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Featured Career: Human Rights Lawyer

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Are you ready to work hard to make a difference? When you think of a career, is helping people your most important box to check? If so, you may want to consider becoming a human rights lawyer.

Human rights lawyers are on the front lines battling injustice. They’re the attorneys expressly focusing on the marginalized and oppressed of society. The cases they handle generally revolve around discrimination and the people caught in its fallout: Those who have been refused housing, whose rights have been disrespected and whose voices have been unheard — simply due to their race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.


There’s still a lot of room for further specificity in this profession. Some humans rights lawyers work on the national scale, while others work internationally. Areas of focus include refugees, the impoverished, children, minorities and just about any group of people subject to some degree of powerlessness.

The common thread that unites the people who pursue this profession is a desire to bring greater justice and equality to those who are ill-treated. It’s about finding a cause you believe in and doing everything in your power to make the world a better place.

What Human Rights Lawyers Do

Even if human rights lawyers work on a lot of similar cases, each one has a different legal focus. The breadth of jobs in Roadtrip Nation’s archive of career stories is proof.

Julian Burnside, human rights lawyer: Defends the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and other victims of injustice.

Adam Foss, attorney and founder of Prosecutor Impact: Leads an organization dedicated to reforming the role of prosecutors in the American justice system and ending mass incarceration.

Brittan Heller, human rights attorney: Works with victims of atrocities and war to seek restitution and justice.

How to Get There

There’s no single path to becoming a human rights attorney, even if college and law school are ultimately essentials. Check out all the different ways the people mentioned above got started.

Julian Burnside, human rights lawyer.

Studied law at Monash University without being certain that’s what he wanted to do → switched to an economics major at one point → went to law school and became a barrister → went on to argue cases before the Australian Supreme Court.

Adam Foss, attorney and founder of Prosecutor Impact.

Grew up as one of the only people of color in a small town → originally went to school to become a doctor → took a course called “The Science of Violence” that inspired him to switch to law → took an internship at a municipal court in Boston → went on to become an Assistant District Attorney → founded Prosecutor Impact.

Brittan Heller, human rights attorney.

Became interested in human rights law after  a visit to the Museum of Tolerance → went to law school → did fellowships in Afghanistan and Korea → became a human rights attorney → continues to “connect the dots” about what her purpose in life should be.

Education

You may think you have to be certain you want a career in law by the time you’re 18, but that’s not the case.

If this is a path you’re interested in pursuing, college and law school are necessary. But your undergrad degree doesn’t have to be pre-law to go down this path. Sociology, political science, philosophy or English can all be great preparations for law school. The important thing is to study something that’ll refine your ability to communicate effectively and persuasively and think deeply and critically. Those skills will be your most helpful tools when it comes to studying for the LSAT, the bar exam and every case you’ll see.

Whatever path you take, you’ll need to demonstrate your interest in law and your desire to help the marginalized. If there’s an injustice in the world that fires you up, becoming a human rights attorney will allow you a prime opportunity to do something about it. Take internships at law firms or nonprofits, find mentors and meet up with like-minded people to stay on track.

More Human Rights Lawyer Stories from Roadtrip Nation

Todd Belcore, lawyer/professor

After starting out with an interest in medicine, Belcore diverted course to law after getting involved with the NAACP. While he knew he could help a few people with an MD, he felt he could potentially change the world with a law degree. After coming from a low-income background, working multiple jobs to pay for school and sometimes even finding himself homeless and couch-surfing, he’s glad to now help people going through struggles like he did.

Thomas Nazario, professor of law

After seeing a mother go through a garbage can to find food for her daughter on Thanksgiving, Nazario knew he had to do something to make the world a better place. Thanks to an encouraging mentor, he was able to manage dyslexia and start succeeding in school, ultimately paving the path to law school. Now, he focuses his work on the rights of children.

How to Get Started Now

If becoming a human rights lawyer is an interest for you, don’t feel like you have to make it your only interest right away.

Most importantly, look inward to see if this is the exact path for you. There are a lot of ways to help the oppressed, and this is one of the more education- and career-intensive paths to take. The LSAT isn’t on the horizon until the end of your undergraduate studies, so don’t feel bad exploring other interests for a while. Keep looking into what it means to work in this field. As time goes on, the dots will connect.

Focus on developing your critical reading and writing skills. Maybe join a club to practice public speaking. Browse law blogs. Intern. Email your questions to human rights lawyers working with the sort of clients you want to help. Check out what places like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Oxfam are doing to make the world a better place. Find a charity to get plugged into. And keep your hunger for justice alive!

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