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How To Become A Civil Rights Lawyer

August 22, 2023


Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 01/27/23

Are you considering pursuing a legal career in the area of civil rights? Continue reading to learn how to become a civil rights lawyer and other helpful information, such as civil rights lawyers’ salaries, job outlook, and some frequently asked questions. 

Civil rights lawyers advocate for social and political justice for their clients. As a civil rights lawyer, you will fight for your client’s right to equal opportunities and civil participation regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Specifically, civil rights lawyers step in when their clients’ constitutional rights are violated. 

Key civil rights that can be impeded include, but are not limited to, matters involving voting, religion, freedom of speech, employment opportunities, systemic discrimination, harassment, and the right to a fair trial. 

If you are passionate about championing justice and equality, the area of civil rights may be where you should be. While it can be an emotionally demanding job, it is also gratifying work. 

Successful civil rights lawyers have strong negotiation and research skills, as well as being empathic and a good listeners. If you fit the bill and have an interest in becoming a civil rights lawyer, keep reading!

How to Become a Civil Rights Lawyer: Steps to Take

Steps to take to become a civil rights lawyer

Here are the steps on how to become a civil rights lawyer. 

1. Take Political Science, Philosophy, Criminal Justice, and History Classes Throughout Your Undergrad 

While there is no ‘pre-law’ undergraduate degree required, you should start building your knowledge in areas of politics and history while in your undergrad. These types of courses will give you foundational knowledge in areas that are relevant to civil rights. 

Courses like this will also give you interdisciplinary skills that will greatly benefit you in law school, such as critical thinking and persuasive writing. 

2. Take the LSAT 

To get into an accredited law school, you must score highly on your LSAT. 

There are expectations for this step, however, as there are certain law schools that do not require an LSAT score for acceptance. 

3. Complete Your J.D. 

Once you are accepted into a law school, you need to complete your three-year J.D.

While considering what law school to apply to, you may want to consider a school that has a focus on human rights. Human rights align closely with civil rights, and trying out programs specializing in social and political rights is a great opportunity to test if this area of law is a good fit for you. 

While in law school, take advantage of the resources and networking opportunities in civil rights. For example, some law schools may offer internships or summer co-ops where you can work directly with communities and clinics to build your experience and CV. 

4. Get Work or Volunteer Experience 

While completing your J.D., you should be actively seeking out summer employment programs or volunteer opportunities. Law firms may hire high-performing summer interns after they graduate. 

Volunteering is another great way to build connections within the legal community and strengthen your resume. Nonprofit and grassroots organizations may offer relevant experience and great connections, especially those interested in becoming civil rights lawyers. 

5. Successfully Pass Your Bar Exam

In order to become a practicing lawyer, you will need to pass your bar exam. However, the good news is that this is the last major step into becoming a practicing lawyer!

The bar exam is notoriously difficult. Plan out a good study program to ensure you’re prepared and ready to ace the exam. 

Make sure you also take the bar exam in the state you want to practice law in. While there are some exceptions, the state you take the bar exam is the state you must practice. If you want to practice in a different state, you will likely need to retake the bar exam there.

What Does a Civil Rights Lawyer Do?

Unlike human rights, which we are born into, civil rights are dependent on your location or citizenship status. For example, American citizens have certain rights that are written in and protected by the constitution. 

Ultimately, a civil rights lawyer in the U.S. defends an individual's constitutional rights that have been violated in some way. Their job is to fight for justice for their clients who have been discriminated against based on race, gender, age, sexuality, or religion.  

As with most lawyers, you will represent clients in court, draft legal paperwork, and mediate disputes and cases. 

Civil rights lawyers can work in various settings. Legal Dictionary lists some of the areas of law civil rights lawyers may work in, including:

  • Constitutional Law 
  • Disability Law 
  • Race and the Law
  • Housing Discrimination 
  • Trial Advocacy 
  • Advance Legal Writing

Additionally, dedicated civil lawyers will conduct community-based research to identify patterns, similarities, and root causes of discrimination.

Civil Rights Lawyer Salary & Job Outlook

According to Lawyer Education, the average salary range for a civil rights lawyer is $69,000 and $145,000. Your salary as a civil rights lawyer will depend on experience and location. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) does not track employment rates for specific areas of law, but it does predict that the job outlook for lawyers is promising. 

The BLS estimates that the employment growth rate for lawyers will increase by 10% in the next ten years. This growth rate is faster than any other occupation.

FAQs: How to Become a Civil Rights Lawyer

If you are passionate about social justice and fighting for equality, you should consider a career as a civil rights lawyer. However, you may still have some questions before you make your decision. 

Here are the answers to frequently asked questions about becoming a civil rights lawyer. 

1. Where Do Most Civil Rights Lawyers Work?

Legal Jobs states that most civil rights lawyers work in government institutions or private law firms. The job requires a lot of time in the office and in the courtroom. 

2. How Much Do Top Civil Rights Lawyers Make?

The top 25% of the highest-paid lawyers in the country have an average salary of $189,520, according to U.S. News. In certain states and large cities, the highest-paid lawyers can make well over $200,000 per year. Ultimately, years of experience, location, and place of employment will factor into a civil rights lawyer’s salary. 

3. How Long Does It Take to Become a Civil Rights Lawyer?

If you’re wondering how long it takes to become a civil rights lawyer, the answer is about seven or eight years. 

You have to: 

  • Completing your undergraduate degree takes about four years
  • Booking and taking the LSAT can take up the several months
  • Complete law school/your J.D. is another three years
  • Passing the Bar Exam can also take several months

The time it takes to become a lawyer can also vary greatly from person to person. For example, if you are studying part-time, it may take you a bit longer to finish all the steps to become a lawyer.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a civil rights lawyer can be a very rewarding career for those who wish to see positive change. 

There are tons of different career paths you can choose from, and there will always be a demand for civil rights lawyers. These factors, alongside the fulfilling work, make becoming a civil rights lawyer a great career choice.

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