Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

How to Become a Human Rights Lawyer

Human rights lawyers are legal professionals who specialize in providing legal counsel to victims of human rights violations. Their primary role is to ensure that human rights, as recognized and enshrined in national and international laws and treaties, are respected, promoted, and upheld. In this article you will learn how to become a human rights lawyer.

Where do human rights lawyers work?

Human rights lawyers work at law firms, NGOs, government agencies and international organizations. Examples also include 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.

What do human rights lawyers do?

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. Below is a list of tasks human rights lawyers may perform in their careers.

  • Legal representation: Human rights lawyers provide legal representation to individuals and groups whose rights have been violated. They may represent clients in courts, tribunals, or other legal proceedings, seeking justice and redress for human rights abuses.
  • Research and analysis: These lawyers conduct extensive research and analysis on human rights issues, including examining relevant laws, regulations, and international treaties. They use this knowledge to build strong legal arguments and strategies to address human rights violations.
  • Advocacy and campaigning: Human rights lawyers engage in advocacy and campaigning activities to raise awareness about human rights violations and promote positive change. This may involve working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), participating in public speaking events, writing articles, or using social media platforms to draw attention to human rights issues.
  • Legal advice and counseling: They provide legal advice and counseling to individuals and communities facing human rights challenges. This could involve explaining their legal rights, offering guidance on available remedies, and assisting in navigating legal processes.
  • Capacity building and training: Human rights lawyers may engage in capacity-building initiatives by conducting training programs and workshops to empower individuals, communities, and organizations on human rights law and advocacy. They aim to enhance knowledge and skills to better protect and promote human rights.
  • Documentation and reporting: Human rights lawyers often document and report human rights violations, collecting evidence and preparing reports for national and international bodies, such as human rights commissions, courts, or United Nations mechanisms. This contributes to accountability and helps bring attention to ongoing violations.
  • Policy development and law reform: Human rights lawyers engage in policy development and law reform initiatives to strengthen legal frameworks and protect human rights. They may provide input and expertise to policymakers, draft legislation, and work with government bodies or civil society organizations to improve human rights standards.
  • International human rights mechanisms: Human rights lawyers may engage with international bodies and mechanisms, such as the United Nations or regional human rights courts, to file complaints, seek redress for victims, and contribute to the development of human rights jurisprudence at the global level.

What skills do human rights lawyers need?

Human rights lawyers 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 need to be effective communicators.
  • Resilience: As human rights lawyer you will be exposed to cases of human rights violations. 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. You need a profound legal education until a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree or an equivalent qualification.

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 issues encourage 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.

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, or you may want to help at a refugee home. Another good choice is learning one of the official UN languages to expand where in the world you can work and with whom. This will increase your employability later in your career.

3 Prepare for Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)

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 required for all legal careers, no matter what area of law you will specialize 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 need 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.

4 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.

5 Pass Your BAR exam

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 practicing law in the field of your choice, including human rights.

About the author

Robert Fellner

Robert is founder of Human Rights Careers (HRC). A platform with the aim to support human rights students, alumni, graduates and professionals in pursuing and developing their career in human rights. Prior to launching HRC, Robert worked as Global Human Rights EdTech Manager at Amnesty International in London and as consultant for international human rights organizations globally. During 2011 and 2012, Robert worked as lecturer at Ain Shams university in Egypt. Robert has a masters in literature and human rights.

Join us on Telegram!Sign up here