Guest Post: Candid advice for those wanting to pursue legal careers with overseas organizations

Today’s post is another in our series designed for law students and new lawyers who have an interest in national (and, really, global) security matters, but for a variety of reasons the U.S. government’s military and civilian national security enterprise (see here) isn’t quite the right fit for them.  The good news is that there are other fascinating opportunities and  Lawfire® wants to help illuminate them.

In the post below Mr. William T. Anderson has some unvarnished advice for those wanting to work overseas for an international organization (and, actually, it could apply to international military organizations as well as civilian ones).

Bill has plenty of real-world experience to draw upon.  He spent over 35 years with the U.S. Department of Defense in a variety of assignments including overseas service from 1987 to 2005 as a senior legal advisor at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the operational military headquarters for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Here’s Bill’s unvarnished perspective:

Candid advice for those wanting to pursue legal careers with overseas organizations

By William T. Anderson*

You may be interested in working for an international organization.  Following up on Lee Tiedrich’s and Monika Bickert’s excellent posts addressing domestic civilian opportunities, I thought it might be useful to highlight what you can expect when you arrive for your new assignment overseas.

Many may aspire to work in an international organization and view the opportunity as a once in a lifetime experience. Engaging daily with fellow staff members from different nations is a wonderful opportunity. You can never downplay the rich cultural and professional rewards of working overseas.

However, it is important to remember all that glitters is not gold.  Like any large organization anywhere, an international organization has its own unique culture and way to doing things.  There will be time when you find the assignment very frustrating and challenging.

      1. First, in searching for those opportunities remember that most international organizations limit employment to only citizens of the nations that participate in the organization. Thus, an American who would love to work and learn at the European Union (EU) will not be a viable candidate for EU vacancies.
      1. Do some research to find out as much as possible about the organization, its staff, current/sensitive issues, and decision-making process. Is there a senior national representative from your nation?  These officials can be good sources of information.
      1. Most international organizations are the epitome of bureaucracy. This can be challenging for Americans who are not exposed to similar organizations like many Europeans are. These organizations make decisions by consensus that necessarily must consider various national sensitivities. What this means is that no one is entirely happy, but no one is willing to go against the wishes of others in favor. While sometimes these national sensitivities may seem petty to you, quite often the respective nations take them very seriously. Refrain from voicing your personal opinions on sensitive topics. It is better to leave your personal opinions at home.
      1. In addition, you will discover that some of your fellow staff members appear to more interested in pursuing their own national agendas, rather than working toward a common objective in the best interests of the organization. There are organizations in which the national representatives nominate their citizens for particular jobs. Sometimes, these staff members are not the most qualified but are placed due to personal connections. On the other hand, some nations send their absolute best as multinational experience is a required ticket punch for follow-on assignments at home or abroad. Unfortunately, the US does not value multinational opportunities as much as our partners. Also, there is usually considerable competition for international staff posts within the participating nations as the incumbents enjoy a salary considerably higher than equivalent positions back home.
      1. In most instances, Americans will find themselves joining English-speaking organizations or, at least, where English is the language used in routine business. Generally, English has become the language of everyday usage in international organizations.  However, even those English-speaking ones will require some adjustment as they are generally British English  So, look out for the spelling differences.  Your spell-checker may go haywire as it is based in most cases on the UK version.  In addition, despite having an English-speaking language requirement, do not be surprised to find staff members with poor English skills. 
      1. An organization located in Europe will have a Euro-centric culture that will exhibit a closeness with a European Union perspective and work ethic. Where is everybody in July/August or February? This translates usually to short work weeks due to the liberal use of vacation time (aka holiday leave). Americans are notorious for not taking all their leave entitlements. Europeans are not so timid as they enjoy 5-6 weeks paid vacation by law. I recall my amazement when a European senior executive at NATO announced at a staff meeting that he would be leaving soon “on holiday” for the entire month of August.  The point is to acknowledge the sacredness of European vacations. August is important for most staffs while the Nordic nations enjoy July. Do not forget the absences for ski weeks or school vacations in February are also untouchable.  Little is accomplished in most international organizations in Europe during these breaks. Learn to accept them and be patient when dealing with a different work ethic.
      1. There will be a certain period of acclimation for new employees, especially Americans. Be aware, there may be different approaches to certain sensitive topics like sexual harassment and personality conflicts with other staff members. The appropriate standards and procedures for complaints in the organization may not be the American standards or procedures with those which you may be familiar.  Do not expect complaints will be handled the same way.  Forewarned is to be forearmed.  Seek advice from a senior US representative. The main point to remember is that “you aren’t in Kansas anymore.”
      1. Recommendations: 
        1. Prepare with background research about the organization. Current issues?
        2. Be Flexible.
        3. Be Adaptable.
        4. Be Versatile.
        5. Be Open-minded – the American “way” may not always be the best approach.
        6. Leave Ego at the border.

About the author:

William T. Anderson retired from the Department of Defense in 2005 after over 35 years of service.  He graduated with a B.A. from American University, holds a master’s degree from Georgetown, and a JD from Washington and Lee University.  Commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1969, he served as a judge advocate with various Marine units at the conclusion of the Vietnam War.  Leaving active duty, he served as civilian attorney for the Navy in Washington, DC, beginning in 1980.

Accepting an overseas assignment, Mr. Anderson served as a senior legal advisor at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, NATO’s  operational military headquarter from 1987 to 2005.  Retiring as a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1999, he served on the adjunct faculty, College of Distance Education and Training (Command and Staff College Program), Marine Corps University at Quantico, VA, from 2009-2017.

* The views  expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

You may also like...