The Office of the Legal Adviser furnishes advice on all legal issues, domestic and international, arising in the course of the Department’s work. This includes assisting Department principals and policy officers in formulating and implementing the foreign policies of the U.S., and promoting the adherence to, and development of, international law and its institutions as a fundamental element of those policies.
Attorneys in the Office are at the forefront of the important international issues faced by our country, whether they are working to respond to humanitarian crises, to prevent human rights abuses, to promote international trade and resolve international disputes, to create a more livable world or to help foster peace and security. They work directly with high-level U.S. and foreign officials, the Congress and the White House staff. While almost all of the Office’s attorneys are based in Washington, their work may require them to travel overseas on a “temporary duty” basis to almost anywhere in the world for bilateral and multilateral negotiations, dispute resolution efforts or an unlimited range of other diplomatic missions.
Attorneys negotiate, draft and interpret international agreements involving a wide range of matters, such as peace initiatives, arms control discussions, trade-liberalization agreements, international commodity agreements, consular conventions and private law conventions on subjects like judicial cooperation and recognition of foreign judgments. They also work with Department officials on legislative initiatives and draft and interpret domestic statutes, Departmental regulations, Executive Orders and other legal documents. They represent or assist in representing the U.S. in meetings of international organizations and conferences and many U.N. programs and represent the U.S. before international tribunals such as the International Court of Justice and the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, as well as in international arbitrations. The attorneys work closely with the Department of Justice in litigation in the U.S. and foreign countries affecting the Department’s interests and, in addition, have had increasing opportunities to represent the Department in domestic courts and administrative courts before the Foreign Service Grievance Board, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and in contract disputes, Boards of Contract Appeals.
The Office is comprised of approximately 200 permanent attorneys and about 100 support staff, including paralegal specialists, treaty analysts, secretaries and general administrative personnel. Although all are stationed in Washington, DC, attorneys from the Office also fill the Legal Counsel and Deputy attorney positions at U.S. Missions in Geneva and The Hague, and the Legal Counsel positions at U.S. Missions to the European Union in Brussels and the United Nations in New York. On occasion, the office provides attorneys for other overseas posts.
The Office is organized into sections that roughly correspond with the Department of State’s various bureaus, including regional offices that focus on specific areas of the world and functional offices that deal with specific subject matters such as: Human Rights and Refugees; Political and Military Affairs; Economics and Business Affairs; Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; Legislation and Foreign Assistance or Management. Accordingly, the Office of the Legal Adviser is divided into twenty-three sections, in addition to the offices at The Hague, Geneva, Brussels, and New York. Attorneys’ preferences for “rotation” are requested after they have served approximately two years in an assignment; attorneys typically rotate assignments within the Office every two or three years to broaden their experience and take on new challenges.
The Legal Adviser holds a rank equivalent to that of Assistant Secretary of State and reports directly to the Secretary of State. Four Deputy Legal Advisers collectively supervise Assistant Legal Advisers, who manage the individual regional and functional offices.