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Law Graduates careers in the UN

by Minoas Vitalis
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Working at the UN

You have just graduated or are currently studying law and thinking about what to do next? Maybe working at a commercial law firm does not excite you or you would like to have a career with more of an international focus? You might be wondering if there are any options for law graduates in international organisations. If you want to use your law degree in an international organisation and are unsure about the options available to you or how to go about working there, this article is for you.

In this first article of the series about working in international organisations, we will focus on working at the United Nations (UN). Before analysing what kind of experience and skills you need to apply for a job at the UN, it is important to understand what the organisation does and what working there entails.

What does the UN do?

The United Nations is an international organisation whose mission is to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and achieve international cooperation. The UN was established after World War II with the aim of preventing another such conflict. The UN Charter was signed in 1945 by 51 countries, and currently, there are 193 member states. The UN has six main organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.

The work of the UN is spread across a wide range of areas including peace and security, human rights, economic development, humanitarian assistance, environmental protection, and more. The UN also plays an important role in providing a forum for discussion on international issues and coordinating international action.

What does working at the UN entail?

Working at the UN can be both incredibly rewarding and challenging. You will have the opportunity to work on vital global issues and make a positive impact on people’s lives. You will also get to work with people from all over the world and learn about different cultures. However, working at the UN can also be demanding and stressful. The hours can be long, and you may have to travel to difficult or dangerous places.

I had an opportunity to complete a traineeship at the Permanent Mission of a UN member state at the Headquarters of the organisation in New York. While my duties there were slightly different than those of a UN official, I gained insight into what working at the UN is really like and I was able to see firsthand the inner workings of the organisation. I had the valuable opportunity to attend and observe events like the 2019 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and the 12th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  I also got to meet people from different parts of the world and learn about their cultures. I was able to observe how diplomats work to advance their country’s interests, how international negotiations are conducted, and how important it is to build consensus among countries. I have to note here though that if for example, you work in an office at the Headquarters of the UN in New York, you can expect to work standard office hours which can sometimes be extended, according to the workload of your Department.However, if you are sent out to work in one of the field offices or peacekeeping missions, your hours will be more irregular and you may have to travel to dangerous places.

Working at the UN is not for everyone, but if you are interested in working on global issues and making a difference, it might be the perfect place for you.

What kind of experience and skills do you need?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question as the UN needs people with a wide range of skills and experience. However, there are certain skills and qualities that will increase your chances as a law graduate of getting a job or traineeship at the UN.

First and foremost, your chances of success will increase if you are fluent in one or more of the six official languages of the United Nations (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic). While you might be able to get by with English in some UN jobs, being fluent in another official language will give you a significant advantage.

Second, if you have not yet completed a master’s degree, you should consider doing so in an area you are not only passionate about but in a field that is relevant to the work you want to do later in life. It can be anything from human rights law, to environmental law.

Third, having some work experience, whether paid or unpaid, in an area related to the UN’s work will also give you an advantage. This could be anything from working as a lawyer in private practice to working for an NGO, to interning at a government organisation. I know it goes without saying but not everyone can afford to work an unpaid traineeship. I also had to struggle at the time and I was only able to complete my traineeship because I received a competitive grant from my University. Thus, I would encourage future applicants that want to complete a traineeship there, to apply to the as of yet limited number of UN agencies like UNICEF that pay their interns a stipend.

Fourth, in my opinion, having a strong academic record and a demonstratable record of extracurricular activities will also help your application. The UN is looking for well-rounded individuals that have not only excelled academically but have also taken advantage of opportunities outside the classroom to develop leadership skills and a global perspective. In addition, while not required, it would be beneficial if you had some experience working or living in another culture. This could be anything from studying abroad to taking part in a cultural exchange programme.

Finally, it is important to remember that the UN is a very competitive organisation to get into. Thus, you should not be discouraged if you are not successful the first time you apply. I know many people who applied multiple times before they finally got their foot in the door. To conclude, the UN is an international organisation and as such, values diversity. So, if you are a person from a minority group or have a disability, know that you are just as welcome at the UN as anyone else.

How can you apply?

If you have the relevant skills and experience, there are many different ways to get your foot in the door at the United Nations.

The most common way is to apply for a job through the UN’s Job Portal website. You can search for open positions by location, job category, or level of experience. Once you find a position that you are qualified for and interested in, you can submit your CV, cover letter and anything else that is needed.

Another way to acquire experience at the UN is through the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme. The UNV programme is designed to allow people from all over the world to volunteer their time and skills to help support the work of the UN. Volunteers can be placed in a variety of different roles, such as working in an office, providing technical assistance, or teaching English.

If you are not interested in working for the UN but are still interested in global issues, you can apply for an internship with one of the many NGOs that work with the UN or in one of the Permanent Missions of UN Member states. Permanent Missions are diplomatic missions that represent a Government of a Member State to the United Nations. These organisations offer a range of different internships, from human rights law, environmental law, social and cultural issues to issues that have to do with security and disarmament, among many others. 

Finally, if you are a student or recent graduate, you can apply for the United Nations Young Professionals Programme (YPP). The YPP is a highly competitive programme that offers recent graduates and others the opportunity to work in a variety of different UN agencies. To apply, you must also be a national of the countries participating in the program. You have to be careful though as the countries participating in the program change every year.

To sum up, there are many different ways to get your foot in the door at the United Nations. The best way to find out which one is right for you is to explore all of your options and see which one best fits your skills and experience. In the next article, we will focus on what it takes to work at the EU institutions. Stay tuned!


Minoas graduated with a Merit upon studying the full-time MPA Public Administration – International Development degree (MPA-ID) at the University of York. He is currently working as a freelance EU affairs consultant in Belgium.


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