Careers in national security law
National security once referred primarily to freedom from military threat and political coercion. In the 21st century, the term has become increasingly complex and concurrently vague. In Europe, the Council of Bars and Law Societies presented a paper in 2019 focused on this ambiguity, stating that:
“At both national and international level, there is no universally accepted definition of national security. As a result, even where domestic law provides a certain degree of definitional clarity, from one country to another this leads to radically different interpretation by the courts as they assess what is, or is not, considered necessary and proportionate when invoking national security as a justification for measures which limit citizens’ fundamental rights.”
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, national security law has become one of the fastest growing areas of legal inquiry.
In the Unites States, the proliferation of terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dissolution of national borders in the digital era, and the continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons are some of the key events and circumstances that have made the concept of protecting the nation ambiguous. National security law (NSL) is one means by which the U.S. attempts to define and systematize this concept.
The U.S. military and foreign policy legislation known as the National Security Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1947. The act signified a major restructuring of the U.S. armed forces following World War II. The office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council (NSC) were established, as was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The act also focused on ensuring presidential and congressional oversight on matters of national security and intelligence.
National security law first emerged as a legal practice area at law schools in the late 1980s. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, national security law has become one of the fastest growing areas of legal inquiry.
NSL focuses on the intersection of international law and national security, dealing with specific laws on:
- intelligence operations and the use of armed forces abroad
- homeland security
- crisis management
- treatment of detainees
- congressional oversight
- classified information
National security law is thus an emerging legal field offering many opportunities for lawyers interested in working for government or nonprofit advocacy organizations. The work of a national security lawyer is complex and high-stakes, often surpassing the abilities of a single practitioner.
National security law encompasses vast practice areas, including:
- constitutional law
- military law
- human rights
- international relations
Where do national security lawyers work?
Most NSL lawyers are employed by government agencies or private-sector firms. NSL lawyers work for the executive branch of government and on Capitol Hill. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA) employ NSL lawyers, as do other government departments, including the Department of Energy and the Department of the Treasury. Most federal executive branch agencies hire in-house lawyers, some of whom are engaged in national security issues. Aspiring NSL lawyers interested in prosecution may seek employment with the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting threats to national security.
Non-governmental organizations and national security publications are other potential workplaces. Given that this is an emerging field, there are also as-yet undefined areas of practice. The American Bar Association recommends an attitude of flexibility, adaptability, and creative thinking to aspiring NSL lawyers, particularly during the early career phase of 2-5 years post-graduation, because this law track is not yet clearly defined.
Did you know?
The Department of Defense has acknowledged that military operations both at home and internationally could be affected by an increased demand for disaster and humanitarian relief resulting from climate change.
How do you become a national security lawyer?
National security law is a challenging and competitive legal field. It is a good idea to carefully plan your career path several years in advance by choosing the academic coursework, study programs, extracurricular activities, and summer internships that increase your chances of success in this emerging field.
An undergraduate degree can equip you with a general understanding of national security law or other areas of study, such as government administration, political science, or business.
Be aware that the J.D. is technically a doctorate-level degree, although many students enter law school with only a bachelor’s degree.
A Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree is the traditional next step before you can sit the bar exam and practice law. Lawyers who want to specialize or advance their careers may progress to a Master of Law (LLM) or even a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctorate in Judicial Science (SJD) to become scholars or professors in the field.
Be aware that the J.D. is technically a doctorate-level degree, although many students enter law school with only a bachelor’s degree. Completing a LLM is not a replacement for the J.D. and is generally completed after law school, even though it is technically a lower-level degree.
Earn a Bachelor’s degree
The first step to becoming a national security lawyer is to complete a bachelor’s degree. Getting into law school does not require majoring in any particular field, but courses in law, government, international affairs, history, philosophy, and political science may be helpful for your future studies.
National security programs are usually interdisciplinary, covering topics such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, piracy, global pandemics, and civil liberties and the rule of law.
An excellent choice for those set on a national security law career is a bachelor of arts in law and national security. Other similar programs with slightly different name variations exist, including bachelor of arts in national security law and bachelor of arts in national security studies. Some programs are also offered as a bachelor of science degree. National security programs are usually interdisciplinary, covering topics such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, piracy, global pandemics, and civil liberties and the rule of law.
Specific courses you may take in a bachelor of law and national security program include:
Introduction to homeland security
This course explores the history and developments of homeland security. Topics covered include homeland security management, the Department of Homeland Security, and disaster preparedness. The course analyzes national security policy through the lens of international relations, intelligence operations, and military force.
Introduction to international relations
This course examines international relations, policy, and diplomacy within the international political community. Prominent theories of international relations are covered, including realism, liberal internationalism, neo-conservatism, and human rights.
American foreign policy
This course dives into the history of U.S. foreign policy and how contemporary foreign policy is formulated. Trends in foreign policy since World War II are examined. The evolving concepts of power, national interest, and grand strategy as they relate to U.S. foreign policy and other regions are discussed.
Survey of international terrorism
This course studies the nature and causes of political violence and terrorism. Other topics covered include the objectives, strategies, and tactics of religious and political terrorism as well as the role of the criminal justice system in addressing them.
National security career strategies
Because of the complex and emerging nature of the national security field, your program may offer a course that focuses on successfully securing employment and advancing in a national security-related career path. Skills such as job research, application writing, and even roleplay may be employed to help prepare students for internships and career entry.
Did you know?
The U.S. Intelligence Community is a coalition of 17 agencies that collaborate to gather intelligence for national security and foreign relations activities.
Bachelor-level careers related to national security law
A career as a national security lawyer requires considerable education and preparation, including going to law school and becoming a licensed lawyer. Fresh out of college, seeking employment in law or government may benefit your law school application and future job opportunities. Consider one of the following careers, ideally in a law and national security or related setting.
Paralegals support the work of lawyers by carrying out administrative and research tasks, including drafting documents, maintaining files, conducting research, and arranging evidence.
District of Columbia
What they do
Common tasks performed by paralegals include:
- investigating the details of a case
- prepare documents, including affidavits and other legal documents
- helping lawyers prepare for trial by summarizing reports
- gathering and arranging evidence
- conducting research on laws and regulations
- assisting lawyers at trials by taking notes and reviewing transcripts
How to become
The minimum educational requirement to become a paralegal is an associate degree, although many employers prefer a bachelor’s degree. The most common educational route is a bachelor’s degree followed by a paralegal certificate program. Some employers require certification, which involves passing an exam.
Legislative assistantMedian salary: 40K US$
Legislative assistants, also known as legislative aides, assist the lawmaking process in the legislative branch of government at the state or federal level. They provide administrative, planning, research, and communications support. They may also conduct surveys among constituents, write speeches, and organize support for a legislator’s bills to ensure their passage.See more
Earn a juris doctor (J.D.) degree
Earning a law degree is a crucial component of a career as a national security lawyer. Most law school programs last 3 years. The first-year curriculum is generally a prescribed set of courses, with no opportunity to take electives. These core courses are usually contracts, torts, civil procedure, constitutional law, criminal law, and legal methods. In the second and third years of law school, it’s possible to choose electives according to your own interests. As an aspiring national security lawyer, you may be able to take courses in that field specifically, especially if you have chosen a program that offers a concentration in NSL.
In the second and third years of law school, students earn experiential credits by participating in activities such as law clinics, policy labs, moot court, or externships. Most law degrees also require a certain number of pro bono service hours, which means offering free legal counsel to individuals in need. It is highly advisable to seek experiential opportunities in national security law to strengthen your chances of gaining future employment in the field. Some internships may even lead to a full-time job after graduation.
Most law schools require several basic prerequisites for their applicants, including the following:
- bachelor’s degree
- minimum GPA: 3.8 for top schools, 3.4 average
- passing scores on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
- personal statement
- letters of recommendation
Your LSAT scores determine which schools you are eligible for, with prestigious schools requiring higher scores.
What national security courses can you take in a J.D. program?
Specific courses related to national security law you may take in a J.D. program include:
Homeland security law
This course examines the institutional framework for the control of national security. The national security process is studied, including the national command structure, issues of secrecy, and access to information. Intelligence and counterintelligence law are also covered. International laws on conflict management are addressed, including the roles of the United Nations and the Security Council. The American Security Doctrine is studied, as well as the issues of strategic stability and arms control.
Immigration and national security
This course explores the relationship between national security and immigration. It provides a historical overview, followed by an examination of threshold national security issues that have implications for immigration. The legal framework surrounding this issue is discussed, including the Immigration and Nationality Act. Border protection, population control, and the conflict between individual rights and national security are discussed.
Technology and national security
This course examines the impact of emerging technologies on national security. The potential weaponization of drones and driverless cars is scrutinized in the context of national security law. The vulnerability of global communications systems, social media, satellites, and currencies to manipulation by private actors is discussed. The application of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) to the cyber realm and autonomous weapons systems is also covered.
The use of force and human rights
This course delves into the tension between ensuring universally recognized and protected human rights while also protecting national security. The issue is examined though a variety of lenses, including the “war on terror” and climate change. The use of force, violence, seizure, detention, and trial of individuals who pose national security threats is examined in light of international human rights.
National security investigations
This course covers national security investigations and litigation. The response of law enforcement and intelligence communities to the threat of terrorism and the challenge of prosecuting terrorism in federal criminal courts is examined. Alternative models of prosecuting terrorism cases are discussed, including military commissions, national security courts, and indefinite wartime detention.
Preparing for a career in national security law
In addition to taking relevant courses, the following are examples of how to gain national security experience during your law school studies:
- join student organizations dedicated to national security law, armed services, civil liberties, or politics – many law schools offer a plethora of student organizations focused on specific practice areas
- contribute to student journals dedicated to topics relevant to national security as outlined in the point above
- become a research assistant for one of your professors – this may offer you valuable experience as well as building a relationship with a professor who may eventually become a mentor or reference
- participate in a government-related legal clinic – legal clinics are professional experience opportunities, such as internships and externships, organized by your school
- complete a summer internship – one that requires security clearance may be particularly beneficial, allowing you to gain employment faster following graduation
- complete a post-graduation fellowship
- learn to speak a foreign language fluently; Spanish, Arabic, Russian, all dialects of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Farsi, Pashtu, and Urdu are in particular demand in this field
- network with alumni in the field – try to get in contact with graduates who have gone on to have careers in national security law
- build a track record that demonstrates your continued interest in and commitment to national security law – this can be done by combining several of the ideas listed above
The bar exam
“The bar” is an exam following law school that gives you the credentials needed to become a licensed, practicing lawyer. Passing the bar is required for practicing law in all states except Wisconsin.
The exact bar exam process varies slightly by state, but the overall structure is similar. The exam usually lasts 2 days. The first day is reserved for the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) which covers 6 areas: constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, evidence, property, and torts. The second day usually involves writing essays on a variety of legal topics.
Becoming a licensed attorney
Once you have passed the bar exam, follow your state’s licensing procedure to become a licensed attorney. Keep in mind that you cannot legally practice law in the U.S. without a license. The process generally entails passing a professional responsibility examination and undergoing character and fitness evaluations.
Did you know?
The number of accredited law schools offering courses on national security law has increased from 1 in 1974 to over 130 today.
Law careers in national security
National security lawyerMedian salary: 106K US$
Lawyers working in national security law offer counsel to policymakers and other key players formulating diplomatic, military, and other policies. Those working on Capitol Hill formulate policy recommendations or legislation on behalf of members of Congress or Congressional committees. Working in and around Washington, D.C., including in Maryland and Virginia, is the obvious choice for many. The employment, networking, and professional development opportunities in these regions is unparalleled. However, it is certainly possible to practice national security law elsewhere in the country.See more
The following are the most common employment settings for national security lawyers:
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- Department of Defense (DOD)
- Department of the Treasury
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- National Security Council
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)
- Transportation Security Administration
- National Security Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ)
- Capitol Hill
Some state and local governments have formed homeland security agencies to deal with issues of homeland security at the state level. Examples include Massachusetts’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) and the California Emergency Management Agency (CEMA).
- advocacy organizations
- think tanks
All military branches have officers who serve in the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAGs). These officers, among other duties, provide legal advice to servicemembers on the law of war, the treatment of detainees, and mission-related military justice, and rules of engagement. As they advance in their careers, JAG officers can specialize in national security law.
Choosing an accredited school for your bachelor’s degree ensures you attend a program with verified academic standards. It can also impact your competitiveness when applying for law school.
It is also recommended to choose a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Most states do not allow you to take their bar exam with a degree from a non-accredited school.
LLM degrees in national security law
LLM degrees in national security law are rarely pursued by recent law school graduates. Instead, these degrees are usually of interest to mid-career national security lawyers seeking to develop specific expertise, lawyers transitioning from another field, or individuals who earned their law degree abroad.
Most LLM programs last a year. It is recommended to find a program in the state you want to practice in, and near Washington, D.C. if you wish to work on Capitol Hill, as an LLM is an excellent opportunity to build your network. Most LLM programs in national security require that you first complete a J.D.
Doctoral studies in national security law
Students pursuing doctoral studies in law and national security are usually looking to become scholars, policymakers, or professors in the field. A small number of Ph.D. programs in this field are available under various titles, including public policy Ph.D. in national security policy and doctor of business administration – homeland security leadership and policy.
Do all national security lawyers work in Washington, D.C.?
Location is an important component of the national security law track. Living in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia is a logical option for those interested in law and national security, as D.C. is the center of policymaking. National security events and opportunities abound in this region but there is also a lot of job competition. For those outside of D.C. and the surrounding area, networking is vital to ensuring they remain in touch with what is happening in the capital.
Is the military part of national security?
National security was once thought of as primarily related to securing a country against military attack. These days, national security is a much broader term, encompassing everything from climate change and economic inequality to cybersecurity and domestic and international terrorism.
This comprehensive guide provide insights into the changing nature of the national security law field and practical information on how to identify and secure a professional position in this practice area.
Among its many activities, this ABA standing committee works to encourage exploration of careers in national security law and share available opportunities. The committee even assists law school students around the country in the creation of national security law societies and helps sponsor career panels at participating law schools.
The Intelligence Community collects, analyzes, and delivers foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information to America’s leaders, including the president, policymakers, law enforcement, and the military. They offer a daily brief to the public on news and social media highlights.