Panel: Learning About Cultures, Law Leads to Successful International Law Careers

February 19, 2009

The best way to launch a career as a successful international lawyer is to know the basics of the craft well, treat other cultures with respect and take a broad range of courses, panelists said at the American Bar Association's pathways for employment in international law event Monday.

From left: James Freis, William Cox and Terrence Murphy

The panelists included Craig Blakeley, a member of the Alliance Law Group; William Bruce Cox, legal counsel for contracts and procurement for Tata Communications; James Freis, director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network; Terrence Murphy, chairman of the consulting firm MK Technology; and Wendy Wysong '84, a partner in Clifford Chance's regulatory and white collar practice.

As with any branch of lawyering, a solid educational foundation is important in international law.

"It all comes back to [the] idea of learning the craft, learning how to get from point A to point B," Murphy said. "If you can't do that, then no amount of international razzle-dazzle can get you anywhere. If you can do it, then the doors open."

Part of the "international razzle-dazzle" Murphy mentioned includes showing deference to other countries. Freis suggested international lawyers should try and learn the basics of another language. Even without fluency, knowing enough to introduce yourself comes in handy and has brought him clients in the past, Freis said.

Knowing a second language helped Murphy as well. While working at a German law firm, Murphy said his proficiency in the language helped him to be treated as a peer rather than an outsider.

In addition to learning the basics of another language, Blakeley said any experience abroad can help to prepare a student for a career in international law.

Craig Blakeley and Wendy Wysong '84

"There is an enormous brain-awakening experience that happens when you're outside of the United States," Blakeley said. "That experience alone, talking with people of different cultures [and] getting that kind of experience — particularly if you can do it from a policy or legal perspective — really opens your mind. And that experience tends to credentialize you in terms of your interest because you can't really represent yourself as an international lawyer if you haven't been out of the country."

For females, one part of accepting foreign cultural norms is different than for male counterparts, Wysong said. All countries view female lawyers differently — in some settings, no one takes note of her gender, but in some Middle Eastern countries she has visited, her male clients have refused to shake her hand.

Murphy said his wife, who is also a lawyer, has had similar experiences, but he emphasized that in the majority of countries, female lawyers are treated no differently than male lawyers.

Academically speaking, the panelists — who all had some background in finance or economics — said students should pursue a broad curriculum to best prepare themselves for international law. They attributed their common economic background to the trade-based nature of international law.

Wysong emphasized that financial coursework, however, is not necessary for succeeding in international law. Though she sometimes did not understand economic law in law school, she said it was easier to pick up once she started dealing with it in practice.

Especially in today's increasingly global society, Blakeley said almost any background can be transferred into some aspect of international law.

"I think it's whatever your interest is and what your skill sets are," he said. "If you develop some solid background and grounding and acquire a particular expertise, whether that's in trade, finance [or] litigation, then you can find a way to translate that and extend it internationally."

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