Interview with Public International Law & Policy Group President Paul Williams


Professor Paul Williams

Second-year Columbia Law student Nathaniel Oppenheimer interviewed Professor Paul Williams about careers in international law, Public International Law & Policy Group’s (“PILPG”) assistance to the Syrian opposition at the Geneva talks on Syria, and President Trump. Professor Williams is the Rebecca I. Grazier Professor of Law and International Relations at American University and the Co-Founder of PILPG.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Nathaniel Oppenheimer (NO): First, could you briefly describe PILPG’s unique work?

Paul Williams (PW): PILPG is a global pro bono law firm that provides free legal assistance to parties involved in negotiating peace agreements, drafting post-conflict constitutions, and prosecuting war criminals. We’re unique among non-profits involved in the peacebuilding community in that we put briefcases on the ground, we pick sides, we represent pro bono clients in their negotiations over peace agreements, we represent them as they craft constitutions, and then we help them figure out how to prosecute war criminals or design mechanisms for transitional justice.

NO: Along with PILPG Co-Founder Michael Scharf, you recently launched a new website, Could you describe the site and your motivations in launching it?

PW: We’re very excited about this. Between Michael and I, we have fifty years of not only practicing public international law, but also advising students on their careers in international law. We thought that we would do a couple of things:

We took our two or three dozen bits of advice that we constantly provide to students and put it into sections called “myths” and “advice.”

We also mapped out over 600 jobs that PILPG alumni currently have. The idea is that when you do career consulting, everyone remembers the two or three most interesting jobs and they say, “Oh, go do this or go do this.” But the reality is there are hundreds of international law jobs that are mostly in nooks and crannies. These are real jobs held by real alumni. So by simply spending fifteen minutes scrolling through these jobs, you can get a sense, a realistic sense, of the universe of international law jobs.

We’ve also got a section where we’ve mapped the pathways of about a dozen of our alumni. Oftentimes when you’re talking about a career in international law you remember the alumni who is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, but students look at us and say “I’m twenty-five years old. How do I get to be a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State?” But this section shows their pathway from the internships they’ve done in law school to their current position, so you can actually visualize that’s how I get to be the special advisor to the UN Envoy for Libya. You realize that there are various ways in which you can pursue this path.

The idea for the site is that it becomes one stop shopping for either undergraduates or law students who want to break into this career of international law. It seeks to demystify the pathway to international law and to give real practical advice that students can utilize.

NO: How can students use technology to further their careers in international law?

PW: I’m passionate about working with young professionals to develop their online presence. In the past, if you had a dynamic online presence it meant that you were competitive. Now, in order to be competitive you must have a dynamic online presence and from there you have to take it further.

It’s a donut hole. My generation loves strategic communications, LinkedIn, and social media, because we grew up before email. And my daughter, who’s about to enter college, is completely fluent in having an online presence and social media. It’s the group that are in undergrad right now, in law school, or young lawyers who aren’t sure whether it’s strategic communications or social media and they tend to be hesitant to engage in it. They’re the ones who are most at risk of becoming uncompetitive because they aren’t able to articulate how wonderful they are in the space that employers are looking.

What is so important about an online presence is that it allows you to market yourself in a multidimensional way. A resume is uni-dimensional. It’s one page on which you list off your accomplishments. But having an online presence shows how you’re contributing to the intellectual debate, who you’re connected with, and allows you to put up different types of media. You’re able to demonstrate the amazing benefits that you can bring to a corporate, human rights, or non-profit enterprise in a much more effective way than a simple one-page resume. Anyone who’s not heavily engaged in what I call “strategic communications” or anyone who doesn’t have an online platform for their strategic communications simply isn’t going to be competitive moving forward.

The folks that are doing the really exciting stuff, at PILPG, in peace negotiation, or at a number of the other nooks and crannies of international law—they don’t have a lot of time to look through 500 paper resumes. But they could use their computer to quickly flip through online profiles.

NO: You recently returned from the Geneva peace talks on Syria, where PILPG provided support to the Syrian opposition. Could you speak about your experience at this round of talks and the status of negotiations?

PW: PILPG is providing pro bono legal assistance to the Syrian opposition in the Geneva negotiations. This is the opposition which has been essentially selected by the people of Syria that are opposed to the Assad regime and they’re trying to negotiate a transition. Under such a regime change, Assad would leave, he would be replaced by a transitional governing body, there would be a process for drafting a constitution, and new elections. You would end the war, but also put Syria on a path to democratic transformation.

Our role as the pro bono lawyers for the opposition is to help them think through how to articulate their objectives in peace agreement language. They’re interested in regime change, ceasefire, transparency, democracy, and rule of law, but how do you actually write that down in language that could be utilized as part of the peace negotiation process? And so we’ve been heavily engaged in helping them identify best practices, what other countries have done in successful peace agreements, both in terms of the process of negotiating a successful peace agreement and the substance to ensure that it is a durable peace agreement.

If you just sign it, you stop the war, and then six months later things collapse, that’s a waste of time, effort, and sacrifice by many people. So when you do get this agreement, you’re going to want to make sure it’s actually something that holds and leads to genuine constitutional process and the transformation of the country. We have been working for five years now for the Syrian opposition on the peace process.

NO: On his way to the presidency, President Trump careened through all domestic political norms. In his first months in office, are there signs that the administration is similarly breaking international legal norms?

PW: I think the administration has been at this point cautious. They’ve been much more cautious on the international level than they have been on the domestic level. There was a lot of campaign talk about undoing a number of international norms relating to torture and use of force, but the international personnel infrastructure he’s put in place is more cautious than the infrastructure that he’s put in place for domestic issues. You also have a very well established set of international institutions, norms, and infrastructure that are resistant to rapid change so that has tempered the ability of the administration to seek wholesale changes internationally.

Nathaniel Oppenheimer is a second-year student at Columbia Law School and a staff editor for the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. He graduated from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.