Chambers Lists Top Public International Law Firms

by Peggy McGuinness

Chambers and Partners has published their list of the top law firms for public international law. The top tier (or “band 1” as they call it):

Clifford Chance
Debevoise and Plimpton
Eversheds Frere Cholmeley
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Latham and Watkins
Shearman and Sterling
White and Case

The full post also includes a list of top PIL attorneys who are not affiliated with the top ranking firms.

Chambers’ description of what constitutes a PIL practice, as well as where to find the talent (PhD programs) may be useful for students considering practice in this area:

Public international law (PIL) is not only relevant to governments these days, it is increasingly the concern of multinational corporations and individuals. International law now affects many corporate and financial transactions; companies need to be aware of the impact of such issues as sanctions, export controls, anti-corruption conventions, rules for combating crime and terrorism, and regimes of environmental accountability. PIL also often overlaps with WTO and human rights issues.

Investor-state arbitrations are on the rise. Some may argue that this does not constitute pure PIL work, which traditionally involves state-to-state disputes before international courts such as the ICJ. However, although it involves entities other than governments, it does concern investment treaties that are made between states and there are now very few PIL lawyers who do not handle this type of work. Unlike border disputes or Law of the Sea matters, which can simmer away for years, investment treaty matters are fast-paced and seen by some as the new ‘sexy’ aspect of PIL. Due to the growing number of ICSID disputes relating to Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) and the call for expertise in this area, many firms are developing their practices in the field. However, there is a tendency for lawyers to come at this from a commercial arbitration angle rather than the more academic PIL discipline. It is hard to get the balance right, but one leading practitioner commented: “The smart firms have gone out and hired PIL PhD students.”

Hat tip: Danny Sokol.

5 Responses

  1. Query: Who are the clients of these firms? Do governments ever hire them? Unions? Environmental groups? Or are the clients exclusively corporate? I’m honestly curious. Are they hired mainly to resolve conflicts between corporations? Or is the expansion of this field driven largely by Multi-National Enterprises, seeking to turn Public International Law, once largely exclusively the domain of states, into a tool for securing and expanding various private property rights? Is the trend in hiring something PhD-granting institutions should welcome on behalf of their hungry students, or will this trend change those institutions in ways which undercut their integrity and critical approach? Again, these are honest questions, and I’d greatly appreciate any response.

  2. Most of the clients of firms that claim to offer a “public international law practice” are large corporations and corporate associations. These clients employ the law firms mostly as lobbyists, to influence the positions of governments in international negotiations. They also employ these firms as advisors (that is, to provide advice on how public international law may affect their business interests).

    These firms also perform a certain amount of domestic litigation related to public international law. For example, the firms might provide legal defense work in domestic cases when a plaintiff accuses a corporation of a violation of international law that is allegedly enforceable in a domestic court.

    It is curious to me that firms are hiring Ph.D’s for this kind of work. What this work really entails is not theoretical knowledge of concepts of international law, but concrete, practical knowledge of how to lobby and litigate effectively. I’d look for an experienced international negotiator (e.g., former government lawyer or international trade lawyer) before I’d look to a Ph.D student.

    Truth be told, however, there isn’t all that much true “public international law” work to be had in private law firms. The majority of firm lawyers who claim to have a public international law practice spend most of their time in other areas (e.g., private international law or international trade).

  3. I know these firms and most of the individuals identified in this list. I think that it is inaccurate to say they are not doing public international law. Most of these individuals do a fair amount of work in international arbitration, especially investment arbitration. This includes, among others, Jeremy Carver, Donald Donovan, Jan Paulsson, Lucy Reed, Malcolm Forster, Robert Volterra, Alejandro Escobar, Michael Reisman, Stephen Schwebel, and Karl-Heinz Bockstiegel. They also represent governments before international courts and tribunals on any number of matters. I think treaty-based adjudication before arbitration panels and international tribunals is a bridge between private and public international law, and these firms have done a wonderful job of filling that gap.

    Roger Alford

  4. What you say is quite true, and I’d agree that much international arbitration work often falls somewhere between traditional public and private international law.

    I did not say that these firms are not doing public international law, nor did I intend to cast aspersions on any particular law firm or individual. All I said was that the majority of lawyers who have a public international law practice spend most of their time in other, more traditional areas, and that most of their clients are corporate. I’ll continue to stand by this remark.

    While there are certainly some superb private sector lawyers who have practices that focus heavily on public international law issues, their numbers are small in comparison to the quite large field of lawyers who conduct more traditional practices of international business transactions, international arbitration, international lobbying, legal advice on international business issues, or domestic litigation with international aspects.

    Public international law is, as should be expected, mostly practiced by lawyers in public service.

  5. In a globalizing world, how many persons of color – African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, Hispanic-Americans – are among the Americans in these prestigious public international law practices? How many of them are partners with substantial practice in this area? How many are junior or senior associates in the pipeline to do this work? Please see The Color Line in International Commercial Arbitration: An American Perspective in 14 ARIA 461 (2003).

    Recently I talked with an African-American lawyer who had been put directly into the employment discrimination practice of a large American lawfirm where there were a couple (the only) black partners and another black associate. The African-American lawyer had expressed a desire in his interviews to do corporate and securities work. When he insisted and broached this subject with the relevant partner, the blunt response was that the firm was using those slots to train their foreign lawyers and he would not be transferred to that area.

    I suspect there is much “doing international on the cheap”:

    1) not training American lawyers to develop the international practice as those skill sets can be purchased from overseas where the legal traditions more quickly include international law as part of the legal training

    2) steering American people of color out of these areas and not making the effort to broaden the types of Americans who participate in the practices that lead to public international law issues.

    But, of course, in polite company we are not permitted to talk about such things – like elephants in the room.



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