Working as human rights lawyer is a rewarding experience. The journey looks different depending on the country that you are in. This article will use England and Wales as an example but most of the tips below will also be relevant in other countries.
In England and Wales there are two types of lawyer, barrister and solicitor. A barrister is a specialist on the law, and mainly represents clients in court. A solicitor usually works from an office and is responsible for advising and assisting the client, and building the evidence to support their case. Where necessary a solicitor will select the appropriate barrister to represent the client in court. This article focusses on the path to becoming a solicitor.
Becoming a human rights solicitor
To become a human rights solicitor in England/Wales you need to both study and gain practical experience. You begin by either obtaining a three-year undergraduate degree in law, or if you completed your undergraduate degree in another subject, you can take a one year conversion course, the Graduate Diploma in Law. After this you complete the Legal Practice course, which takes one year if studied full-time, or longer if you choose to complete it on a part-time basis whilst working. You then complete a two-year training contract in a law firm. During this time, you are required to also complete a professional skills course. Here is a brief explanation on each step:
- Bachelor of Laws (LLB)/ Graduate Diploma in Law: These studies provide you with an overview of the key concepts behind different areas of law. The LLB does this in a more detailed and conceptual way , whereas the GDL compresses the information into a succinct one year course.
- Legal Practice Course: This course teaches you the practical skills and ethical framework in which you will practice as a solicitor.
- Training Contract: During a two year period, you will rotate through different departments at a law firm, gaining insight into at least two different areas of practice.
- Professional Skills Course: Alongside the practical experience of your training contract, you will develop additional legal professional skills such as advocacy and client care.
Training contracts in law firms that focus on human rights are highly competitive. As a trainee solicitor at a human rights firm, you may be entrusted with a great deal of responsibility, including meeting clients, attending court, and preparing court documents. Consequently, human rights firms want trainees that already have relevant legal experience. Working as a paralegal can help you gain practical experience of the environment in a law firm.
Working as a human rights paralegal
A paralegal assists their supervising solicitor with a mixture of legal and administrative work including drafting documents, preparing funding applications and arranging meetings. Most law firms want paralegals who have completed at least an LLB or Graduate Diploma in Law, with some preferring paralegals who have already completed their Legal Practice Course. Some firms are happy for their paralegals to study the LPC part-time alongside their work. One of the huge benefits of paralegal work is that it can enable you to financially support yourself on your journey to becoming a human rights solicitor whilst picking up key legal skills at the same time.
Working at human rights firm as a paralegal
Working at a human rights firm as paralegal can offer valuable insights into the way a firm works and equip you with a better understanding of their areas of practice. Paralegal work can involve long hours and it is often poorly paid. Whilst some firms are conscientious and transparent about opportunities for paralegals to receive a follow up training contract, this is not always the case. To ensure you get the most out of your time as a paralegal, here are 10 Do’s and Don’ts for optimizing your paralegal experience, on your journey to becoming a human rights solicitor.
#1 Do: Put your cards on the table
If you have been invited for an interview at a human rights firm for a paralegal position, you will likely want to accept the offer immediately. However, the quality of the training you will receive will vary strongly across different law firms. Take a step back and ask questions that help you evaluate if the position is a good fit for you: Does the firm have a procedure for enabling their paralegals to become trainees? Are paralegals at the firm guaranteed an interview if a trainee position opens? How many training contracts did the firm offer last year and how many of those positions went to the firm’s paralegals?
#2 Don’t: Restrict your options
You may feel passionate about the rights of refugees, privacy rights or women’s rights. However, choosing an area of law is not just about which topic interests you the most. Each area of human rights litigation has its own specific skill set that comes with it. Paralegal work is an excellent way to find out your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you are a detail orientated person, who likes to prepare long and elaborate witness statements, you may find that working in an area of law with lots of urgent deadlines is not for you. On the contrary, perhaps you were that law student who only wrote their papers the night before submission was due. If so, you may find yourself drawn to a fast-paced area of litigation such as urgent judicial reviews. At the beginning, be open-minded. Try a few different things out, and see what suits you.
#3 Do: Be humble
You are right at the start of your career. You don’t have a wealth of experience yet and it is important to show humility and understand that you need to work your way up in the profession. You will need to gain the trust of your supervisor before they feel confident enough to give you more challenging work with more responsibility. At the beginning, you may feel for example that your excellent skills of legal analysis are going to waste as you struggle to figure out to how to use the photocopier. Try to do the simple tasks that you are given to the best of your ability and with a positive attitude. This is one step in your journey, not the end. If you do things well and show initiative, you will soon find yourself with more interesting work on your hands.
#4 Don’t: Take it personally
Learning how to take constructive criticism can be one of the most challenges aspects of your legal training. It might be de-motivating when your first advice letter comes back covered in red tracked changes. Remember you are learning not only how to be a solicitor, but also about the house style of the firm, and the preferences of your supervisor. When you are given instructions from your supervisor, take written notes. Clarify anything that is unclear and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Take the time to make sure that you are producing exactly what is being asked of you, it will save you effort in the long run. Once you have enough experience and you advance in your career you will be shape your own preferences and working style.
#5 Do: Grab every opportunity
As scary as it can be, pushing outside of your comfort zone is what will help you to learn and develop the most. If a chance comes up to do some straightforward court advocacy, take it! Speak with colleagues to make sure you know what is required, prepare thoroughly and give it your best shot. Maybe your supervisor is sick, and she asks you to step in to deliver her PowerPoint presentation at an internal meeting. Say yes! Offering to help will not only build your skills, it will also win you brownie points with the partners.
#6 Don’t: Burn out
Litigation is stressful. Be honest with your supervisor about your workload. If you don’t think that you can meet a deadline, tell them as early as possible. If you find yourself working overtime consistently, for more than a week or two, ask yourself how you feel about this. Is your work environment a healthy one? Be aware of signs that the work is straining upon you. Insomnia, anxiety and binge drinking to relieve work stress may be warning signs that your workload is taking a toll on your wellbeing. Take care of yourself too, you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you navigate straight into a burnout, you won’t be able to help anyone out. Your well-being should be a priority to do a good job on the long run.
#7 Do: Help out your fellow paralegals
Whilst competition for trainee places can be fierce, remember that your peers are your biggest allies. In the future, you may find yourself working in the same firm, or at least in the same practice area with these people. If other paralegals in the firm are unfriendly or hostile towards you at first, consider whether they may be feeling insecure. Befriend them, or at the very least develop a good professional relationship. Imagine that in five years time, you are representing different parties in the same case, and you need them to send you a document. You will want to be able to pick up the phone to them, exchange a few friendly words, and then ask a favour. You and your fellow paralegals can also leverage your collective power. You are the nuts and bolts of the firm: the partners need you! If you all share a grievance in respect of how your work is being managed, work together to speak with your seniors about it.
#8 Don’t: accept bullying
At times, you may find yourself on the other side of terse emails, or abrupt instructions from your colleagues. This can be unpleasant and difficult to receive. Try to acknowledge the pressure that the people that you are working with may be under. However, you are there to learn and you deserve to be treated with respect. You have the right to work without bullying, harassment or any other type of behaviour that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you feel that your colleagues are behaving inappropriately towards you, speak with someone in HR, or an individual within the firm that you trust.
#9 Do: Remind your colleagues of your goals
You have been at the firm for six months, and no one has mentioned those hallowed words: the training contract. Your supervisor has her head in her prize case which is going to trial. Naturally, you are feeling timid about bringing up the topic of your own legal future. It’s not urgent you tell yourself. Imagine that you are negotiating on behalf of a client. Would accepting the other side’s offer without question make you a good lawyer? Bargaining is part of the game. Next time a suitable opportunity comes up, such as a weekly supervision meeting, or an appraisal, bring up the topic. If no such opportunity presents itself, ask your supervisor if you can schedule a time to speak with them about your career progression.
#10 Don’t: Lose Hope
It can be a long road to qualifying as a solicitor, but if you are passionate, motivated, and willing to spend the time to develop your skills, however long that may be, you will get there in the end.