How To Get A UN Job As A Lawyer (Complete Guide)

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Working for the United Nations can be a great career. You get to do an exciting and prestigious job whilst working for an organisation that is trying to make the world a better place. If you’re lawyer, or working in a legal profession, there are many jobs available for you in the UN.

We’ve put together this guide to help those who are lawyers find a UN job. It’s also aimed at those thinking about starting a UN career and wondering if training as a lawyer maybe a route into working for the United Nations. Here we cover the UN agencies most likely to be recruiting lawyers, the qualifications you’ll need, the different roles in the UN that are open to lawyers, and how to apply for UN legal positions.

United Nations Agencies Recruiting Lawyers

If you are interested in working for the United Nations as lawyer, one of the first things you need to understand is which UN agencies to target with your applications.  All UN agencies will recruit lawyers and the United Nations needs a large number of legal staff. However, there are some UN agencies that more likely to recruit staff in legal roles. These include:

  • International Organization for Migration (IOM)
  • UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)
  • World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
  • World Trade Organisation (WTO)
  • World Bank

Let’s take a quick look at each of these…

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

The International Organisation of Migration is the leading inter-government body that assists migrants on the move around the world. It also offers assistance to governments on migrants’ issues. IOM often recruits lawyers to provide legal assistance to migrants. It also employs lawyers to assist with the development of policies that governments can use to better assist migrants they are hosting.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is the UN’s refugee agency. UNHCR works with people who are forced to flee their homes by conflicts, disaster, or persecution. Lawyers are often recruited by UNHCR to provide legal advice to refugees and displaced people. UNHCR also employs local lawyers to assist them navigating local laws in the countries in which they operate.

UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)

UNRWA is the UN agency that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. It regularly recruits lawyers to assist individual Palestinians with legal cases, as well as to work on broader legal issues facing Palestinians in the countries that host them.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

The World Intellectual Property Organisation is the UN body that oversees the global coordination of patents and copyrights. It employs many lawyers who review the legal aspects of intellectual property and advice the United Nations, and national governments, on how to improve intellectual property protections.

World Trade Organisation (WTO)

The World Trade Organisation is the UN body that works to improve global trade. It employs lawyers to review trade agreements, provide legal advice to governments on trade policy and to assist with trade disputes.

World Bank

The World Bank provides loans and grants to low- and middle-income countries to assist them in building projects that reduce poverty and improve livelihoods. The World Bank employs lawyers in a range of different roles, including reviewing grants and assisting with disputes between the World Bank and national governments.

Qualifications Needed To Be A UN Lawyer

In order to get a job with the UN as a lawyer, there are two main steps you need to take to become qualified. The first is to formally train as a lawyer.

In all countries, to practice law you need to complete a degree, and usually a residency at a law firm. You may also need to take a post-graduate exam, such as the Bar exam in the US. To work for the United Nations as a lawyer, you will need to have completed all the steps necessary to practice law in your own country.

Jobs with the United Nations are very competitive to get. UN jobs are also highly demanding, requiring staff to work professionally and be competent within their area of expertise. For these reasons, it is not really worth applying for a legal job at the United Nations before you become fully qualified as a lawyer.

It’s important to note that the UN will not fund your studies to become a lawyer. They also wont hire you in legal roles whilst you’re still studying your law degrees.

The second step you need to do to become qualified to work for the UN in a legal role is to gain a broader understanding of the UN’s work and how lawyers are used to support this. Legal positions within the UN will directly support the UN’s work. This means that UN lawyers will be expected to have a broad understanding of what the UN does and how legal roles can support this.

One of the best ways to build good knowledge of the UN’s work before you apply to join as a lawyer is by doing online courses. There are many short courses offered online, often available for free, that give you information on how the UN works and the current priorities of the organisation. Adding short courses to your CV before applying for legal jobs with the UN will show that you understand what the UN does.

United Nations Online Courses

For those wanting to work for the United Nations, including in as a lawyer, we highly recommend the online course Global Diplomacy: The United Nations In The World. We think it’s one of the best overviews of the UN and it’s work and would be a great addition to the CV of anyone applying for a UN job. Click the link to enrol on the course.

If you want to know more about how to get a job with the UN, including in a legal role, then take the United Nations Jobs Guide online course. This course provides great details on the UN recruitment system, what the UN looks for in candidates and what you can do to make your UN application stand out. Follow the link to the course’s page for more information.

Another online course we recommend for those wanting to work as a lawyer for the UN is International Organizations Management. This course shows how large global organisations, including the UN, work. It also highlights many of the challenges, including legal issues, these organisations face. Click the link to be taken to the course’s page.

United Nations Legal Roles

When looking to apply to the United Nations to work as a lawyer, you need to know about the different types of legal jobs the UN usually recruits for. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Legal Officer
  • Lawyer
  • Legal Advisor
  • Legal Affairs Officer
  • Head of Legal

We’ll take a brief look at each of these in-turn…

Legal Officer

The role of Legal Officer is the mid-level legal position within the UN. Almost all UN agencies recruit Legal Officers. Their tasks include providing legal advice, preparing legal documents, and ensuring legal compliance in systems and processes. To work as a Legal Officer at the UN you will likely need a law degree and two to three years of professional experience.

Lawyer

The UN often hires lawyers to work on specific legal issues on the UN’s behalf. Often lawyers for the UN are hired as consultants and so are tasked with completing a defined set of deliverables over a pre-agreed time period. To work as a lawyer for the United Nations you will need many years of experience and a proven track record of working with large international organisations in legal roles.

Legal Advisor

The job of Legal Advisor at the UN is a senior legal role. Legal Advisors often work across UN teams to provide guidance on legal issues. If you want to work as a Legal Advisor at the UN, you need significant previous experience in legal roles within large organisations, ideally working on legal issues similar to those faced by UN agencies.

Legal Affairs Officer

At the United Nations, the role of Legal Affairs Officer is similar to that of a Legal Officer. However, the Legal Affairs Officer is a broader role providing more general guidance and assistance, as opposed to working on a specific project or with a dedicated team. Two to three years of professional experience in a legal role, as well as a law degree, are needed to work as a Legal Affairs Officer with the UN.

Head of Legal

The UN has many senior level legal positions. The Head of Legal oversees a UN agency’s legal team and is ultimacy responsible for the agency’s legal compliance. To become the Head of Legal at the UN you will need several decades of experience working as a lawyer and/or in senior legal roles within large international organisations.

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Applying for United Nations Legal Jobs

The UN recruitment system is known for being complex. However, if you want to join the United Nations as a lawyer you will need to understand how the UN categorises its roles and how UN recruitment works.

United Nations jobs are generally categorised into two types. The first is G, or ‘General Service’ roles. The second is P, or ‘Professional’ roles. The naming isn’t great as there is really nothing less professional about jobs categorised as G. The actual difference between P and G jobs is how and where they are recruited.

UN jobs that are labelled as G are only recruited locally. This means that only nationals of the country where the UN project is being implemented can apply for the role.

‘Professional’, or P jobs at the UN for hired for internationally. Staff for P roles work as expatriates on UN projects. Often holders of P jobs move between different countries working on UN projects throughout their career.

The UN also has D category jobs. These are similar to P roles but that are more senior.

As well as each United Nations job being categorised with a letter, a number is also assigned to each position. The higher the number the more years of experience are needed for the role. This is why you will see UN jobs labelled as P-4, or G-3 for example.

Many people want to work abroad for the UN and so P roles are often highly coveted. However, it is possible to rise to senior levels and build a fantastic career whilst remaining in your home country and taking G roles with the UN. It really depends on the type of career you want with the United Nations.

If you are from a country where the UN implements are lot of projects, a good tactic is to apply for G roles initially, especially if you are early in your career. Once you have built up several years’ experience, ideally having taken several different legal roles, you can begin applying for lawyer jobs abroad and focusing on securing a P position.

Those wanting to work for the UN as a lawyer should regularly check open positions and apply for any that meet your skills and experience. As we said, UN jobs are highly competitive, so you are likely going to need to send many applications. Don’t be too picky about the type of roles you apply for but send many applications and see what lands. Once you are in the UN system, it will be easier to move between roles and towards the legal jobs that most take your interest.

As well as ‘General’ and ‘Professional’ roles, the United Nations also recruits a large number of consultants. Although consultancies in the UN are usually at senior levels, there are consultancies open for junior positions as well. Consultants at the UN provide targeted support to the UN projects. They are not formally UN staff but are contracted to deliver specific work that is needed.

The UN hires many legal consultants. Getting a consultancy as a lawyer with a UN agency is a great way to begin a career with the United Nations. If you want to work for the UN as a lawyer, taking a short-term consultancy first, before applying for longer-term postings, is a proven a way to get your foot in the door.

Another good way to begin your career with the United Nations is to take an internship. Although UN internships are usually more generally focused, rather than specifically being for legal roles, taking an internship to gain experience in the UN, before moving on to take a position as a lawyer, can be a great way to get into the UN.

Finally, if you want to work for the UN as a lawyer make sure you check the open positions with UN Volunteers. The UN takes volunteers for short-term missions to support specific projects overseas. UN Volunteer postings are only open to those with some years of professional experience and are often focused in technical areas. Volunteer postings requiring legal experience do come up so make sure you are checking the openings regularly. Once you have completed a UN Volunteers posting it can be much easier to land a job with a UN agency.

If you want to learn more about how to get a legal job in the United Nations, check out of the top UN online courses here.

Duncan

Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over 8 years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.