The resources, skills and advice for aspiring international lawyers

21 March 2022 By Naomi Neilson

Navigating international law as an Australian law student or graduate can be difficult and confusing, so Protégé spoke to a young lawyer with experience at the United Nations and the International Bar Association to chat about how she got started, what her applications looked like and how other aspiring lawyers can do the same.   

Although there are Australia-based resources for new lawyers wanting to work overseas, finding the right one from just a handful of options can be “opaque”, according to post-graduate law student and the most recent guest of The Protégé Podcast, Sadaf Azimi. To help these lawyers get started, Ms Azimi joined the podcast to walk listeners through her experience and share her best advice.

First, it’s about finding an organisation to get started with. For Ms Azimi, this began with a Google search and a measure of luck that the International Bar Association’s (IBA) internship popped up. Outside of the search bar, Ms Azimi recommends that future students interested in this space jump on the United Nations careers job page or the Young Australians in International Law website for more local information.

“We are quite lucky,” Ms Azimi said of the Australian options. There is the UNHCR body based in Canberra, the Australian Institute for Home Affairs, the Office of International Law and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. As for that last one, Ms Azimi said that it might be the “most straightforward way”.

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One of the easiest ways, Ms Azimi added, is through private practice where new lawyers can focus on upskilling and becoming competent in commercial law. Once they have two or three years post-qualification experience, she said they should then make the jump to a P2 legal associate-level position overseas.

“That being said, I think something about this area is that it’s just not linear. It’s quite opaque, and so there is not one right way to get into it,” Ms Azimi stressed.

While all these resources are important for aspiring international lawyers, Ms Azimi told listeners that it could be quite difficult to maintain unless they have financial stability. Given its popularity, internships held overseas will often be unpaid and many hopeful lawyers can be dissuaded by how long this can last – but there is another Australian resource that could assist in these instances.

“We’re very fortunate that in Australia we have the Australian and New Zealand Society for International Law, which has an internship support program for unpaid internships within international organisations overseas,” Ms Azimi explained. “I would really encourage you to apply and to draw on that resource we have here.”

Moving onto what looks best on the application – and gives new lawyers an edge over the many other applicants – Ms Azimi said the main thing is language. Learning some basics in a language that they are curious about “can go a long way” in an application and will be the “easiest way” outside of a paid role to develop expertise.

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“I think my experience probably shows that you don’t really need to even have the right work experience. At the time, I was working a retail job when I applied for the United Nations, and really the only thing on my resume was that I had just done this four-week language exchange in France with the University of Sydney and I had been learning French for a time,” Ms Azimi shared on the episode.

“I think the nature of these organisations is that language skills and culture are so intertwined with one another, and language really demonstrates this interest in international affairs, more so than anything else on a CV.”

Paired with language is going on exchange, which understandably can be out of reach for some students given the pandemic. However, there is still Australia-based experiences that can step into this gap, such as Model UN. Ms Azimi said this would “definitely demonstrate” an interest in the international law system and assist aspiring lawyers with picking up related skills, such as public speaking.

For entry-level roles, and often paid roles, Ms Azimi said they look for two things: “One is a master’s degree, usually in international law or anything related. In lieu of that, if you don’t have a master’s degree but you are practising as a lawyer, they will look for at least two years of post-qualifying experience.”

Once they have their foot in the door, Ms Azimi said there could be times when the work seems overwhelming. Reflecting on her own experience working with the Australian government, she said some of the tasks were “quite beyond me”.

“In the end, in any job, when you are given something that you feel is beyond you, you will rise to the occasion. I would really encourage anybody who is thinking of applying to not be discouraged by the job descriptions, because that difficulty in the role can happen [in any role] – and it’s more than likely that everyone will rise to the occasion and be more than equipped to do it,” Ms Azimi said.

For more advice on securing a position overseas, building the perfect application and to learn about Sadaf’s own experience, have a listen to the episode here.

The resources, skills and advice for aspiring international lawyers
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