Human Rights Lawyer: Job Info & Requirements

Oct 16, 2019

Becoming a human rights (or civil rights) attorney requires a law degree and admission to the state bar. Read on for specifics on how to become a human rights lawyer, typical job duties, and specific salary information for civil rights lawyers.

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Job Description of a Human Rights Lawyer

A human rights lawyer, also known as a civil rights lawyer, defends the basic rights of individuals. Many lawyers who focus on this area deal with international concerns impacting people's fundamental rights. For example, an international human rights lawyer may defend the rights of refugees, migrant workers, or racial and ethnic minorities. They may also work to address particular issues that arise during times of international conflict.

Some human rights lawyers focus primarily on domestic issues involving the impacts of local, state, and federal laws on human rights cases. Human rights lawyers may work for international organizations like the United Nations, for the federal government, or for non-profit organizations.

How to Become a Human Rights Lawyer

Before practicing in this area, human rights lawyers must earn a law degree from an accredited law school and pass a state bar exam. Prospective human rights lawyers may be able to explore the legal field by taking online classes; for example, some schools offer online law courses for free.

Required Education Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Licensing Requirements Passage of state bar exam
Median Salary (2019) $84,078**
Job Growth (2018-2028) 6% (for all lawyers)*

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

Earning a Law Degree

A career as a human rights attorney requires both an undergraduate degree and a law degree. Prospective lawyers' undergraduate programs should include courses in English, history, government, and speech. Most law schools also require that applicants take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).

Once admitted, law students can expect to spend about three years pursuing their J.D. degree. Common core classes include civil procedure, torts, constitutional law, criminal law, and legal writing. Later in their studies, law students can begin to focus on human rights concerns. Classes in this area may cover:

  • Public policy
  • National security
  • Civil liberties
  • Immigration law
  • Laws of conflict and war
  • International law

In addition to coursework, some law schools offering programs or emphases in human rights law may have clinics or institutes devoted to human rights. Such organizations allow students to get hands-on experience and provide networking opportunities along with lectures and events to enhance their understanding of the field.

Licensure Requirements

After graduating from law school, human rights lawyers must be licensed to practice law in their state. Prospective lawyers must pass a bar exam covering fundamental areas, including criminal law, torts, and contracts. In addition, candidates must pass a character and fitness assessment conducted by their state's admitting board. States may also require continuing education through the course of a lawyer's career.

Human Rights Attorney Job Duties

Lawyers who defend human rights represent and advocate for their clients. Their duties typically include legal research and litigation. As in most areas of law, human rights attorneys communicate regularly with their clients regarding their rights and responsibilities and aspects of their cases. They may also collaborate with other attorneys and legal professionals involved in a case. Lawyers' duties also usually include preparing legal documents and filing them with courts or agencies.

Human Rights Lawyer Salary Information

In 2018, the median salary for all lawyers was $84,078, according to PayScale.com. Lawyers earning in the highest 10% had salaries of over $157,000 annually, while those in the lowest 10% earned $50,000 or less.

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