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How to Become a Human Rights Lawyer

Human Rights Lawyers are at the forefront to tackle human rights violations around the world. They take on cases that concern the inherent dignity of their clients. They protect the rights of vulnerable populations, marginalised groups, women, children, indigenous peoples, refugees, LGBTI communities and others. Working as a human rights lawyer means advocating for people who have suffered from great injustices. Human Rights Lawyers hold states, companies and belligerent groups to account after they committed human rights violations or abuses.  

Where do human rights lawyers work?

As human rights lawyer you may work for human rights courts such as the European Court of Human Rights or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, you may also work for non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Human rights lawyers also often work in companies, law firms and chambers.

What skills do human rights lawyers need?

Human Rights Lawyers engage in a multitude of tasks that include the drafting of important legal documents, performing research on legal cases, negotiating difficult settlements and arguing human rights cases in court. They require critical and analytical thinking skills, the ability to communicate eloquently and the ability to effectively argue for a case. Human Rights Lawyers need a Juris Doctor (J.D.) as academic qualification and they should be precise, persuasive and possess exquisite knowledge of relevant laws and legal codes in global, regional and local settings. Examples of important skills as human rights lawyer are:

  • Eloquence: Human rights lawyers are effective communicators.
  • Resilience: As human rights lawyer you will be exposed to cases that are emotionally draining. Knowing how you can strengthen your own resilience will help you do a better job.
  • Persuasiveness: Human rights lawyers need to be persuasive to win cases.

Becoming a human rights lawyer requires years of dedication. While the exact path to become a human rights lawyer might vary from country to country, the general road is similar everywhere. Human rights lawyers need a profound legal education until a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree or an equivalent qualification before they can advocate the most sensitive cases, where people’s lives and dignity is at stake.

1 Research the best law schools

Before you start out, take a step back and ask yourself: Why do you want to become a human rights lawyer? What causes are most important to you? Which human rights violations inspire you to take action? If you are eager to make a positive difference in people’s lives instead of maxing out your monthly salary, becoming a human rights lawyer might be a great fit for you.

At school you may want to engage in activities that make your school more human rights friendly, or you might want to volunteer for human rights organizations to get insights into the issues they advocate for. If you aim to become an international human rights lawyer you may want to train your language skills and study a month abroad during your summer vacation.

Before you decide for an university make sure you take your time to research law schools in the USA or elsewhere with an excellent track record in human rights. Choosing a law school with an emphasis on Human Rights and International Law will help you nurture your passion, gain experience, and network for your future career.

2 Obtain an undergraduate law degree

The first concrete step in becoming a human rights lawyer is to earn the required academic qualifications including a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctor. During your undergraduate years there are plenty of ways to develop your skills and knowledge in order to become a human rights lawyer. You can get involved with a local NGOs such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, your may want to help at a refugee home or you might want to focus your energy in learning one of the official UN languages to expand where in the world you can work and with whom.

Undergraduate degrees are rarely designed to cater to a specific field such as human rights. That’s because a bachelor degree will equip you with the basics and they are similar for all legal careers, no matter what area of law you will specialise in at a later stage. In some countries there are additional requirements in order to be eligible to study to become a Juris Doctor e.g. in order to be admitted to law school in the United States, you will not only need transcripts, but you will also need a Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores. Typically taken in the junior year of undergrad study, this exam will test your critical thinking, analytical and reading abilities. Prep courses are available to help you prepare to do your best on this exam and boost your chances of admission.

3 Become a Juris Doctor (J.D.)

A Juris Doctor degree is an academic credential verifying the completion of a three-year law school program. Every school has specific requirements and credits. Today, many law schools offer full-time or part-time degrees to accommodate different schedules. Also during your studies there are plenty of ways to gain practical experience and deepen your understanding of the work of human rights lawyers.

  • Take part in MOOT Courts. MOOT Courts are safe spaces to practise your skills as human rights lawyer. At many universities MOOT Courts are extracurricular activities, simulated court or arbitration proceedings, usually involving drafting memorials or memoranda and participating in oral argument. MOOT Courts are a great opportunity to get a glimpse of the work of human rights lawyers.
  • Join legal clinics. Legal Clinics are law school programs providing students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in real cases. Clinics are usually run by clinical professors and offer pro-bono services to clients in a particular area. Students typically provide assistance with research, drafting legal arguments, and meeting with clients. In many cases, one of the clinic’s professors will show up for oral argument before the Court. However, many jurisdictions have “student practice” rules that allow law-clinic students to appear and argue in court.
  • Apply for paid internships. Paid internships are a great way to gain insights into the daily routine and activities of human rights organizations, firms and chambers.

At the end of your studies you will have to pass your BAR exam or any other qualifying exam to practise law. A bar examination, or bar exam, is the examination which is administered by a jurisdiction’s bar association that a lawyer needs to pass before being admitted to the bar of that jurisdiction. Once you have become a part of a bar association, you can begin to practice law in the field of your choice, including human rights.

About the author

Human Rights Careers

Human Rights Careers (HRC) provides information about online courses, jobs, paid internships, masters degrees, scholarships and other opportunities in the human rights sector and related areas.