What Does a Civil Rights Attorney Do? - Job Description & Salary

Learn more about pursuing a career as a civil rights attorney. Read on for an overview of the responsibilities, education requirements, and salary potential. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Civil Rights Attorneys at a Glance

Civil rights attorneys are tasked with arguing, analyzing, or researching cases dealing with equal protection under the law for all citizens. Civil rights cases may include the free right of assembly, freedom from discrimination, or lack of due process by law enforcement among many others. The table below is a general overview on pursuing a career in this field.

Education Bachelor's and Juris Doctor (JD) degrees
License Bar exam in state of practice
Key Skills Verbal and written communication; critical thinking; analytical skills
Career Outlook (2016-2026) 8% growth (for all lawyers)*
Median Salary (2019) $81,874**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

What Kind of Cases Do Civil Rights Attorneys Work On?

Whether they are monitoring compliance on behalf of a government agency or defending a client in a complaint, civil rights attorneys get involved in cases where a private or public organization is accused of violating the civil rights of an individual. Some examples include cases involving police brutality, prison abuse, sexual harassment or right to free speech. These cases are argued based on constitutional amendments, applicable legislation in the relevant jurisdiction (federal, state, or local), as well as prior court decisions.

What Kind of Employers Do They Work For?

Government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels hire civil rights attorneys to monitor compliance of civil rights regulations. Many agencies, such as the Department of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Education, often have bureaus with many civil rights attorneys monitoring compliance in specified areas. Large and small nonprofit organizations sometimes hire civil rights attorneys to represent individual clients and bring their cases to court. These organizations provide their services to the clients without concern for their ability to afford their defense. Civil rights attorneys can also work for private firms, who defend clients in cases related to housing, employment and other civil rights matters.

What Should I Study to Become a Civil Rights Attorney?

In order to practice civil rights law, you must be a licensed attorney, which required the completion of both a bachelor's degree and a juris doctor (J.D.) from accredited universities. Many law schools have specialized civil rights programs or civil rights classes to help you specialize in this area of law. Some practicing civil rights attorneys also recommend that those aspiring to work in the field take courses regarding the federal court system (where many civil rights cases are argued after appeal).

What Are the Steps to Be Licensed in My State?

Once you have completed your J.D. degree, you must obtain a license in any state you wish to practice in. License requirements vary by state, but all involve the completion and passage of their bar examination. Several states are now part of the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), allowing you to obtain licensing in participating states with the same exam score. For more information, visit your state's bar website.

What Should I Expect to Make and What Is the Career Outlook?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes civil rights attorneys under the general category of all practicing attorneys. In 2018, they reported a median annual salary of $120,910 and estimated 8% growth in job opportunities between 2016 and 2026. PayScale.com tracks the annual salary for civil attorneys specifically, estimating a $81,874 median salary for the profession in 2019.

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