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Become a Civil Rights Attorney: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a civil rights attorney. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a civil rights attorney. View article »

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Video Transcript

Shouold I Become a Civil Rights Attorney?

Attorneys help clients resolve legal problems. A civil rights attorney focuses on cases involving issues such as equality, human rights, social freedom, and discrimination. Their job tasks may include conducting research on cases, drafting legal documents, arguing cases in court, and negotiating settlements. Attorneys often work long hours and can experience a great deal of stress presenting their client's case in a courtroom.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor
Degree Field Law
Licensure All states require lawyers be licensed
Key Skills Critical thinking, analytical reasoning, research and writing skills, ability to negotiate; ability to use legal research engines, project management software and accounting software
Median Salary (2015)* $115,820 (for all attorneys)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CareerOneStop

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Steps to Become a Civil Rights Attorney

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Most law schools require that applicants possess a bachelor's degree; however, there is no specified field of study required for admission to law school. Students preparing for law school may benefit from courses in history, economics, public speaking, and government. Bachelor's degree programs in human rights studies are available, as are degree programs focusing on the U.S. government, the entity that grants civil rights to citizens. Completing a bachelor's degree program in government or human rights may provide aspiring lawyers with an extensive amount of information about the field.

Step 2: Take the LSAT Exam

Admission to law school requires submitting transcripts and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores. This exam, which students commonly take during their junior year of undergraduate study, tests analytical, critical-thinking, and reading skills.

Success Tip:

Prepare for the LSAT. Many companies offer prep courses that provide test-taking tips and allow students to sit for practice exams. This preparation might increase a test taker's score and increase their chances of getting into a high-ranking law school.

Step 3: Graduate from Law School

Full-time Juris Doctor programs typically take three years to complete. During the first year of study, students complete courses focusing on basic law subjects, such as contracts, property law, torts, and constitutional law. During their second and third years, students complete elective classes, clinics, and internships. Some law schools allow students to concentrate their studies in civil rights law. Courses in these concentrations cover topics like the death penalty, immigration, and American Indian law.

Success Tips:

Complete elective classes in civil rights law. Regardless of whether a student chooses to concentrate their studies in civil rights law, law schools commonly offer elective courses related to the field. Completing these classes increases a student's knowledge about the field. Examples of elective classes include local government law, race and the law, nationality and immigration law, disability law, and constitutional law.

Volunteer at a civil rights legal clinic. Students typically complete clinical experiences during law school. Aspiring civil rights attorneys can gain hands-on experience working in their specialty field by completing as much of this experience as possible in civil rights legal clinics.

Step 4: Pass the Bar Exam

Every state requires attorneys to pass exams and obtain admission to the state's bar association prior to practicing law. Although the format of each state's exam differs, the bar exam usually consists of two days of testing. On the first, applicants typically take the Multistate Bar Examination, which covers topics like constitutional law and torts. The second day is usually dedicated to state-administered examinations.

Success Tip:

Prepare to take the bar exam. Not passing the bar exam means that an individual cannot legally practice law. Preparing to take the bar exam of the state in which they intend to practice can increase an individual's chances of passing it on the first try. Many companies offer prep courses for state bar exams that include multiple weeks of lectures and practice tests.

Step 5: Work as a Civil Rights Lawyer

After passing the bar and being admitted to a state's bar association, lawyers can practice any field of law. The federal government, non-profit organizations, and private law firms often hire civil rights attorneys. Once employed, entry-level attorneys start out as legal associates, working under more experienced attorneys and judges. It can take several years for attorneys to rise up the ranks and become partners of law firms. Attorneys can also choose to start their own practices.

Step 6: Consider Earning an Advanced Degree

Attorneys do not need to earn legal training beyond the Juris Doctor degree, though advanced education can help students develop their expertise in the civil rights field. Some law schools offer Master of Laws (LLM) degrees in human rights or international human rights. These programs, which are designed for licensed attorneys, may cover topics like immigration law, human rights, international criminal law, and the law of war. Specializing in a specific facet of law can help a lawyer earn higher pay and can facilitate entry into supervisory or high-level administrative positions, such as partner at a law firm. Alternatively, lawyers with business education and interest may decide to open their own firm.

Hopeful civil rights attorneys must obtain a bachelor's degree, take the LSAT, complete law school, and pass the bar exam in order to work in this field.

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