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How to Become a Human Rights Lawyer

Becoming a human rights lawyer means advocating for people who have suffered from injustices, persecution, torture and civil rights violations in their respective countries. This often includes taking on cases to protect the legal rights of marginalized groups and individuals, such as national minorities, indigenous groups, women, war victims, refugees, members of the LQBTI communities etc. As a human rights lawyer you have to choose and establish your area of expertise whether that is the right to life, education, freedom of expression, housing, medical treatment or something else.

Depending on your area of interest in human rights, once you become a human rights lawyer you may focus your work on either domestic or international human rights issues. You may end up working for non-governmental organizations or government agencies. The opportunities are global and endless. However, becoming a human rights lawyer requires years of learning and dedication. Therefore, this article offers a few tips that you have to keep on mind if you consider becoming a human rights lawyer.

1. Earn a Law Degree

There is no special exam or test that you have to pass in order to become a human rights lawyer. However, in order to become a human rights lawyer, you first must earn a bachelor’s degree in law and become a solicitor, a barrister or a jurist and then you choose to take on human rights cases. You have to be able to build a resume that reflects a commitment to human rights issues. During your studies, you should attend courses that are closely related to issues pertaining to human rights as well as courses that set the baseline for you to be able to practice human rights law in the future. One of the examples is taking a course on constitutional law. In addition, you should follow courses that closely relate to issues regarding human rights violations, such as civil rights law, race and the law, education law and family law.

There are many legal areas that intersect with human rights. If you are passionate about specific group whose human rights are put in danger, you should be able to choose minor in that field. For example, if you were focused on women’s rights you might take gender studies courses of women’s studies courses. One of the advantages would also be to participate in debate clubs that could help you advance your skills that you will need as a future lawyer.

After you have earned your degree, the last step is to pass a bar exam in your country or in a country you choose to live in in order to be able to practice law.

2. Choose Your Area of Interest

Being a human rights lawyers means challenging issues of discrimination and defending the rights and freedoms of vulnerable groups and ordinary citizens before the courts. Human rights are present in several legal disciplines such as public law, immigration, family, housing, business law and employment.

Human rights lawyers are often law firm associates, non-governmental managers, governmental civil servants and legal officers working at international organizations. It is really important for you to realize which specific area of human rights law you want to practice in the future and concentrate majority of your studies on that. Lawyers who deal with human rights usually specialize in a range of areas such as mental health, environment law, public law, war crimes, criminal justice, immigration, property. There are many options amongst which you can choose the one that suits you the best.

3. Gain Experience

It is important that you gain practical experience in the human rights area during and after your studies. You should tailor your studies towards human rights work as early as possible. One of the possibilities is to volunteer for human rights organizations or participate in legal human rights clinics during your studies.

Such entities are usually non-profit and non-governmental organizations that will help you understand the needs of the people human rights law is designed to protect. However, you have to keep in mind that if you plan to work in this sector as a human rights lawyer, non-governmental organizations often prefer hiring lawyers who have in depth knowledge and experience in one issue. Therefore, try to keep your volunteer work on a particular interest rather than working with anyone who agrees to take you.

Another way to engage in human rights law is to seek out pro bono experience. For example, you can do this at your local law centers where you will be working with members of vulnerable groups, who are often unable to afford a lawyer. However, if you are interested to work at the law firm that operates in the field of human rights, you could create a list of law firms that operate in your focus area and then apply for internships or jobs. Besides that, it is also important that you meet with people who work in the same field who will be able to mentor you and give you advice on your future career.

4. ‘’Play’’ Domestic or ‘’Go’’ International

After you have gained experience in human rights area that interests you the most you can decide whether you want pursue practicing domestic human rights law or international human rights law.

International human rights law is concerned with enforcing laws designed to promote and protect human rights at the international, regional and national levels. Pursuing an international career may seem dazzling. This often means taking on high profile cases and safeguarding rights and freedoms of those no matter where they are in the world as well as providing expertise and support in strategic human rights litigation. However, to be an international human rights lawyer you have to speak several languages such as French, Arabic and Spanish and have a strong background in international law. Similar to domestic law, you will have to choose to specialize in a specific area. In addition, you should try to get into a top rated master international law programs where you will be able to meet and learn from already established international professionals. You can also choose to work for government agencies and private firms that practice international law.

5. Don’t be in ‘It’ for the Money

If you wish to pursue a career in human rights law do not expect to earn vast amounts of money. Being a human rights lawyer means you are not in it for the money but for the people.

Take a free course in international human rights law!

About the author

Ada Hasanagic

Ada Hasanagić is a human rights professional currently working as a researcher at Association Transitional Justice, Accountability and Remembrance, a non-governmental organization that is concerned with documenting war crimes and massive human rights violations during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. Previously, Ada graduated with honors from the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and the University of Buckingham in the fields of Political Science and International Relations. Also, she earned a master’s degree in Democracy and Human Rights from the University of Sarajevo and University of Bologna.