How Can I Become a Human Rights Lawyer?

Research what it takes to become a human rights lawyer. Learn about education requirements, licensure requirements, average salary and employment outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Human Rights Lawyer?

Human rights lawyers may take on cases to protect the legal rights of marginalized individuals and groups, including racial minorities, women, indigenous people, refugees and members of the LGBTI community. They may advocate for rights to education, freedom of expression, life, housing or medical treatment. Depending on their interest area in the field, human rights lawyers may focus their work on either domestic or international human rights issues. They may also work in private practice or for government agencies or nongovernmental organizations.

The following chart gives you an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree and Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Key Skills Oral and written communication, persuasiveness, and extensive knowledge of relevant laws; fluency in another language may be helpful
Licensure Required; candidates must pass the bar examination in the state where they will practice; requirements to practice in foreign countries vary
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 6% for all lawyers*
Average Salary (2015) $136,260 for all lawyers*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

How Do I Get Qualified?

The process of becoming a human rights lawyer is long and expensive. In high school, you'll want to take as many classes in civics and history as you can. Becoming civically engaged and creating a strong foundation in a foreign language are also smart ideas. At an accredited 4-year university, you might major in history, pre-law, economics or any other major that has subject matter related to your human rights interests. Be sure to make and maintain good contacts, get involved in your local legal, political and activism organizations and take in any colloquia or seminars you can.

Your next big hurdle is the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Many students take a whole course, through their universities or other test-preparation organizations, for this test alone, since it will be a large factor in getting into a good law school. It's important to choose a law school with a strong human rights department and background. Here, for about a year and a half, you will most likely study basic courses, while the remaining year and a half will be devoted to learning the ins and outs of human rights law and practice: universal justice, disarmament, advocacy, theory and practice.

Get involved with any clinics your school has, because these are great ways to make contacts and test out jobs you might like or dislike. After finishing school, with your Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in hand, depending on the state or country you choose to practice in, you will have to complete certain portions or all of the bar exam and/or other regional equivalents before starting your practice as a human rights lawyer.

What Other Qualities Will I Need?

You will need a sound grasp of local, regional, national and international legal codes, regulations, laws, procedures and precedents. An ability to read people, communicate to them in English or another language and listen, persuade, understand and relay information to them will be essential. You will need a superb level of expression, oral and written, in the courtroom and among fellow lawyers if you are to command the respect necessary to succeed. Overall, a strict sense of responsibility for your practice and the people you represent will further your progress as a human rights lawyer.

Where Could My Life as a Human Rights Lawyer Take Me?

You could be helping women defend their rights in Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). You could be preparing class action cases for workers and indigenous peoples in Chile, Colombia and Canada. In Burma or Palestine, you could be helping investigate and analyze alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity for a new international report put out by a non-profit or non-governmental organization. Cases involving protections for environmental rights and prisoners' rights, in addition to others, are constantly debated and waged in the U.S. higher legal circuit, New York's United Nations and in regional courts throughout the country.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Aside from human rights, there are many other specializations within the field of law. Aspiring attorneys may find jobs as environmental, tax, intellectual property, family, securities or litigation lawyers, among other possible job titles. Individuals who are passionate about human rights may also find jobs as social or community service managers, working to organize social service programs for nonprofit organizations that advocate for human rights-related issues. Although these professionals do not need a law degree, they must hold at least a bachelor's degree, and sometimes a master's degree, to get a job.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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