Social justice lawyers, who are also called human rights lawyers, focus on social justice and human rights like racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, worker rights, immigrant rights, environmental justice, and gender equality.
Social justice refers to fairness and equality within society, which includes housing, work, healthcare, education, criminal justice, and much more. Social justice principles argue for equal access to all opportunities, resources, and privileges within society, regardless of a person’s racial background, gender, age, marital status, religion, and other characteristics. Social justice lawyers focus on achieving justice for their clients and holding those who violate their rights and freedoms accountable. In this article, we’ll discuss what tasks a social justice lawyer performs, what salary they can expect, and what career paths are available.
What does a social justice lawyer do?
Like all lawyers, social justice lawyers perform many tasks, but because they’re motivated by justice and human rights protection, they often take on extra responsibilities. Here’s a brief list of what a social justice lawyer might do:
They represent clients who’ve had their rights violated
Many social justice lawyers work within the court system. When they take on a client’s case, which can involve discrimination or another violation of their client’s rights, the lawyer will file a complaint or lawsuit. They prepare for court by conducting research, prepping their client, interviewing relevant parties, writing arguments, and more. A social justice lawyer must understand how the court system works, meet all deadlines on time, and behave professionally. Their goal is to get their client justice.
They work on impact litigation
When social justice lawyers bring cases to court, they want to achieve justice for a specific client or group, but sometimes, it’s about achieving a larger change, too. Impact litigation (also called strategic litigation) occurs when a lawyer brings a lawsuit in hopes of changing a specific policy or law viewed as discriminatory or otherwise unjust. Class action lawsuits are a common method because they show a law or policy has a widespread negative effect, but individual claims can affect things, too. In the United States, Brown v. Board of Education is one of the most famous examples of impact litigation as it began ending segregation. Social justice lawyers and social justice organizations often take a proactive approach and search for impact litigation cases.
They advocate for just and equal policies
Many social justice lawyers are also advocates, which means they work to influence lawmakers and politicians. Using their expertise, they work to shape and promote legislation and policies that protect the rights of marginalized communities and make society a more fair, equal place. That can include working with legislators who are drafting new laws and engaging in lobbying efforts. Because they know the law so well, social justice lawyers play a key role in shaping the future of human rights law.
They help educate the public
Most people don’t understand the laws and policies that shape their lives, which is why the expertise and experience of social justice lawyers are so important. Lawyers can serve as essential guides and educators. Through books, workshops, classes, and other venues, lawyers explain the rights and freedoms people are entitled to, how legislation and policies protect or don’t protect them, and what people can do to empower themselves and their communities.
They work with activists and social justice organizations
Many social justice lawyers collaborate with activists and social justice organizations. It can be in a formal capacity as an employee or board member, or as a supporter, partner, or volunteer. They have many skills to offer and can help activists and organizations navigate potentially risky legal situations, address the root causes of injustice, and advocate for better laws and policies.
They research and analyze data on social justice issues
The best social justice lawyers stay up-to-date on human rights issues, legislative trends, and the effects of systemic injustices. They may perform original research using access to legal databases, primary documents, academic resources, and more, but they also have the skills necessary to discern meaning from pre-existing research. Some lawyers focus on the research side of things while others work primarily in court with clients.
How much do social justice lawyers make?
Social justice lawyers have a wide salary range, which shows the job’s potential for advancement. According to ZipRecruiter, a human rights lawyer in the United States earns an average of $97,846 in 2023. Salaries went as low as $49,500 and as high as $140,000. Most were between $79,000 and $109,500. Specific salaries depend on factors such as:
More experienced lawyers earn the highest salaries. When you’re entry-level, you have yet to prove your skills and gain the type of experience that makes you valuable to your organization.
All social justice lawyers need a law degree, but if you have additional education or special credentials, you may access jobs with higher salaries. The law school you attended can also affect how much an organization is willing to pay you; prestigious law school grads tend to land the best jobs after graduation.
Your area’s cost of living and its demand for social justice lawyers affects your salary. If you move to a city with a high cost of living, you’re going to earn more than if you moved to an area with a low cost of living, but everything costs more, too. You’re also likely to earn a higher salary if there’s a high demand for social justice lawyers.
Social justice lawyers work for employers like nonprofits, government agencies, private law firms, corporations, and more. Large private firms and other well-funded organizations tend to offer higher salaries, while nonprofits have tighter budgets and fewer funds.
The more specialized your education and experience, the fewer people you’re competing with when it comes to jobs. Some specializations are also in high demand, which affects your salary. Labor, immigration, energy, and health law are just four examples of specializations in greater demand these days.
What career paths are available to a social justice lawyer?
Social justice is a broad field, so there are many career paths (including outside of law) available to a lawyer. You can work at government agencies, nonprofits, private firms, and other organizations. Here are five examples of career paths:
Immigration lawyers work with individuals and families immigrating from one country to another. They can also represent refugees, asylum-seekers, trafficking victims, and anyone else caught up in the immigration system. A lawyer’s job is to walk clients through all the immigration processes, help with any needed translation and interpretation services, connect clients to social services and employment opportunities, and represent their best interests. Immigration lawyers can advocate for laws that protect immigrants, hold those who exploit immigrants accountable, and make the immigration process smoother and less complex.
Criminal defense lawyer
Criminal defense lawyers defend those accused of committing a crime. Their job is to ensure their client’s rights are protected, regardless of their guilt or innocence. Criminal defense lawyers can work as public defenders or private attorneys. This specialization can be difficult as the public and other attorneys may harbor ill will toward a lawyer who chooses to defend those accused of crimes. Criminal justice lawyers can fight against the abuse and exploitation of those accused (and convicted) of crimes, while also advocating for better legal and social protections.
Family lawyers specialize in domestic and family-related issues, including divorce, domestic violence, child adoption, child support, custody, and so on. Being a social justice lawyer in this field means addressing issues like gender equality, children’s rights, women’s rights, protection against abuse, and more. When it comes to advocacy, family lawyers can fight for legislation that better protects children, people fleeing domestic violence, and others in vulnerable positions.
Medical malpractice lawyer
Medical malpractice lawyers represent people injured by a medical professional. It can be due to improper treatment, negligence, a misdiagnosis, or other error that resulted in harm. Common examples include errors made during childbirth, anesthesia errors, and pharmaceutical errors. These types of cases can be very expensive, so a lawyer interested in social justice can offer pro bono services for those who can’t afford a costly lawsuit. Medical malpractice lawyers can represent those who have been directly injured, as well as the families of those who have died as a result of their injuries. Lawyers can advocate for better safeguards at medical clinics, more thorough background checks for medical professionals, and steps that address the roots of medical errors, which could include racial and gender bias.
Employment lawyers can represent employers or employees, but if you’re interested in social justice, you most likely want to work on behalf of an employee. Cases often involve things like wrongful termination, workplace discrimination, whistleblower protections, sexual harassment, and contract violations. They work to protect rights related to gender, age, disability, marital status, ethnicity, and other characteristics often used to justify discrimination. Lawyers can also advocate for better worker protections, better wages, harsher penalties for union-busting, and more.