PUBLISHED:March 30, 2012

David Ross ’93: Externship program helps launch career in international trade

For many Duke Law students, the school’s externship program is a way to gain field experience while also receiving course credits toward graduation. For David Ross, an externship at the U.S. Department of Commerce provided the experience and contacts necessary to launch a successful career in international trade law.

Ross visited the school in February to speak to students about his career and how his experience with the JD/LLM program helped prepare him.

It all began with Duke Law’s externship program, said Ross, currently a counsel at Wilmer Hale in Washington, D.C.

“I came to Duke and was not really sure how I was going to break into international trade. I knew I wanted to go to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, but it’s virtually impossible to go to USTR out of law school,” he said. “Then I learned that Duke had this externship program for JD/LLMs. I decided I would spend the first semester of my third year doing an externship somewhere in D.C., try to get an offer, and then eventually work my way to USTR from there.”

Ross completed his externship in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of the Chief Counsel for Import Administration, and he stayed there as an attorney-adviser for four years following graduation.

“I was coming out of law school in the middle of the early 90s legal recession. It was a tough economy. But I worked hard in the externship, and they gave me an offer,” he said. “Getting that first job was key, and it’s led to lots of great opportunities.”

After a brief stint in private practice to get additional training, Ross made his move to USTR where he spent eight years as an associate general counsel. He was responsible for a wide range of legal matters and served as lead counsel for the United States in numerous dispute settlement proceedings before the World Trade Organization. He then spent four years as an international trade counsel on the Senate Finance Committee before joining Wilmer Hale.

Ross recalled the negotiation of the free trade agreement with Chile, for which he was the chief lawyer, and how major decisions could be made in a matter of minutes.

“One of the amazing things about government service is the amount of authority you have over your issues,” Ross told students. “You arrive the first day, they hand you your portfolio, and you’re the decision maker. It’s kind of shocking.”

Throughout his career in Washington, Ross said he has known and interacted with a core group of people across various firms and organizations.

“Relationships matter, in my experience,” Ross said. “The D.C. trade world is a very small community, and there’s a constant flow between the various branches of government and the private sector. If people know you and respect your work, they’ll think of you when opportunities arise. And that can lead to some really interesting jobs.”

In recent years, many students have taken part in the Duke in D.C. program to earn up to 14 credit hours through the completion of a full-time externship placement, a weekly course with a Duke Law professor, and a substantial research project.