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Law Students and Lawyers Working Abroad: A Personal Experience

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From the start of law school, rarely did I hear about lawyers or law students working abroad.  Yes, I heard numerous mentions of studying abroad or volunteering overseas, but rarely were there discussions about using your law degree while living overseas.  I remember speaking to an international law professor on one occasion, telling him exactly what I wanted to do. To my surprise, he informed me that my interests are “not international law per se,” but rather, applying, enforcing and ensuring compliance of domestic laws in international contexts.

During the summer after 2L year, I traveled to Dakar, Senegal where I spent 10 weeks working for the U.S. Government. Truthfully, I enjoyed EVERY minute of it. I enjoyed traveling to remote villages to speak about U.S. cultures and lifestyles. I enjoyed giving and participating in the pre-departure briefings before individuals traveled or migrated to the U.S.  I enjoyed participating in the English language immersion summer camps with the local area youths.  I enjoyed speaking on U.S. policies and interests, U.S. laws, and the agency’s mission.  Most importantly, I loved sitting down with the locals and discussing how U.S. laws varied from the laws of their country.

I spent the entire summer learning about the differences between U.S. and Senegalese laws as it relates to sexual harassment, prisoner’s rights, prosecutorial discretion, rape, mandatory schooling (age requirement), anti-corruption measures, and the likes. The conversations typically went as such:

Me: You know, in the U.S., if we just saw a child on the streets or at home alone, that’s grounds for arrest and charges against the parent.
Senegalese: Ummm, not so here. Do you think we’ll have space in our jails and prisons for that?

Senegalese: There is corruption EVERYWHERE.
Me: True, indeed! But the U.S. has implemented and does prosecute businesses and business executives that engage in bribery of public officials through the enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and similar laws.

These conversations were usually followed by minutes, and possibly hours of debate and/or conversation, about country differences. Did I tell you that I loved, loved, loved every minute of being and working abroad? Although my primary employment responsibilities dealt with public affairs, I enjoyed the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone, away from the computer screen and meeting rooms, and to learn about the culture and laws of the host country. What a way to actually practice what I had learned in two years of law school.  As is often said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Perhaps my professor was right. By being overseas, I was privileged to interact with many U.S. trained attorneys who decided to pursue non-traditional careers. Among these are U.S. diplomats and embassy employees, intelligence officials, USAID employees, Peace Corps volunteers and program directors, international human rights advocates, and professors at overseas universities. A law degree is truly a versatile professional degree and an entire world is out there seeking to utilize the analytical, writing and advocacy skills that most lawyers possess.

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