Laura Bladow

No Layover: The Ins & Outs of International Careers in Law - An Interview with Lisa Savitt

I recently had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Lisa Savitt, a Partner in The Axelrod Firm’s Washington, D.C. office. Lisa’s practice focuses on international and domestic litigation as well as alternative dispute resolution, representing foreign and domestic companies in matters involving complex legal, regulatory and technical issues. She is also Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of International Law. Albeit unexpected, Lisa’s legal work for the aviation industry launched her career in international law. Today, she encourages aspiring international attorneys to keep an open mind about their future career paths and to join the Section of International Law to learn more about what a career in international law that might look like.

When Lisa started law school she “knew I wanted to something international, but beyond that I had no idea. I didn’t know any lawyers so I didn’t have any role models, and I had only a very vague idea of what lawyers do.” When she graduated from law school there were very few legal jobs available, so she began working as a paralegal and continued searching for an attorney position. In 1981 the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), a government trade union, declared a strike. Following the PATCO workers’ refusal to return to work, President Reagan fired the over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. This strike severely effected the U.S. aviation industry. When it became apparent that President Reagan was not going to settle with PATCO, a number of the fired air traffic controllers tried to get their jobs back. This created a number of legal openings with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Lisa began her legal career defending the FAA in administrative hearings. Her initial practice combined regulatory and litigation work for the FAA.

Lisa made the move to private practice after a chance encounter with an aviation lawyer. This lawyer made some recommendations of law firms specializing in international law, and this eventually led a job at one of the premier aviation insurance defense firms in New York. At this firm, Lisa represented foreign clients that included airlines, helicopter manufacturers and manufacturers of aerospace equipment, who were being sued in the U.S. Generally speaking, these foreign companies faced a number of issues when sued in the U.S., including complex questions of jurisdiction, whether service of process was proper, the application of international treaties and possible application of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act if the company was owned by the government of their country.

Lisa’s practice today still looks a lot like what it did very many years ago when she began. She still represents foreign manufacturers and airlines in claims brought against them in the U.S. and is a litigator with a number of international clients. These days she tends to also do more counseling work with international clients to educate them on different aspects of the U.S. legal system. She shared that you don’t necessarily have to speak a foreign language to work with international clients. “It used to be that people thought you had to speak five languages and live abroad to have an international legal career, but that is not the case today.” Nevertheless, Lisa emphasized that clear communication and patience are skills that are key to her practice.

Additionally, Lisa shared that understanding cultural differences is essential in an international practice. With a U.S. client, you might get down to business right away; however, in some cultures, you have to spend the first few meetings getting to know your clients as people before you can discuss business. There are also some social cultural differences that are particular to gender. She advises women to be aware of these, “You’ll learn how to handle it if you’re aware of it. I met someone from Saudi Arabia, and I knew not to offer my hand to him unless he offered it to me to shake. He did not offer his hand to me, so I just said hello. While he offered his hand to the men I was with, I didn’t let it bother me because it’s a cultural difference.” She also mentioned that men need to be aware of gender cultural differences too, particularly when interacting with women from a different culture.

Her favorite part of her practice is that, “It’s always challenging and different, and I am very fortunate to have interesting cases - even my non-international cases are interesting. I like cases where I’m able to provide strategic advice, which I have to do in most of my cases because I have to report to the client with recommendations on the handling of the case.” Lisa also enjoys learning about the different businesses and industries she represents. She has learned “everything from how software for a particular industry works to learning about a global manufacturer that makes a component part that goes into a helicopter. Every company is different, even in the same industry.”

To aspiring international attorneys who are still in law school, Lisa advises taking some courses on international law and comparative law courses. Civil procedure was also a big help in preparing her to become a litigator. She also recommends students reflect on what type of law they want to pursue — whether it be transactional, litigation, or regulatory work — and focus their energies on sharpening their skills in their chosen area. Students should also keep in mind that “almost everything is international these days.” As such, internship and job opportunities with an international aspect can be found in many places besides the obvious Department of State, including in various government agencies like the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Transportation.

Lisa also shared that getting involved with different organizations and getting your name out there as someone who is aware of international issues can have great benefits. She encourages law students to join the ABA and become members of the Section of International Law. Membership is free for law students and comes with a host of benefits. The Section provides great resources on different career paths in international law though panel presentations at law schools around the country as well as written resources on their website. Law students can further their involvement in the Section of International Law, or any section of the ABA, by joining committees. For students looking for publishing opportunities, they can submit work to be published in committee newsletters or other Section publications.

For young women interested in pursuing an international career, Lisa encourages women to not “be afraid to have an international career. There’s no reason a woman can’t do the same work as men in international law. I love travel, it’s great. But international travel is more time consuming than domestic travel. You’ll have the same work life balance issues no matter what, but international work opens up a whole new world. I have made friends in so many different countries, and I always have someone I can visit when I’m traveling.”

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