Learn How To Become a Human Rights Lawyer

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published March 15, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you're passionate about helping others in difficult situations and have an interest in the law, consider starting a career as a human rights lawyer. As a human rights lawyer, you'll have the opportunity to make a direct impact on your community by helping people defend their fundamental human rights and upholding high standards of treatment for all people. Exploring the path to becoming a human rights lawyer can help you decide if this rewarding career is right for you.

In this article, we explore what it's like to be a human rights lawyer and share instructions on how to pursue this career.

What is a human rights lawyer?

A human rights lawyer is an attorney who specializes in issues related to human dignity, equality and civil rights. Human rights lawyers work to shape the law, challenge unjust behavior and ensure that every person has access to the basic rights of privacy, safety and health. They typically work with vulnerable or marginalized groups negotiating to provide them with resources, remove them from harmful situations or get justice from the perpetrators of a crime. The role of a human rights lawyer is to use their understanding of the law to advocate for clients who have experienced a human rights violation.

Human rights lawyers can specialize in a particular type of human rights subjects, including:

  • Worker's rights

  • Freedom of expression

  • LGBT issues

  • Treatment of prisoners

  • Racial discrimination

  • Immigration and refugee rights

  • Living conditions

  • International human rights

  • Domestic abuse

Related: 17 Areas of Law to Work In

What does a human rights lawyer do?

Human rights lawyers are responsible for all of the duties related to representing their clients in court, from conducting legal research to presenting arguments in front of a judge. Some of their most important tasks include:

  • Collaborating with aid organizations to find people in need of legal human rights aid

  • Meeting with clients to learn about their hardships and needs

  • Reading human rights laws and studying similar cases

  • Drafting legal documents to communicate with the court

  • Reading about ongoing humanitarian crises and international human rights issues

  • Arguing for financial compensation and other forms of settlements

  • Applying for emergency court orders to provide immediate assistance to clients in need

  • Informing clients of their rights in different situations

  • Recording statements from witnesses and preparing physical evidence

  • Consulting on human rights legislation

  • Organizing public support and demonstrations to bring attention to injustices for their clients

To complete all of their duties, human rights lawyers may collaborate with other legal experts, paralegals and assistants to help with research and administrative tasks. They delegate tasks to their legal team and track their progress to ensure their clients have ongoing access to legal advice and meet all court deadlines.

Related: Working in Social Justice: Why 90% of People Would Sacrifice Money for Meaning (With Example Career Paths)

How to become a human rights lawyer

To become a human rights lawyer, you first need to gain extensive legal education to ensure you have all the tools to help your clients. Explore the path to becoming a human rights lawyer by browsing these important steps:

1. Earn your undergraduate degree

To start your legal education, sign up for an undergraduate program where you can prepare for your law degree. While not all human rights lawyers study law when completing their bachelor's, choosing a law-related major can help you meet the prerequisites to start law school. Some schools have pre-law programs, but majors like international relations, political science and sociology can also be ideal for preparing for your graduate degree.

2. Sign up for humanitarian and legal internships

Positions as human rights lawyers are highly competitive, so it's critical to volunteer, intern and gain as much relevant experience as possible. Apply for internships working with humanitarian groups and charities to learn more about the types of direct legal aid your future clients might need. You can also look for opportunities to work as an intern in a law office or shadow an experienced human rights lawyer.

3. Study for the LSAT

Most law schools require candidates to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) to apply. The LSAT determines your preparedness to study law by testing your reading comprehension, logical thinking and writing skills. The LSAT is a challenging test, and many aspiring lawyers start studying years before they apply to law school. Regularly take practice tests and analyze which types of questions you frequently get incorrect so you can improve your study techniques.

4. Choose a law school with a strong human rights program

Next, you have to apply to law schools that can help you specialize in human rights. Prepare a list of law schools that interest you and research what kinds of courses they offer, looking for topics like refugee law and discrimination protections. Look for schools that have designated human rights programs, degree concentrations or certificates. When meeting with school officials, ask about what kinds of hands-on legal opportunities the program provides. You should also research the faculty on staff and learn about their history of practicing human rights law and what kinds of human rights scholarship they publish.

In your law school application, emphasize your past experience and describe your motivation for becoming a human rights lawyer. Law school admissions officials seek out qualified students that are motivated and passionate about advancing human rights on both an individual and societal level.

Related: Should I Go To Law School? (With FAQ)

5. Participate in legal clinics

Legal clinics are programs where law students have the opportunity to work on real court cases. Experienced professors and lawyers oversee law students and allow them to help conduct research, write legal documents, communicate with clients and prepare arguments for the court. While working at a legal clinic, law students can learn the technical details of how the court process works and begin preparing for full-time work as a human rights lawyer.

Most law clinics are pro-bono, which means the lawyers provide free legal support to clients in need. To get the most out of your experience, look for law clinic opportunities where you can work specifically with human rights issues.

6. Pass the bar exam

Before you can begin practicing independently as a lawyer, you need to pass your state bar exam. This test reviews your legal knowledge and confirms that you meet all necessary standards to practice law. Each state has its own requirements for gaining admission to the bar, but they typically involve passing the written test and completing a character assessment interview.

7. Apply for law jobs

As a licensed lawyer, you can start applying for jobs where you can work with human rights cases. You can look for jobs at law offices that specialize in human rights issues or apply for positions at international organizations. Because human rights law is a competitive field, you might also consider taking a general position as a lawyer, then building your qualifications by taking pro-bono cases related to the type of human rights law that you want to pursue.

Skills for human rights lawyers

Human rights lawyers use a range of professional skills when advocating for their clients. Some of the top skills for human rights lawyers are:

  • Public speaking: Human rights lawyers should be excellent public speakers who can eloquently express complex ideas, argue for their clients in court and persuade and audience with their presentations.

  • Research: Preparing for legal cases requires human rights lawyers to have expert investigation and research skills. This allows them to find all of the details they need to argue their case.

  • Strategic thinking: Human rights lawyers need to be able to think strategically and plan ahead based on the effect of their actions. When working on a case, human rights lawyers use strategic thinking to plan for the best outcome.

  • Time management: Most human rights lawyers are extremely busy balancing multiple cases at once. They need to have time management skills to balance all priorities and give their full attention to each case.

  • Dedication: The legal process is tedious and time-consuming, so human rights lawyers need to have the dedication to follow-up on complex cases for months or even years.

Average salary for human rights lawyers

Lawyers make an average salary of $53,994 each year. Because human rights lawyers often work for non-profit organizations and do large amounts of pro-bono work, they may have fewer earning opportunities than lawyers that work in other fields such as corporate or family law. Human rights lawyers can earn higher salaries as they gain experience and prestige within their field by winning cases and contributing to human rights legislation.

Human rights lawyer job outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Services, job opportunities for lawyers will likely increase at the average rate for all professions, which is 4% from 2019 to 2029. Human rights lawyers will be in demand as long as human rights violations occur. As society develops, human rights lawyers can help guide legal rules to protect others and improve the quality of life for vulnerable people.

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