Prabhjot Punnia puts classroom concepts into practice with summer internship

Third-year law student worked with Trade Law Bureau

Sarah Kent - 27 September 2021

For Prabhjot Punnia, ‘22 JD, a summer internship focused on international law with the Trade Law Bureau built on interests she’s been developing throughout law school.

International law initially piqued Punnia’s curiosity after she attended the Youth Assembly Global Development Leadership Series as a first-year student.

"I went from an event where I met leaders from all over the world, and the next thing I knew, countries were closing their borders to protect their citizens from COVID-19. I was really interested in learning how this was possible with globalization and how Canada would balance protecting Canadians along with maintaining our trade and investment treaty obligations with our allies and partners."

As a second-year law student, Punnia took International Business Transactions with Professor Linda Reif. When the job posting for the internship with the Trade Law Bureau was circulated, Punnia jumped at the opportunity.

“I just knew that this (internship) would be a perfect way to gain experience in the concepts that I had studied in the class,” said Punnia, who was assigned to the investment team within the Trade Law Bureau.

The Trade Law Bureau is a joint unit between Global Affairs Canada and the Department of Justice. Its mandate is to provide international trade and investment law services to all Canadian departments and agencies.

"Prabhjot is the first University of Alberta law student to work as a Trade Law Bureau summer intern,” said Reif. “This is an outstanding achievement given that there is heavy nationwide competition among graduate students and JD students for the small number of these internship positions."

As an intern, Punnia worked on high-profile, international investment disputes and negotiations.

“One of my primary responsibilities was to conduct legal research on Canada’s international legal obligations and the various trade and investment treaties, such as NAFTA,” said Punnia.

A highlight of the experience was participating in an international investment arbitration hearing, a first for her.

Being able to compare her experiences in domestic courts with an international arbitration hearing was invaluable, said Punnia, who was particularly interested in comparing the rules of court with the consent-based approach that she observed during the hearing.

“During the hearing and in our team preparation … I was able to engage in calls with our two other NAFTA parties, the U.S. and Mexico,” said Punnia. “As a student, to be able to sit in those calls was a great learning opportunity.”

Reif echoed that this internship offers a unique opportunity for law students.

"Public international law student internships are extremely valuable experiential learning tools for our students,” she said. “There are few opportunities to experience public international law work in private practice. A summer internship with the Trade Law Bureau gives law students daily exposure to the practical world of international investment law and international trade law. It enables them to apply the law that they learn in courses such as International Business Transactions under the guidance of government lawyers and treaty negotiators."

For Punnia, an additional benefit of the internship was working with Ottawa as her backdrop.

“As a law student, when you’re walking down Wellington Street, you see Parliament and the Supreme Court, and these are the institutions that are creating the laws and ruling on the laws — just to walk down Wellington Street felt like a privilege.”

Building on experience

As a third-year student, Punnia is now undertaking an independent research paper with Reif where she will examine the application of international law in domestic systems. Punnia is thankful for Reif’s expertise, support and approachability.

“It can be a little intimidating when you’re working with an academic with 30-plus years of experience, however Professor Reif is excellent at removing any of the barriers that can often exist, and that is what she has done for me.”

“She has been instrumental in my success both within the law school and now outside of law school,” said Punnia

After graduation, Punnia will be clerking with the Alberta Court of Appeal and completing her remaining articles with the Federal Department of Justice. While she has a plan for the next couple years of her career, she’s excited to continue building on her experiences.

“I would be very open to having my work portfolio include both international law and domestic law.”