I recently had the opportunity to interview William Brydie-Watson, a legal officer at the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (Unidroit). Unidroit was established in 1926 as an auxiliary body for the League of Nations, and then reformed in 1940 under the Unidroit Statute. Its purpose is to study and develop needs and methods for modernising, harmonising, and coordinating private law between States, with a focus on commercial law. Mr Brydie-Watson oversees the development of several of Unidroit’s current legislative projects, acts as Unidroit’s representative to APEC, manages the Unidroit Foundation as well as supervising interns and research scholars at Unidroit.
Q: How did you come to work at Unidroit?
A: I definitely did not have a very straight path toward Unidroit, where I’ve been working since 2014.
I started my career at the Australian Attorney-General’s Department in the Criminal Law Policy Unit. I had the opportunity to work on a number of high profile issues, and was fortunate to have a great supervisor and director who dedicated significant time to training me. Their attitude of enthusiasm and hard work remains with me today. Following this, I transferred to International Criminal Law Assistance, which is responsible for assisting developing countries to meet international standards in preventing terrorism and money-laundering.
After this, I transferred into the Private International Law team at the Attorney-General’s Department. There, I learned a lot, and worked on a number of important projects, like the Trans-Tasman Proceedings Act. It was also my first exposure to Unidroit, because I was working on the implantation of treaties produced by international private law organisations such as Unidroit, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) and the Hague Conference on Private International Law.
Q: Were you always interested in a career in private international law?
A: I didn’t really engage with private international law until I was working in that team at the Attorney-General’s Department. I studied at the Australian National University, where the law school had a strong focus on public international law. I was more drawn to public international law in my studies and at the beginning of my career because it is conceptually interesting, and engages more directly with immediate concerns like human rights than commercial law does.
However, once I increased my private international law knowledge through work and further study, I came to love it. The beneficial effects of international commercial law particularly are much more tangible and concrete than most areas of public international law. It’s always a good outcome when the treaty actually binds parties and has concrete enforcement mechanisms. In comparison, public international law isn’t always as effective. For example, a breach of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling doesn’t necessarily result in action that deters a party from reoffending. Private international law is less aspirational, but it is also more concrete.
Q: What are you currently working on at Unidroit? What is working at Unidroit like?
A: I am primarily responsible for the development of the Mining, Agriculture and Construction (MAC) Protocol to the Cape Town Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment. The aim of the Protocol is to create an international registration system for legal interests in high value, uniquely identifiable and mobile MAC equipment, which will increase the availability and lower the cost of financing. This would have significant economic benefits for the States that sign the Protocol, especially developing States.
I am also supervising interns who are assisting me with research on this project, and have supervised dozens during my time here. Unidroit offers scholarship and internships throughout the year, and they are a really fantastic way of getting experience in private international law.
It’s important to note that Unidroit is a legislative body. This distinguishes it from other international law bodies because the Institute is judged primarily by the treaties it produces, such as the MAC Protocol. We are one of the three major legislative bodies for private international law, the other two being the Hague Conference on Private International Law and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (“UNCITRAL”). The three organisations also prepare comparative studies which explain the interoperability of Unidroit, Hague Conference and UNCITRAL instruments.
Being a small secretariat, majority of our time is spent on producing instruments, which I really like doing. There are a lot of different aspects to overseeing a treaty-making process, from initial legal analysis, through to an assessment of economic impact and promotion among member States. This reflects a change in the methodology of producing treaties. Historically, promotion of treaties has been a weakness for small legislative institutes like Unidroit. A big part of my current role is the promotion of Unidroit’s instruments to ensure they are utilised by States.
Q: What would you say have been some of your biggest challenges working on international legal issues?
A: There are a few. In creating an international instrument, it can be challenging to produce a treaty that is beneficial to private parties that will utilise its provisions while also taking into account the international political realities that inevitably affect its negotiation.
Another is the depth of knowledge that is required. There has been a proliferation of international commercial law instruments over the past 30 years, which requires modern practitioners and policy makers to have significant specific knowledge. Unidroit alone has produced 29 complex, technical instruments that may have to be considered when preparing new instruments.
Legal policy really requires you to have an excellent understanding of the issues, which you may not have going in to a project. Although the Attorney-General’s Department trained me well on how to develop policy, general policy skills must be supplemented with subject matter expertise. Specialisation in itself is a challenge, as once you have finished one project, you need to immediately develop new technical knowledge for the next, and “specialise”, so to speak, all over again. It is very different to working in a private firm as a practitioner, where you can spend a career specialising in one subject area should you so choose.
Q: On that note about policy development, how would you characterise the differences between formulating domestic versus international legal policy?
A: There are some core skills that are useful in both settings: research, analysis, strategic planning, navigation of the political environment, and consultation with stakeholders. On an international level, the work required is on a whole other scale. For example, just as you would consult with states and territories when writing policy for the federal government, in international legal policy, you consult with relevant organisations, States, coalitions, and so on.
When I began working at Unidroit, I realised that as an Australian working in an international environment, I inevitably had an Australian-bias in how I approach legal issues. Like all Australian lawyers, I had learnt law through studying Australian statutes and case law, which subconsciously effected how I interpreted all legal material.
When working internationally, you have to take a step back and broaden your approach. I commonly received feedback in my first six months at Unidroit that my view on an issue was from a subjective Australian, common-law perspective. As with most international law organisations, I work with many colleagues from civil law jurisdictions who value different cultural values, norms and ideologies. They challenge my domestic bias, which I really appreciate, and it has caused me to reorient my starting point.
Q: Finally, what advice would you give to those looking to practice or work in international law?
A: It is definitely incredibly challenging to land a full-time job in international organisations. However, there is a growing internationalisation of all aspects of the law, and governments are increasingly looking at international standards and other countries’ standards when developing law. The impact of the CISG and the Unidroit Principles of International Commercial Contracts in domestic contract law reforms around the world is a good example of this. The domestic versus international law divide is becoming increasingly artificial. In a globalised world, it is difficult to be a domestic contract lawyer who does not know how to draft an international commercial contract. Developing international law or comparative law knowledge or experience, even if in an internship context, is an incredibly useful asset.
My advice to students and recent graduates is that there is no wrong starting point. No set, guaranteed path to working at the United Nations or another international organisation. I started my career in domestic criminal law, spent some time in administrative law, and now I work in private international law.
Every experience you have is valuable, even those from university. For example, the Italian language skills I developed on university exchange in Milan turned out to be crucial in obtaining my job at Unidroit, even though I had really learnt Italian for fun rather than as a professional skill. You never know how joining a particular club or undertaking an internship might influence your future career.
The best advice I can give is to not freak out and try to plan every aspect of your career in advance. Opportunities are always opening up, and it is important to keep your options open.
This interview has been edited for clarity.