Issues & Overview International Legal Practice

Saturday, May 1, 2004 - 01:00

James R. Silkenat
Arent Fox PLLC

In the not-too-distant past, it was not unusual to hear the comment that "there is no such thing as international law." This assertion was particularly prevalent from partners and clients. While this witticism was meant to emphasize the overriding importance of national law as the only practical and effective governing framework for both corporations and individuals, it was really never much more than a wry attempt to ignore or discount international law as irrelevant to the everyday life of the law.

Whatever the former merits of debunking international law, it is clear that we have all become "international lawyers" in some sense today. "International law" may not always be relevant, but "international legal practice" almost certainly is. And it is relevant to all kinds of lawyers in all kinds of locations. Almost every business law issue that arises has some international connection: from foreign suppliers; to cross-border sales; to visa applications for employees; to child custody matters that affect transferred executives; to all-pervasive tax matters that lead companies and individuals to change their location and status. Almost all lawyers, from administrative counsel, to small town litigators, to judges and law school deans, now have an interest in learning more about "international legal practice" and its various permutations.

Actual knowledge of international legal practice, however, has not always kept pace with the need for such knowledge. In very few American law schools, even today, is any form of international legal training required of all students. Similarly, judges are frequently ignorant, whether by accident or by design, of applicable principles of international law or foreign law that should have an impact on the cases they decide. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's references to the increasing importance of legal norms from outside the United States to the contrary, there is still significant reluctance by most lawyers to arm themselves with any of the educational underpinnings required to make sense of laws and issues that straddle more than one national jurisdiction.

While most U.S. law schools now offer, even if they do not require, a solid list of courses in international law and practice, there are other attractive means of acquiring a background in international legal topics. Among these would be involvement by lawyers (both from firms and from corporations) in the American Bar Association Section of International Law and Practice and the many international committees, sections and divisions that exist in state and local bar associations. These organizations frequently provide an effective entree to the seemingly opaque world of international and foreign law and do so in a way that fits well with the client-centered interests of most practicing lawyers.

Becoming an "international lawyer" does not mean forsaking the more traditional fields of corporate law, litigation, tax or intellectual property. Rather, a sensitivity to cross-border issues adds to those practice areas an appreciation for other approaches to law and law's conundrums. By opening lawyers to alternative viewpoints and ideas, a knowledge of international and foreign law has a tendency to make us allbetter lawyers and more useful ones for our clients.

James R. Silkenat is a Partner in Arent Fox PLLC's New York office and Former Chair of the American Bar Association Section of International Law and Practice.