What Makes a Good International Law Program?

Experienced faculty, broad curriculum, clinical and research opportunities set the top schools apart

Law schools across the nation have beefed up their international law curriculum. Harvard, the University of Michigan and Georgetown and others have even made an introductory course mandatory for all first-year students.

International law has transcended the traditional practice specialty, impacting most practice areas. So, what makes a good school for international law?

Most law professors and pre-law advisors agree that the best schools are not defined by U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, but by a closer look at the faculty, courses, clinical programs and study abroad offerings.

“Number one, the faculty,�? said George Washington University Law SchoolAssociate Dean Susan Karamanian when asked what determines a good international law program. “Do you have faculty that are exceptional in the breadth of public international law, trade, humanitarian law, foreign law? What access do they have to the major players in the field, in U.S. government, the U.N., the European Union?�?

“Always start with the faculty — those doing the most interesting research and teaching,�? said Stanford Law School Professor Allen Weiner. “The quality of the faculty includes connections to the practice of international law. Networking is incredibly useful in getting into the field. So, your faculty should be involved, but also connected.�?

While most law schools offer at least an introductory course in international law, and perhaps a smattering of others, the more the better, in order to provide students with opportunities to get a feel for what areas are available.

“Obviously the curriculum has to be broad,�? Weiner said. “NYU probably has the best, or one of the best in that regard. Part of the reason is the number of courses, but it covers a full range of international issues.�?

John Norton Moore, law professor and director of the Center for National Security Law and the Center for Oceans Law & Policy at the University of Virginia School of Law, said excellence in specific sub-specializations of international law can be a consideration as well.

“Ideally the program will have a number of different areas that they’re the leading university in, or among the leaders,�? he said, not surprisingly citing national security and oceans law as examples at UVA.

Opportunities outside the classroom are also critical factors to consider. Clinical programs, research centers, journals, special interest programs, internship and study abroad opportunities are all valuable additions to classroom theory. The best ones among them provide actual practice experience.

“Here at Yale, we have one of the most phenomenal clinical programs you could imagine,�? said Yale Law School Professor Oona Hathaway. “Students are actually going into court and arguing asylum cases, cases with sexual implications in Africa, a number of different issues.�?

When it comes to study abroad programs, Karamanian said international law programs shouldn’t be judged on the number of those opportunities, but rather the way they are conducted.

“It depends on the quality of the program,�? she said. “Are they just being taught by a U.S. professor on U.S. issues, in a foreign country? It must be meaningful. If it’s a European Union course, is it being taught by EU scholars?�?

Stanford’s Weiner agreed that overseas study opportunities are a valuable opportunity to learn, for instance, Chinese law in a way it could probably not be learned in the U.S. He also touted special interest and research centers as a valuable component of a sound international law program.

“Those are important,�? he said. “Here at Stanford we have the Freeman Centers, and a series of centers beneath it — International Security & Cooperation, Human Rights, Energy & Sustainable Development and others — these kinds of connections at centers that are doing research that is policy-relevant. You as a law student can work with people in the real world and policy makers. Look for a program with a connection to a research university. The proliferation of these centers is a phenomenon.�?

Just What is International Law?

Whether you practice in tax, environmental law, human rights or immigration law, criminal law, or virtually any other legal specialization, there is a growing chance in today’s global environment that you will encounter issues involving international law.

“To say you are interested in international law is in some ways no different than saying you are interested in law,�? said Stanford Law School Professor Allen Weiner. “International law can mean you want to do private transactional work, but you want to do transactional deals in a trans-national setting. Or you want to work in an international non-profit, doing human rights work, or in what we used to call public interest law. There is an extraordinary amount of work out there that has an international focus, so it’s useful to get training in international law.�?

Because international law touches so many legal practice areas today, it can be difficult to define. The traditional interpretation of international law focused on treaties, dispute resolution between countries and other aspects of international transactions, said Karamanian.

“Most people would say it’s not just international law, it’s comparative law working with foreign laws,�? Karamanian said. “It’s becoming very hard to distinguish between international and intellectual property or environmental law.�?

“It depends on what you think of as the role of someone practicing international law,�? said Yale Law School Professor Oona Hathaway, whose classes include Introduction to Trans-National Law. “If it is going out negotiating treaties, then yes, there are not many jobs. If you are working with a client on a matter that has cross-national implications, or is entirely domestic but has international connotations, then you’re going to need to know international law.�?

This guest post is authored by Jim Dunlap and was originally published in the 2010 Winter edition of preLaw Magazine. You can click here for the digital edition of the magazine or visit the pr
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