Going abroad

Alison Hopkins nervously walked into the session. As part of her internship with the Asia Foundation, she would for three days educate 100 male imams in Bangladesh on the importance of child and civics education. Her task wasn’t easy: as a young, female student in a highly patriarchal society, it would be difficult to gain the imams’ respect. “I sat down and they sat as far away from me as possible,” says Hopkins, an articling student at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Ottawa. “I was so uncomfortable.”


The tension was short-lived. By the end of the session, the imams were chatting with Hopkins and promising to keep in touch. “I gained their trust because I didn’t come into the session with preconceived notions,” she says. “Once they saw that I was open to their ideas, they were willing to work with me as a team.”

Going international is a popular way for students to add a unique experience to their legal studies. Studying or working abroad can help students break into international law, stand out in the hiring pool, or be an outlet to get involved in the global community. Most Canadian law schools provide international student exchange programs. Typically, exchanges run for one semester during the second or third year of law school. Students must fulfil course requirements for graduation within their program while taking the international courses as electives and usually carrying a full course load in their host country. Most exchanges are taught in the native language of the host country so students speaking multiple languages have an advantage.

Nora Ciurysek was looking for a challenge when she decided to study at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia during her final year at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. Australia was a good choice. The similar legal system and language along with exotic locale made the country appealing. “Learning the law in another country is eye-opening,” says Ciurysek. “It’s interesting to look at how other cultures deal with issues. In Australia, they don’t have human rights legislation in their constitution but many people feel they have adequate protection. This gave me a different perspective on how our laws work.”

The added bonus of an exchange is, of course, travelling. Ciurysek went to the Great Barrier Reef to become a certified scuba diver. “Swimming underwater is like being a bird flying over land,” she says. “I was in another world.”

Students also experience different cultures through international work. Canadian Lawyers Abroad promotes human rights in developing areas and offers international internships to law students. It matches students with organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Canadian North. In the CLA’s five-year history, it has sent more than 60 students abroad from its 10 student chapters across Canada. With firms offering few summer positions for first-year students, an internship provides an alternative way to gain experience. “You see the bigger picture through international law,” says Catherine McKenna, executive director and co-founder of CLA. “In law school, issues seem very academic. Once you start working with an organization you can see how practical it is to talk about issues like human rights.”

McKenna understands the international experience. After completing her master’s degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science and her law degree at McGill University in Montreal, she worked as a trade policy officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs. She subsequently practised law in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and helped draft maritime legislation as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in East Timor. “I like the broader context of law,” she says. “States have an obligation to intervene to protect the rights of people. It felt amazing to help rebuild a country through the law.”

Previous experience can be a major factor in securing an internship. Toby Kruger worked in Guinea for Concern Universal, a British non-profit organization, before working for the Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. He completed a CLA internship in order to gain a better focus on environmental issues. “Climate change is seen differently in the developing world,” says Kruger, a clerk at the British Columbia Supreme Court and articling student at Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver. “Understanding the developing world point of view on issues such as preserving water helped me understand environmental law better.” 

Individual schools are getting in on the internship hunt. The University of Toronto offers internships through its International Human Rights Program. The International Law Internship Program at the University of Western Ontario provides internships for 10 to 12 students per year. Founded in 2006, the program aims to expose students to international law while helping them find their area of interest. “We want students to see how diplomacy and the law work together,” says program director Valerie Oosterveld. “They have the chance to work directly with people involved in major international issues. Most students wouldn’t get that chance in Canada.”

Oosterveld wants the program to be a way for students to begin a career in international law, a difficult field to break into for young lawyers. She entered the field by working for the Department of Foreign Affairs. During her six-year tenure, she was involved in the establishment of war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda. “Internships open doors,” says Oosterveld. “It’s more difficult to see the path toward a career in international law compared to the path toward Bay Street firms. Even if students aren’t interested in practising international law, many fields within Canada are influenced by foreign law. For example, the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen conference impact our environmental law. Students exposed to international law will be able to spot these issues in their practice.”

Canadian law is increasingly influenced by international protocols, treaties, and resolutions. These changes create greater opportunities for young lawyers to enter the field. “A student can plan to go straight from law school into an international law practice,” says Oosterveld. “There are more tribunals now than the last 15 years, which means more placements and jobs.” 

Universities are moving forward to expand international options. Allan Rock, president of the University of Ottawa, announced last fall his plan to open the office Au Service Du Monde (In the Service of Others), a place where students can find internships, exchanges, and volunteer opportunities abroad. “Students have a real hunger to be involved,” says Rock. “They realize that environmental issues, health issues, and the rule of law are universal problems.” 

Rock’s love for international law stems from a successful political career. As the former federal justice and health minister as well as UN ambassador for Canada, he worked on multiple global issues ranging from the SARS outbreak to trade talks with the European Union. “Canadians generally have a deep commitment to the global community,” says Rock. “When I worked at the UN, it was an intense education in global affairs. I learned the Canadian mindset to accommodate different cultures in our society helps us to deal with the challenges we face in the world.”

For the intense experience, students can combine the internship and student exchange. Kamila Polus’ European adventure began as an intern for the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland during the summer and ended with a student exchange at Stockholm University in Sweden during her third year at the University of Western Ontario. Her work with the ILO helped her gain an articling position with Watson Jacobs McCreary LLP in Toronto, a firm specializing in labour law. “I wanted to do something fun and exciting,” says Polus. “Spending nine months in Europe meant being exposed to civil law and having to moot with a group of international students. I didn’t plan to work overseas after my second year of law school but in hindsight it was the right decision.”

There are also programs that give more than just a summer’s taste of international legal work. The Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyers International Program offers an eight-month internship for graduates who recently completed their articling year. Living and accommodation expenses are paid for as interns work with non-governmental organizations in the developing world. Elizabeth Campbell, a member of the international development committee, says the program helps young lawyers “get their foot in the door” of international law. “It’s a good testing ground to see if working abroad is right for you,” she says. 

Perhaps the only drawback to such far-flung internships is the lack of financial compensation. International placements, including CLA internships, offer little or no pay. Students usually have to fundraise or gain financial support from their universities to cover expenses.

And if you have the financial wherewithal and the good grades to get into such programs, be sure to also show up with a good dose of courage and an open mind. This attitude helped Hopkins in Bangladesh and in her recent training on international conflict prevention and resolution at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. “Put yourself out there,” says Hopkins. “I was in a place with lots of people and sometimes felt uncomfortable but I was open to new experiences. Any time you do that, you get the benefit.”


Find your internship


Several organizations in Canada and abroad offer internships for law students. Here’s a few to check out:


Canadian Lawyers Abroad
Every year CLA offers a number of passionate and talented law students the opportunity to spend their summer working at NGOs overseas and in Canada.

CBA Young Lawyers International Program
Overseas placements in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and South East Asia. The internships are for eight months each, from Aug. 1 to March 31 of the following year. Living, accommodation, and travel costs are paid by the program.

International Court of Justice
Based in the Netherlands, the ICJ offers one- to three-month unpaid internships.

International Youth Internship Program
The Canadian International Development Agency offers internships through the IYIP for graduating students. Internships last for six to 12 months in a developing country.

Not sure where to start? PSLawNet is the largest online database for public interest jobs. The site lists full-time and summer positions for government agencies, public sector, and non-profits.

University of Toronto International Human Rights Program
Law students can work during the summer with international human rights practitioners at governmental, non-governmental, and UN organizations.

United Nations
The UN Headquarters Secretariat Internship Program provides a two-month internship for 200 students from early June to early August. Interns are unpaid.

The Washington Center Internship Program
The Washington Center offers internships to students across the U.S. and other countries.

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