European Site Visits, Part II: Vienna and a Future Practicum

On Monday, one of the most important world leaders happened to spend the day at the United Nations Office at Vienna (UNO-Vienna). He came with great fanfare, had a large entourage and had hundreds of people snapping pictures of his every movement. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, was in town for a conference on landlocked developing countries and to meet Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst. It also happened to be the day I visited UNO-Vienna, to continue building relationships with UN personnel in Vienna for our International Practicum – Vienna.


The International Practicum is actually broken into three separate locations. Select 2L and 3L students can work at a UN agency, international organization or international court in Vienna, Geneva or The Hague for an academic semester, while earning 13 credits. Seven of their credits are pass/fail for the externship, three graded credits of daily work satisfy the Advanced Practical Writing Requirement (APWR) and three credits of scholarly work satisfy the Advanced Scholarly Writing Requirement (ASWR). The International Practicum was a direct result of the success St. John’s has had with our NATO Practicum (more on that after my site visit tomorrow!), and we use the best practices learned there to make the International Practicum work. Unlike NATO, where we have an agreement to send students each semester, the UN does not engage in bilateral negotiations with institutions. Therefore, we must build individual relationships in order to give our students the best shot at securing these coveted internships. I spent the afternoon meeting with representatives from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the UN Commission on International Trade Law UNCITRAL), two units that are highly popular for students worldwide. I also had a chance to meet with the current interns in each organization and capped off the experience with a tour of UNO-Vienna.


The meetings were productive for learning what different parts of the UN are looking for when it comes to internships. Each section I visited receives approximately 100 applications for 4 internships each term. With a desire to be represented by different legal systems and regions, one US JD student per division is the best possible outcome. Thus, learning how to put our students in the best possible light is vital. For all 1Ls reading, here is a quick cheat sheet for securing an internship at a UN agency:


  1. From the moment you start 2L, you are judged on the courses you take. Every single course should have some purpose that is evident for the position you want. For instance, although space law can be a fascinating topic, if you’re looking for an internship at UNODC, you are better off taking Criminal Procedure, Evidence and Trial Advocacy in the fall of 2L. Save your “exploration” electives for your last semester. If you want to work at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, also in Vienna, then keep space law on your course list.


  1. If you’re interested in working for the UN, your 1L summer internship is vital to demonstrating your interest and that you have the skills required to succeed. If you worked at the DAs office after 1L, that would be a great first step for UNODC, but would leave UNCITRAL wondering why you were applying there. For UNICTRAL, you’d be better suited working on commercial transactions that summer in a law firm. All this is to say that you need to plan well in advance for a UN internship. If you decide midway through 2L that you’re interested, it may be too late to prove that you’re the best American candidate for a position a few months later.


  1. The longer you can stay the better. Although most internships offer opportunities between 2-6 moths, the longer you are willing to stay, the more competitive you will be. Your unit won’t have to retrain interns as often, there will be more institutional knowledge that you can pass on, you will have enough time to adjust to the UN and become a trusted member of your unit and you will have a greater amount of projects to work on. The International Practicum is great for this purpose. Rather than a two-month summer internship, St. John’s students can receive a full semester of academic credit and stay up to half a year.


  1. You must “make sense” to the unit you’re applying to. In order to successfully be placed, the UN wants your internship to serve a direct and readily apparent purpose. “Getting experience” is not what the coordinators I spoke to are interested in. They want a past background to demonstrate interest and a motivation letter that clearly elucidates what you will be able to do in the field after an internship with the specific division. Writing about your desire to work for the UN, be a civil servant, or travel the world (do not ever write this) won’t differentiate you from anyone else; that’s why you’re all applying to the UN. Explaining that an internship at UNODC, after spending your 1L summer working at a Das office, will be the catalyst to becoming an Assistant District Attorney, is much more appealing and shows your internship coordinator that you’ve clearly thought this decision through.


I also had a chance to meet with current interns from different divisions.   The 5 interns I had a chance to speak in detail were from France, Brazil, US, Kazakhstan and China. Listening to their enthusiasm for the internship program was enlightening and brought back memories from my time at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Some very quick observations:


  1. The other interns become your family. One team shared that the entire organization’s interns refer to themselves as “Interns Without Borders.” You travel together, you attend conferences and working groups together and you spend time outside of work with each other. The ability to build a professional network of highly motivated, budding lawyers from around the globe is important for any US-trained lawyers with ambitions of working in transnational practice.



  1. You are given a lot of responsibility. One of the interns is scheduled to speak on arbitration in her native country at a Working Group session. She informed me that diligent and motivated interns will always have fascinating opportunities because of the nature of the UN. Her advice is to build up a specific area of interest related to your internship before arriving, and becoming a “go-to” person on that topic.


  1. You can use the internship to hone the skills you learned in your native country. Another interns spoke about his background in security interests in his native country. His expertise was from the technical side, and his internship provided him the ability to really look at the same security interest issues from a legal perspective.

Finally, I joined a guided tour for a trip around UNO-Vienna. Our group consisted of 11 people from 5 different countries: Iran, Russia, China, Australia, Austria and the US. Our tour guide, a university student, briefed the group on topics of statehood and the requirement of recognition, the Millennium Development Goals and how some of the most beautiful artwork at UNO-Vienna made it there. We got a briefing on the historical significance of Vienna, why it was chosen as a UN headquarters and what UNO-Vienna’s focus is. We had a chance to observe a conference, enter a refugee tent from UNHCR, see a moving exhibit from UNODC on child soldiers and watch a video of nuclear tests leading to the creation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).



At the end of the tour, I got my banner picture, this time lacking students. Although we don’t have anyone at UNO-Vienna this semester, I’m confident that we will begin placing St. John’s students there next fall. Whether it’s UNODC, UNCITRAL or any one of the other parts of the UN system, I can’t wait to conduct a future site visit and get to witness one of our students enjoying a UN internship as much as the interns I spoke to are enjoying their internships.



After a quick stop at the gift shop to get some UN gear for our Office of Transnational Programs, I ran back to the hotel to start the trip from Vienna to Brussels, for a site visit at the NATO Practicum the next morning.


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