Practicing civil and human rights law
Most of us are familiar with the terms civil and human rights, as they can often be heard or read in the media. While these are universally understood as set of legal protections granted to everyone, defining civil and human rights law is less straightforward.
It’s a classification that includes numerous legal areas which aim to protect the rights of vulnerable persons and all individuals.
Civil and human rights law is an overarching term used to describe a broader category of law fields. It’s a classification that includes numerous legal areas which aim to protect the rights of vulnerable persons and all individuals. Often these rights set precedents, and as a consequence, directly influence the direction a society takes.
Although the focus of this article is civil and human rights, it also extends to related fields, such as labor and employment law, environmental law, data protection law, and complex litigation.
The differences between civil and human rights
Human rights are rights that everyone has as a living human being. They are rights inherent to us all, regardless of where we were born or choose to live. Meanwhile, civil rights are liberties that mirror human rights and thus become their legal guarantee. They are granted by countries, states, and local jurisdictions, and are gained by being or becoming a legal member of that specific political entity. Simply put, while human rights have worldwide acceptance, civil rights may vary from country to country.
The most common examples of human rights include:
- the right to life
- the right to be free
- the right to make informed medical decisions about one’s own body
- the right to a life without discrimination
- the right to avoid torture
- the right to free speech and thought
Civil rights comprise a set of liberties, including the right to vote, to attend state education, and to have access to certain public services and facilities. They can even include rights related to the judiciary system, like the freedom to be part of a fair trial, or the right to remain silent during a police investigation.
Why study civil and human rights law?
If you are enthusiastic about law and considering a career in the legal field, civil and human rights can be an exciting choice. Those who work in this area tend to be regarded as esteemed members of the community. They also have the satisfaction of fighting for the right causes, preventing injustice, and protecting the rights of vulnerable or marginalized people.
They also have the satisfaction of fighting for the right causes, preventing injustice, and protecting the rights of vulnerable or marginalized people.
Studying law with an emphasis on human and civil rights can be a route into a diverse range of career opportunities; from environmental lawyer to data protection lawyer, and from complex litigation lawyer to civil rights expert.
The decision to become a civil or human rights attorney can bring numerous challenges, including constantly having to juggle legal strategies to adapt to the particularities of every case. For many lawyers, the fact that this work is not only character-building but also exciting is part of the allure.
The pathway to becoming an expert in civil and human rights law
Regardless of the area you choose to practice in, the educational path begins with a will to defend civil causes and human rights, a determination to explore various tactics tailored to specific cases, and an attitude of perseverance in representing vulnerable individuals and their causes.
Beyond that, a crucial step towards practicing civil and human rights law is to enroll in a law school. Although it’s not compulsory to earn a bachelor’s degree before attending law school, there are certain courses in related fields that may prove valuable for a future career in civil rights law. History, political science, and philosophy are examples of undergraduate majors that are intertwined with such a career.
History, political science, and philosophy are examples of undergraduate majors that are intertwined with such a career.
Excellent critical thinking and good communications skills are just 2 of the important abilities you can develop during a pre-law program. So, whilst attending such programs is far from a law school prerequisite, they may provide a better sense of whether the law path is the right career choice for you
Overview of the Juris Doctor degree
There are no undergraduate law degrees available in the U.S. Therefore, the Juris Doctor (J.D.) academic degree offered at law school is the most important degree you can earn. Graduates of a J.D program become eligible for the bar examination, the next necessary step towards starting a career as a civil and human rights lawyer.
The J.D. was first implemented in the second half of the 19th century to unify certifications of law professionals and improve the judiciary system. For over a century, the core part of the J.D. curriculum has remained the same, with students taking courses in constitutional law, civil procedures, legislation and regulations, property, criminal law, contracts, torts, to name just a few.
Most law schools do not ask students to submit a final dissertation as a compulsory step before earning their degree.
Besides these mandatory courses, students can select optional training programs, ranging from climate change regulation and artificial intelligence, to bioethical issues or ways to tackle terrorism from a legal perspective. There are numerous opportunities to explore, and students can choose a range of topics to help them build know-how in human and civil rights.
It usually takes 3 academic years for students to complete their studies, and during this time they have plenty of opportunities to research and write various papers, especially on topics related to civil rights. Most law schools do not ask students to submit a final dissertation as a compulsory step before earning their degree.
You may be wondering whether it is possible to earn a J.D. online. The short answer is no. Nevertheless, several law schools offer some courses and modules online, allowing for a certain degree of flexibility. Although this hybrid format may prove useful when juggling multiple priorities, the majority of studying still takes place on campus.
The importance of volunteering and relevant internships
For law students who plan to work in the human rights field, it’s essential to get involved in various volunteering programs and internships during law school. This provides hands-on experience, allows participants to understand different challenges around the world, and helps prestigious non-profit organizations to achieve their goals.
Seek volunteering opportunities with NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Freedom House, and International Service for Human Rights. There may even be opportunities to give legal advice on causes related to human rights, providing valuable experience that can support future job applications.
First steps before practicing civil and human rights law
Having completed their J.D. degree, many students are eager to start working as a civil or human rights lawyer as soon as they can. While their future career is now in sight, there are still several steps left to take. The first and most important of these is to pass the bar examination and become a qualified lawyer.
The bar exam explained
Almost all U.S. jurisdictions require you to pass the mandatory bar examination to enter the bar. Some states may choose to work with agencies reporting to that state’s supreme court to organize the exam. But in most cases, bar exams are administered by a state’s bar association. The examination process tends to be rather complicated, and it varies depending on the state you want to work in.
In a combined effort to unify the examination process, more and more states have adopted the uniform bar examination (UBE) – a standardized test that comprises 3 separate elements:
Multistate bar examination (MBE)
MBE is a 200 question, multiple-choice test, designed to evaluate competence in 7 essential law areas, including federal rules of civil procedure, federal rules of evidence, criminal law and policy, constitutional law, real property, contracts, and torts.
Multistate essay examination (MEE)
The MEE typically comprises 6 essay questions, with candidates having 30 minutes to answer each question. This part of the exam tests a candidate’s capacity to understand, interpret, and analyze in writing various legal issues. The MEE covers the topics assessed in the MBE exam, but can also include questions on other subjects, such as federal civil procedure, family law, commercial code, estates and trusts, or business association law.
Multistate performance test (MPT)
Designed to assess a candidate’s capacity to use basic lawyering skills, this closed-universe test usually takes place in Franklin – a fictional state – and constitutes 20% of the total UBE score. A candidate needs to demonstrate their ability to evaluate the facts and particularities of a case quickly, skim through relevant laws, and write a proper response to address the initial problem.
Why choose an accredited university?
It is important to choose a law school that is accredited. Although there are no licensure requirements, employers tend to appreciate lawyers who earn their J.D. degree from prestigious educational institutions.
Opting for an accredited university not only guarantees students benefit from expertly designed, balanced programs, but may also give graduates a better chance of employment. The civil rights field, much like business and financial law, poses numerous challenges, and people tend to be rigorous when choosing the lawyers and attorneys that can help.
Explore careers in human and civil rights law
You have earned your J.D., passed the bar exam, and would like to start practicing law in the area of civil and human rights. Now what?
Before rushing in and joining a particular company, it can be helpful to consider the career options available, based on your skills, know-how, and aspirations.
Regardless of the law profession you choose, statistics on compensation show that this is a field where education and dedication pay off.
With that in mind, let’s explore some of the career options available.
Human rights lawyer
Human rights lawyers usually tackle cases that deal with equal opportunities, civil rights, human dignity, or unjust behavior. Lawyers who choose this career path fight for individuals to access fundamental rights, such as safety, integrity, privacy, or health. Human rights violations are numerous worldwide, and lawyers in this field do their best to protect marginalized or vulnerable groups, ranging from children and women to refugees or indigenous people.
Lawyers who choose this career path fight for individuals to access fundamental rights, such as safety, integrity, privacy, or health.
This field is highly competitive. Participating in relevant internships during law school can demonstrate your commitment to serve the cause of those in need. As a human rights lawyer, you may work in dedicated human rights courts (e.g., the Inter-American Court of Human Rights), or join prestigious NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Although the role is challenging, it offers attractive compensation and benefits, with a median salary of $131,786.
If you’re wondering what a seminal case in human rights law looks like, there are numerous historical examples—such as child labor during the industrial revolution, the holocaust—or more recent cases, such as sex trafficking and refugee crises.
Civil rights lawyer
Civil rights lawyers are involved in non-criminal legal disputes, where a party seeks compensation for damages caused by another entity or individual. Civil disputes typically focus on relationships, property, and people. Discrimination centered on various criteria (race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities) are often at the forefront.
Those who choose this profession have the opportunity to advocate for different civil rights, in either private law companies or governmental institutions.
Those who choose this profession have the opportunity to advocate for different civil rights, in either private law companies or governmental institutions. Regardless of where a rights lawyer decides to practice, their career usually begins as an associate, where they benefit from the mentorship of an accomplished lawyer with more experience. On average, civil rights lawyers earn $61,496 per year.
To access better employment opportunities in the civil rights area, law school graduates can take their education to the next level with a post-J.D. law degree. Examples of advanced degrees include master of laws (LLM) or doctor of juridical science (SJD). Students of these programs focus on their area of interest, allowing them to become experts in the civil rights law field.
Labor and employment lawyer
Labor and employment law deals with the regulations that govern and guide the relationships between employers and employees. Lawyers in this field need to be comfortable with navigating the complexities of this legislation, and are called upon to represent either employees or employers in various disputes. These can include litigation in cases of harassment, discrimination, wage-hour violations, or medical leave.
Lawyers in this field need to be comfortable with navigating the complexities of this legislation, and are called upon to represent either employees or employers in various disputes.
Usually, attorneys and lawyers who specialize in the labor field work in private companies, nonprofit organizations, or local, state, federal or international agencies. The challenges they face are high, but so is the compensation, with a median pay of $147,290 per year.
Environmental lawyers represent their clients in various legal issues that revolve around ecology, clean technology, pollution, water law, the management of public land, and waste management. They can also counsel local communities, manufacturers, or industrial companies on lowering the environmental impact of their operations and complying with current regulations.
Environmental lawyers represent their clients in various legal issues that revolve around ecology, clean technology, pollution, water law, the management of public land, and waste management.
Those who decide to embark on this rewarding and lucrative path, may end up working in private law companies, for governmental structures and agencies, or becoming a university professor. For working in this dynamic and complex field, an environmental lawyer can expect a median salary of $181,586
One example of a famous environmental case is Massachusetts vs Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This supreme court case forced the federal government to regulate various greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, as air pollutants.
Data protection lawyer
Data protection plays an essential role in modern society. Therefore, becoming an expert lawyer in the field is a future-proof and profitable choice, with a median salary of $174,600 per year.
Specialists in data protection law compile privacy impact assessments, analyze data process agreements, and review cybersecurity processes to handle client requests.
Specialists in data protection law compile privacy impact assessments, analyze data process agreements, and review cybersecurity processes to handle client requests. Many of them work in private law firms.
With expertise in GDPR or similar data regulations, you can join multinational companies as a data protection officer. This role influences an organization’s cybersecurity strategy and ensures compliance with all mandatory data protection requirements.
Complex litigation lawyer
Complex litigation is an overarching term used to define a lawsuit that has particular or unforeseen challenges. The complexity may be due to the magnitude of the stakes, the nature and quantity of disputed documents, a large number of parties, or the complex law knowledge needed to evaluate the facts.
Usually, complex litigation concerns corporations or large companies, and numerous attorneys may collaborate to protect their clients’ interests in a particular case.
Complex litigations can also significantly impact local communities. The Somerville case in Texas, a lawsuit focusing on the toxic contamination produced by a railroad tie plant, is a fine example of this.
Complex litigation lawyers work in large, specialized law firms and are involved in all phases of litigation, including investigations, pre-trial, and pleadings. A lawyer in this field can earn on average $101,534 per year.
This organization aims to protect threatened lawyers and offers legal support to vulnerable communities in human or civil rights cases. ABA also has several dedicated groups of law professionals who specialize in social justice, international human rights law, domestic and sexual violence.
This association includes civil rights lawyers, attorneys, and advocates who dedicate their work, knowledge, and efforts to gaining racial equity and economic opportunities for all individuals. These professionals provide legal representation for marginalized citizens and collaborate closely with advocacy groups to drive community-based solutions that promote civil rights.
With the aim of shaping a future where all employees are treated with respect and dignity, this association fights for equitable and inclusive workplaces where workers’ well-being is a top priority. NELA also offers various legal training programs to support labor and employment lawyers.
Comprising prominent legal community members, this professional organization collaborates with local communities to fight racial discrimination and provide legal support to individuals and small businesses.