focused on the global community and worldwide affairs. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly March 5, 2020

Virtually every decision that a governing body or major corporation makes today sends ripples through the international community. With so much at stake, business organizations and governments around the world are eager to bring on legal professionals with a global focus—and in some cases, offering compensation in the six-figure range.

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Since the late 19th century, countries around the globe have developed progressively closer contacts through what often seems like the ever-increasing spread of products, technology, information, and jobs across national borders and cultures. Then again, the concept of globalization isn’t anything new.

An ancient example? The Silk Road. Conceived around 130 B.C., it attracted merchants from vast distances to buy commodities that were rare and expensive in their homelands. From spices and silks to metals, the exchange of goods helped China and faraway empires establish trade-based economies and led to the merging of culture, religion, and language.

Of course, that’s not exactly where globalization’s starting point is usually considered to be. Instead, it’s usually agreed to have come to life during the 1980s as slashed tariffs, loosened regulations, and cheapened labor became the norm of countries everywhere. Since then, global interdependence through trade has further developed at an unprecedented pace, thanks largely to technological change.

Historically, international law only addressed a limited degree of legal relations between countries and was dependant on sovereignty and territorial boundaries. But globalization has changed international law in numerous ways, such as by spurring the establishment of the International Criminal Court and strengthening the global fight to end impunity.

Of all legal specializations, it’s safe to assume that business law is reacting to globalization fastest. As nations agree to standard regulations, rules and legal practices, the biggest firms are merging across borders, creating mega-practices made up of thousands of professionals spanning dozens of countries.

Meanwhile, diplomats and law experts are creating new international rules for bankruptcy, intellectual property, banking procedures and many other areas of corporate law. Human rights and environmental law are also advancing on an international scale as the world’s governments set a global agenda addressing everything from sustainable development initiatives to the needs of children affected by war.

With many of today’s legal challenges often spanning countries and even continents, and just as frequently involving regional and international treaties and laws, experts in international legal relations are more essential than ever to the day-to-day workings of our world.

What can you do with an international law degree?

If you’re interested in international relations or are looking for a way to brandish your debate skills in a global setting, an international law degree can help set the stage for a law career that specializes in the international community and worldwide affairs. Here are just a few fields you can use it in.


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International arbitration

Lawyers who specialize in this field come into play when there is a case or potential case between companies or individuals residing or operating in different countries. On both the domestic and international stage, arbitration is an alternative means of dispute resolution—that is, it’s used to settle legal cases without litigation or essentially, going to court.

In arbitration, both parties agree upon an arbitrator who hears both sides of the case and issues a decision. Unlike mediation, arbitration provides a binding solution to a dispute by way of an arbitral or settlement “award.”

International arbitration lawyers either represent one of the disputing parties or act as the presiding authority, or arbitrator, in the proceedings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that arbitration lawyers earned a median annual wage of $117,900 in 2018.

Foreign policy

While foreign policy professionals may come from backgrounds spanning law, economics, science, and even education, they all have an in-depth understanding of how countries relate to each other politically, socially, and economically.

Generally, these professionals are tasked to conduct research and use their findings to advise the government and other institutions on international issues like trade, human rights, global food supply, energy, and the environment. Other foreign policy professionals may serve as foreign service officers and implement U.S. foreign policy abroad.

Their skills are also valuable in a variety of settings, including consulting companies, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, and especially at the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense, and the American Foreign Policy Council. The BLS notes that political scientists, a common position for foreign policy professionals, took home a median annual pay of $117,570 in 2018.

International trade

International trade law typically includes the rules and customs regulating trade between countries. International trade lawyers may focus on applying domestic laws to international trade and applying treaty-based international law governing trade.

In a corporate setting, you may find international trade lawyers advising both U.S. companies doing business abroad and foreign businesses operating in the U.S. Their work in this vein includes counseling organizations on relevant international trade rules and offering guidance on how to comply with these rules.

Day-to-day, they may be responsible for conducting internal investigations, preparing voluntary disclosures, and representing organizations in the event of legal action for alleged violations of rules or regulations. According to Glassdoor, lawyers in this specialization make an average salary of $107,549 per year.

International humanitarian law

Often referred to as “the laws of war” or “the law of armed conflict,” international humanitarian law encompasses the legal framework used in situations of armed conflict and occupation. Its overall goal is to limit the effects of armed conflict, which includes protecting people who are not or no longer participating in the war hostilities and restricting the means—in particular, weapons—and the methods of warfare, such as military tactics.

The core of international humanitarian law was formed by the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, and subsequent diplomatic meetings producing treaties concerning the protection of civilians, sick, wounded, and shipwrecked soldiers and military personnel, and prisoners of war.

Lawyers who specialized in international humanitarian law may defend the rights of refugees of war, act as a prosecutor during trials focused on alleged wartime abuse, or advise governments on strategies to address particular human rights violations that arise during times of international conflict. Job listing and recruitment site ZipRecruiter reports that lawyers in this specialization pull in an average annual salary of $71,918.

Foreign relations

It’s common for students with an international law degree to leave law school with extensive knowledge of world affairs, politics, economics, geography, history, and culture. This expertise lays a solid foundation for a career spent maintaining positive diplomatic relations between countries and preventing international conflicts.

Likely the most well-known work in this field is that of diplomats, who are appointed by the government to represent and protect their home country’s interests abroad. Also known as foreign service officers, they’re often required to engage in complex dialogues and negotiations with international representatives to protect their nation’s interests abroad, which may include economic, political, social, or cultural matters.

Their duties include collecting and reporting on information that could affect their nation’s interests. They may also offer top officials insight into how their government should respond to issues regarding peacekeeping, trade, or a variety of other international issues.

Some diplomats may be responsible for negotiating treaties and other international agreements before government officials approve them. According to Glassdoor, professionals in this career make an average of $85,074 per year.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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