Working in an international environment

Lawyers at EU insti­tu­tions

Guest Article by Michelle SieburgLesedauer: 6 Minuten

Brussels, Luxembourg, or Strasbourg? Many EU institutions employ lawyers as soon as they hold a university degree. Michelle Sieburg explains which job opportunities exist and what the eligibility criteria are.

  • Zur deutschen Textfassung geht es hier.

Even though European law is part of numerous legal degrees, it is still neglected by many students. Nevertheless, European law holds the potential for an interesting career, because the European Union (EU) needs lawyers – just like everyone else.

All institutions can be considered as employers: The Commission, the Parliament (EP), the European Council, the Council of the EU and, of course, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Lawyers can work as so-called Administrators (AD) or Assistants (AST) - this is how the EU grades are referred to. Generally, a university degree is sufficient to start an employment at the EU. However, as a fully qualified lawyer and several years of professional experience an entry at a higher grade is possible. Some professional fields are only open to fully qualified lawyers, which is the case for an in-house lawyer of the Commission or a lawyer-linguist at the ECJ.


Working at the Commission

The Commission is referred to as the “guardian of the treaties” and the main legislative body of the EU. In its 33 departments, the so-called Directorates-General (DGs), it offers numerous job opportunities for lawyers. Each DG is dedicated to a specific subject area, from DG Justice and Consumers to DG Climate Action and DG Migration and Home Affairs. Lawyers work on the Commission's legislative proposals, prepare initial drafts, and take part in the Commission's trilogue negotiations with the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

This involves a lot of work, some of which has to be done in the evenings, reports a Commission employee: “Sometimes there is still a lot of work to do on Friday afternoon, and you have to stay late. However, I have the impression that this hardly bothers anyone here; we really enjoy our work and have a motivating working environment,” she says.

The Commission also has its own legal service. Similar to the Bundestag's Research Service for Members of Parliament, the Commission's in-house lawyers answer legal questions from the other institutions. Moreover, the Commission's Legal Service has other tasks as well: It monitors the implementation of European law in the member states and, if necessary, prepares infringement procedures. Whenever the Commission participates in proceedings before the ECJ or national courts, it is represented by its fully qualified lawyers.

General Secretariat of the Council

The work of the General Secretariat of the Council is similar. As with the Commission, there are twelve departments reporting to the General Secretariat, each of which is dedicated to a specific subject area, such as Justice and Home Affairs.

The General Secretariat supports the European Council and the Council of the EU, particularly in the legislative process. As a reminder, the European Council, consisting of government representatives from the member states, determines the EU's political guidelines, whereas the Council of the EU brings together ministers to adopt European legislation.

In comparison to the commission, the work of the General Secretariat of the Council takes place in a much more political setting. The legislative proposals drawn up here must take greater account of the national interests of the member states in order to reach a political consensus.

Working at the ECJ or as an EU diplomat

The ECJ, based in Luxembourg, is of particular interest to European law experts. Whether drafting opinions in the Advocates General's offices or translating court rulings as a lawyer-linguist, in-depth knowledge of European law is necessary.*

In addition to the institutions, the EU agencies offer interesting job opportunities for lawyers too. These bodies are entrusted with their own field of activity and support the institutions in their work. There is something for every area of interest. For example, you can fight white-collar crime across borders at the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) or work for the protection of fundamental rights at the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA).

The European External Action Service (EEAS), which maintains diplomatic relations with third countries, also employs lawyers. In contrast to the work at the German Federal Foreign Office, the EEAS is still little known. In more than 130 delegations worldwide, EEAS lawyers ensure that foreign policy projects, such as humanitarian aid in crisis situations, comply with European law and advise the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on legal issues.

It's not the final grade that counts

Anyone interested in a job at the EU must go through a demanding selection procedure. The European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) is responsible for the application procedures at the European institutions.

Applicants must meet the following basic requirements: They must be a national of an EU member state, hold a university degree and speak at least two of the 24 official languages of the EU.

In principle, the first university degree is sufficient to start working in the EU, for example for lawyer-linguists at the ECJ.* A full qualification as a lawyer is required if, for example, you wish to work as a lawyer in the Commission's Legal Service. Further requirements depend on the job advertisement in question.

There are no specific grade requirements. This is also confirmed by Luís Loureiro de Amorim, Head of Outreach and External Relations at EPSO: “The grades achieved by candidates at the end of their university studies are not taken into account by EPSO in the selection procedure. The only requirement is that the academic diplomas obtained by the candidates must match the eligibility criteria announced by EPSO in the notices of competition.”

Selection procedure with various tests

The selection process comprises a series of tests that candidates can complete online. They are tailored to the respective job requirements. Analytical skills are tested using text comprehension questions. Knowledge about the EU, its history and organization is also tested. Anyone who is interested can take a look at the sample questions on the EPSO website. In addition to these multiple-choice tests, there are also writing tasks designed to test structured thinking and the ability to express oneself.

The job-specific tests include, for example, translation tests for lawyer-linguists at the ECJ. Knowledge of European law is also tested in depth here.

Successful candidates are then placed on a reserve list so that potential employers can contact them when the necessity arises. A successful selection process does not lead directly to a job. To avoid long waiting times, some graduates contact their desired employers on their own initiative - a personal network in the EU institutions can be of help here.

How much do EU employees earn?

Once the application process is passed, a decent starting salary is waiting for the employees, depending on their qualifications and professional experience. Similar to the salary groups for civil servants in Germany, these are also fixed for EU employees. They are based on Article 66 of Regulation No. 31 (EEC) 11 (EAEC) on the Staff Regulations of Officials of the European Union.

Lawyers with a university degree, who can work as an administrator in a DG of the Commission or at the General Secretariat of the Council, for example, start in grade 5 with a basic monthly salary of about 5,500 euros. An entry into a higher grade requires several years of professional experience. This ultimately depends on the specific position. In Germany these salaries are taxed in accordance with the so-called Tax Collection Regulation (Council Regulation No. 260/68).

A promotion to the next step is possible with good evaluations for two consecutive years. In some cases, language skills need to be improved too. This is because “civil servants must demonstrate knowledge of at least three of the 24 official EU languages in order to be considered for promotion,” Loureiro de Amorim from EPSO explains to LTO.

If you still want to test whether a job at the EU is the right thing for you, you can do so as part of an internship. Given their popularity, we can only advise to apply early.

This text is a translated and slightly revised version of the article published in German on 25 May 2024.

Michelle Sieburg studies law at the University of Heidelberg.

*In a previous version, it was stated that two state examinations were also required for the job of lawyer-linguists. Corrected on 31 May 2024, 10:40 (Red.).

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