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International Public Interest Work in U.S. Governments

The opportunities in government for international work are very diverse, as global issues span many different types of entities in state, federal and foreign governments. Though it may require more creativity and patience to find that first international job, it is well worth the effort. Working in an international position in the government also requires a dedication that may go above and beyond what is expected of you in private practice or large firms.

International legal work for the federal government is carried out in numerous agencies and departments, including those with a primarily international mission like the U.S. Department of State, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); as well as those that address both domestic and international law such as the U.S. DOJ, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Treasury Department.

There are more than 50 federal agencies that offer opportunities for international work both at home and abroad. The most popular over the years for Harvard students have been the Department of State, the DOJ, the Department of Defense (DOD) and USAID. The DOJ Criminal Division alone offers international opportunities in its Office of International Affairs and its Counter Terrorism, Organized Crime and Racketeering Division, and its Overseas Prosecutorial Development Division. However, with so many opportunities to experience international work at the federal level, one should not be shortsighted about exploring other exciting options in lesser-known agencies. For example, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is a relatively small federal agency, with about 200 permanent employees, including 25 lawyers. This makes USTR a fairly tight-knit agency, with a congenial work atmosphere and good cooperation between lawyers, economists, and policy analysts. Because of its size, a great deal of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of each employee.

With the increase in terrorism, several students have taken advantage of the challenging international opportunities available at the Department of Homeland Security and the recently established counterterrorism and foreign intelligence sections of the DOJ, and Departments of Energy, Treasury and Defense.


The structure and size of a government agency can have an impact on where you decide to work. Some organizational structures are centralized whereas others are more decentralized and delegate responsibility to lower levels of the organization. Some agencies organize by geographic area and others organize by function or policy issues. Almost every agency posts its organizational structure online along with a description of the duties of each of its divisions and sections. If you have an interest in a particular area of the law, or a particular department that may not be included in this Guide, be sure to explore these opportunities as they may be hidden gems that offer interesting and challenging work with far less competition for summer internships and post-graduate positions. The U.S. Department of State and the USAID clearly offer the most opportunities for international employment; however, DOJ, DOD and Treasury offer some unique opportunities to explore the intersection of public and private international law. For example, at the Department of the Treasury, you can learn about the procedural protections afforded to those placed on the Office of Foreign Asset Control’s list of prohibited entities and the general processes by which banks and regulators can monitor financial transactions to prevent money laundering, terrorist financing and sanctions violations. This knowledge can be extremely useful in both public and private international law.


Most federal agencies hire interns during the summer as well as other times of the year, including winter terms. Most agencies have internship positions specifically for law students. Some have summer honors programs, which can lead to entry-level employment. Not all legal internship positions available are paid. However, agencies with paid internship programs frequently will also hire law students for unpaid positions. If you ultimately desire an international career in government, a summer internship abroad is a great way to start. Although finding a summer internship abroad is far more difficult than a domestic internship, there area number of students who have been successful in securing positions overseas for the summer.

In the past, HLS students have spent summers at the U.S. Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands, and others have worked for the Office of the USTR in Geneva, Switzerland. From domestic locations, several students have done international work for USAID, the Office of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Treasury in Washington, D.C. Federal regional offices such as the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Homeland Security also have many opportunities throughout the country and are usually located in major cities.


Federal agencies usually seek candidates with several years of relevant work experience when hiring for permanent international legal positions. However, a summer internship doing international work can be a great stepping-stone to post-graduate employment.

A number of federal agencies such as the DOJ, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), FTC, National Regulatory Commission (NCR), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Transportation, and Treasury have honors programs that can lead to entry-level employment upon graduation. Honors programs are quite competitive and thus previous experience in the federal government, such as a summer or school year internship, is often helpful.


Unfortunately, there is no one formula that works best and guarantees seamless transitions between public and private sector employment. Rather than concern yourself with which sector is preferable, the better path is to first choose your field of practice based on your passions and interests. Some fields, such as tax, telecommunications, criminal law, SEC enforcement, development, trade and antitrust, lend themselves to both public and private sector work. Other fields of practice do not make it as easy to transition between sectors. Alumni, professors and networking contacts are great sources of information on whether going down a particular career path may preclude or enhance opportunities to work for the federal government.

International Public Interest Work in Foreign Governments


Although limited opportunities are available in the U.S. government for foreign citizens, openings in foreign agencies for U.S. citizens have traditionally been even rarer. For post-graduate work, foreign governments tend to hire their own citizens due to factors such as limited job opportunities, regulatory restrictions, and security requirements. However, an increasing number of HLS students have served as summer interns for foreign governments, and this summer these included internships with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the South African Human Rights Commission, the U.S. Embassy at the Hague, the National Prosecuting Authority in Cape Town, and the Ministry of Justice In Liberia. As a demonstration of the great need for legal assistance, in June of this year a delegation from Liberia visited HLS. The delegation included representatives from the local chambers of commerce, women’s organizations, transportation agencies and parliament. Requests for legal assistance included programs to empower women and assist children, workforce development, agriculture assistance, infrastructure, water and roadways, and legislative and regulatory reform. Other overseas experiences include Clifford Sarkin (HLS ’05) who spent his1L summer at the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO), a division of South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Designed to be an elite law enforcement agency, the DSO’s mission is to investigate and prosecute crimes involving public corruption, complex economic fraud and organized crime/racketeering. Cliff spent the first half of his 12-week internship in Pretoria and the second half in the Western Cape (Cape Town) regional office. Although South Africa is his country of birth, Cliff did not have South African citizenship. See the narrative from Antonio L. Cortes (YLS ’89), who describes his experiences working for the Koror State Government, Republic of Palau. National and local courts also provide opportunities to work for a foreign government. This summer several HLS students are working in the Supreme Courts of India and Israel.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has emphasized the global identification of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), as essential partners in the task of protecting and promoting human rights at the national and regional levels. These government institutions provide excellent opportunities for working with a foreign government while collaborating with NGOs and IGOs on this significant focus on human rights. NHRIs are governed by the Paris Principles and accredited through the ICC sub-committee on Accreditation. The Subcommittee is composed of regional representatives from Canada for the Americas (chair), Rwanda for Africa, the Republic of Korea for Asia Pacific and Germany for Europe. This summer HLS students interned for Human Rights Institutions in Ireland, Jordan, Pakistan and South Africa. In 2007, technical assistance was provided by the High Commissioner in many countries including Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Sudan, and Uganda.


There are more than 170 foreign embassies located in Washington, D.C. and an almost equivalent number of foreign consulates located in several major cities including New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Boston alone has more than 52 consulates and New York City has more than 100. The primary purpose of foreign embassies and consulates is to promote business interests and help foreign governments attract U.S. business opportunities. This is in contrast to U.S. embassies located in foreign countries where there is a slightly different mission as noted above. Despite the difference in focus of U.S. and foreign embassies, both can be accessed through networking. Getting to know the consul general and economic consulates from countries where you would like to work is an excellent way to develop contacts and handle issues that arise in international work. Most foreign embassies and consulates will employ U.S. citizens if there is a specific need to fill that requires knowledge and experience of the U.S. government or the private sector. Read a complete guide to embassies in Washington, D.C. Learn about special considerations for international J.D.s.