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How To Become a Human Rights Lawyer

January 12, 2024


Reviewed by:

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

Reviewed: 01/12/24

While all lawyers uphold justice, human rights lawyers specialize in protecting fundamental human rights that threaten people’s safety and equality. If you’d like to learn more about how to become a human rights lawyer, read on.

One of the most memorable human rights cases that has become a landmark event in American history is the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. 

After the issue of racial segregation in schools was brought to the Supreme Court as a violation of the 14th Amendment, a unanimous decision was made that segregating black children was inherently unjust.

This human rights case marked a major step forward in dismantling racist ideologies that fundamentally denied black people equal rights.

While most human rights cases aren’t quite as revolutionary as this one, which affected a large group of people, each one is revolutionary to at least one person. The majority of human rights clients are those who have been discriminated against or seriously wronged by government-mandated laws and policies or government negligence.

If this type of people-centred law interests you, this guide will go over everything you need to know about becoming a human rights lawyer!

Steps To Becoming a Human Rights Lawyer

Becoming a human rights lawyer will take several years of hard work and persistence. It’s not a simple journey, yet the final destination is completely worth the challenge! Here are the exact steps you’ll need to take to complete this journey:

1. Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

The first step you’ll need to take on your legal journey is obtaining an undergraduate degree. An undergraduate degree is a required prerequisite for any law school! The exact degree you choose doesn’t matter. 

You don’t have to major in human rights and should instead choose a subject you know you will do well in. Your GPA matters far more to law school committees than your major!

With that being said, during your major, it can be helpful to begin learning more about human rights to expand your knowledge and confirm your interests!

For instance, you might want to take different diversity courses to learn about past discriminatory laws, how they impacted people, and how they were changed. 

Indigenous studies, women’s studies, and race theory courses are a few popular options that can begin teaching you about current and past human rights violations and their existing or non-existent rectification.

2. Pick The Perfect Law School

As you finish your undergrad, you should start looking for law schools that have strong human rights law programs. When choosing the perfect law program, ensure you keep an eye out for ones that offer experience in human rights clinics. According to experts, this is the first thing human rights legal employers will look for!

3. Write The LSAT

Once you have a general idea of the law schools you’d like to apply to, figure out their LSAT requirements and use them to guide your LSAT studies. Your LSAT is one of the most important aspects of your application, so you’ll need to create a comprehensive study plan to get a high score!

4. Gain Experience

In order to become the best equal rights attorney you can be, you’ll want to begin gaining experience in this niche during law school, which is why this is step four and a half. 

Consider interning at pro bono clinics, volunteering abroad, or working with local disadvantaged populations. This work and extracurricular experience will help you land a job easier post-graduation!

5. Complete Your Legal Education

Once you’ve applied to your desired law schools, you’ll need to complete a JD at the very least to begin practicing as a civil rights attorney. 

If you want to specialize further in human rights law, you can also complete an LLM to gain more specific knowledge and training in the subject. As human rights is a lucrative field of law, obtaining an LLM can help you stand out and make you more qualified for jobs!

6. Pass Your Bar Exam

The last step before you can officially practice as a human rights lawyer is to pass the bar exam! Your bar exam is the final requirement that will take you from a law student to a practicing lawyer!

Passing the bar exam will require dedication, focus, and, most importantly, a great study schedule!

What Does a Human Rights Lawyer Do?

lawyers talking in office

While we’ve stated that human rights lawyers are generally responsible for fighting for equality, let’s go into some of the specific roles they play.

For starters, human rights lawyers typically focus on protecting individuals, or groups of people, from government infringement. They often provide legal aid and counsel to marginalized populations such as homeless people, LGBTQ+ community members, refugees, and Indigenous people. 

As a human rights lawyer, your duties can include:

  • Assisting clients in receiving compensation for government wrongdoings
  • Supporting human rights organizations
  • Challenging unfair government decisions, laws, and regulations
  • Helping prosecute war criminals
  • Participating in humanitarian efforts

This list is by no means exhaustive. As this field of law deals with human rights, it’s a job that will constantly keep you on your toes! Humans are always faced with new and different injustices that need to be fought. 

Human Rights Lawyer Salary & Job Outlook

two lawyers shaking hands

If you choose to enter the legal field in hopes of luxury and wealth, human rights law is definitely not for you. Human rights lawyers often begin their legal careers working at organizations where they are underpaid and overworked. 

Even though these positions don’t pay well compared to other areas of law, they are still difficult to obtain. Human rights law is extremely competitive and prestigious! Be prepared to have a hard time finding full-time human rights law employment to begin with, and an even harder time actually landing a job!

This is why it is extremely important that you pick a good program and seek external internships and employment to boost your resume. Remember, everyone graduates with the same JD; your experience is what will differentiate you! 

Once you do obtain employment in this area of law, however, you’ll eventually make decent money. Human rights lawyers’ salaries tend to mirror the salaries of general lawyers reported by the US Bureau, which are $135,740. 

While the pay might not be as satisfying as you’d hoped, it’s important to note that the job itself is extremely satisfying! As a human rights lawyer, you’ll be directly impacting people’s lives every day and will be rectifying systemic injustice to help build a better future!

FAQs: Becoming a Human Rights Lawyer 

While we’ve covered the basics of how to join this legal field, you may still have some questions! Here are the answers to frequently asked questions about human rights law.

1. Is Human Rights a Law Degree?

While you can concentrate on human rights during your JD, you can only get an advanced human rights law degree if you complete an LLM in human rights.

2. Is It Hard To Get a Job In Human Rights Law?

Yes, human rights is a highly prestigious and competitive field of law. The majority of human rights lawyers have to try for and apply to several jobs before landing their first one!

3. How Long Does It Take To Become a Human Rights Lawyer?

It will take at least seven years to join the human rights law field if you complete your JD right after your undergrad: four years to complete your undergrad and another three to complete your JD. If you’ve chosen to do a part-time JD program, expect to add at least one more year to this timeline.

Additionally, for those interested in obtaining a human rights LLM, this degree will take an additional year or two, depending on your program.

Aside from the years you’ll spend on your education, since this field of law is so competitive, you may have to add another year or two to account for the time you’ll spend actually landing a career as an independent human rights lawyer.

4. Where Do Human Rights Lawyers Work?

Human rights lawyers may work in:

  • Private or public law firms
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Internationally, especially if they’re working with large organizations
  • Education institutions

5. What Qualifications Do You Need To Be a Human Rights Lawyer?

Like any field of law, human rights lawyers require a JD at the minimum. 

6. Is Human Rights a High-Paying Area of Law?

No, compared to other areas of law, human rights isn’t high-paying. However, instead of a large paycheck, it provides deep job satisfaction, which most human rights lawyers find far more valuable than a high salary!

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a comprehensive idea of how to become a human rights lawyer, you should feel more confident pursuing this rewarding career! 

Whether you’re hoping to overturn unjust laws and work on big legal cases or to support individual marginalized families and people who have been wronged by injustice, human rights law is a specialty that has a profound impact.

So, while the road to human rights law may be challenging, it is absolutely worthwhile and will guarantee you a fulfilling job where you have the power to make real change!

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