Practicing International Law in DC
By Todd Watson
DC is, without a doubt, one of the best places in the world to pursue an international law career. Many GW Law students seem to have come here for that reason. But long after CivPro and Torts have become a distant memory, and the interminable chime of the GW fight song has been learned by heart, that devilish question remains – how?
In 2006, Umar Akbar Ahmed was awarded the Buergenthal Scholarship to pursue an LL.M. at GW Law, after receiving legal training in the UK. He started working for McMahon & Associates while at GW, and he is still working with them, as well as in his own private practice. Ahmed recently made headlines when he brought a case against the Syrian government in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Syrian Emergency Task Force alleging abuses against Syrian and Syrian-American citizens under the Alien Tort Statute, Torture Victim Protection Act, and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.* Ahmed explained the purpose of the lawsuit in a recent interview with Al Jazeera:
“We are asking for monetary damages for the victims of the Syrian government. Some plaintiffs have been horrifically tortured. Others have lost close family members. But the monetary damages are of secondary importance; the primary objective is to establish accountability and for this lawsuit to act as a deterrent to prevent future acts of violence.”
In conjunction with his work as an international human rights lawyer, Ahmed has championed the cause of freedom of speech in the Arab world. Earlier this year he spoke at the National Press Club about the case of Rachid Nini, a muckraking Moroccan journalist who was recently imprisoned for exposing government corruption in the pages of Morocco’s largest daily newspaper, Al-Massae.**
Aside from foreign endeavors, Ahmed is very active in the DC community. In his private practice he handles a lot of immigration cases. He recently helped a client procure custody of her child in an international dispute, and reversed a deportation proceeding in favor of another client. Ahmed is also deeply committed to pro bono work, particularly with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. His recent work for that group includes successfully appealing a denial of Social Security Disability Insurance for a client whose disability had cost him his job and led to the loss of his home.
In short, Ahmed has a fascinating and successful career in international and domestic law, and is only a few years out of the LL.M. program. He recently shared his thoughts with Nota Bene about his field of practice and current trends. “The recession has hit everyone equally,” said Ahmed. “Law firms are hiring less, businesses are generating less revenue and corporate law – which was thriving as a legal practice area when I first came to GW – has been severely hit on the domestic level. The demand for international corporate law and transactions, however, remains high. Some fields such as bankruptcy law, particularly in respect to Chapter 7, 11 and 13, have actually spiked in demand. But on the whole, the recession has negatively impacted demand in most legal practice areas.”
“There is still crucial work to be done in the international arena to counter human rights and civil liberties violations, but the opportunities are often for pro bono work,” said Ahmed. “For those who have a passion for this line of work, however, it can be very fulfilling personally and can give new lawyers valuable experience and exposure to an important field of law.”
Ahmed offered the following advice for law students hoping to pursue a legal career: “Firstly, I would say from my personal experience, that the job one gets during law school should never be taken lightly as it can prove to be invaluable in terms of the experience it brings, the guidance it can give you for the future, and the relationships that come from it. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with one of the most talented lawyers I know, Mr. Martin McMahon (the founding partner of McMahon & Associates), and I have come to know him as a mentor and a friend. Secondly, as someone not too long out of law school, I sympathize with current students and urge them to never be discouraged. If you work hard and follow your passion you can’t go wrong. The law is a great profession and there are a myriad of opportunities to get involved and gain experience in the DC legal community. A good lawyer can change their client’s lives for the better, which is reward in itself, even in tough economic times. Get out there, network, volunteer, and opportunities will present themselves.”