How to Become a Civil Rights Attorney

Four Parts:Preparing for Law SchoolAttending Law SchoolBecoming a Licensed AttorneyWorking in Civil Rights Law

Anyone whose civil rights have been violated has the right to file a lawsuit, and that's where civil rights attorneys come in. Typically passionate about a particular group or cause, civil rights attorneys fight to protect people against discrimination and infringement of their rights embodied in federal civil rights acts and in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.[1] If you want to be a civil rights attorney, start early building a work and educational history that reflects passion and commitment to a particular group or issue.

Part 1
Preparing for Law School

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    Consider majoring in political science or sociology. The social sciences can give you a solid background for civil rights laws, especially since many major civil rights cases turned on social science arguments.
    • Most civil rights attorneys specialize in one issue, or on preserving and strengthening the rights of a particular group.[2] For example, if you are drawn to issues faced by same sex couples, you might want to focus on the equal rights movement for gay, lesbian and transgender people.
    • Depending on your focus, you might choose an undergraduate major or minor that reinforced that issue. For example, if you were focused on women's rights, you might take women's studies courses or gender studies courses.
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    Volunteer for civil rights organizations. Grassroots organizations in particular can help you understand the needs of the people civil rights laws are designed to protect.
    • Keep in mind that non-profits prefer attorneys who have in-depth knowledge and experience in one issue rather than a passing familiarity with several.[3] Try to keep your volunteer work or activism focused on a particular interest rather than jumping to work with anyone who will take you.
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    Participate in extra-curricular activities. Clubs like debate can help you hone skills you'll need in law school and in your future as a litigator, while joining your school's newspaper staff could sharpen your investigative skills.
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    Take the Law School Admission Test. Law schools require applicants to take and perform well on the LSAT, which assesses whether you have the reading comprehension and reasoning skills necessary to study and practice law.
    • The test includes five multiple-choice sections and one written essay section, each of which you'll be given 35 minutes to complete.[4]
    • If you research law schools before you take the LSAT and find out the average scores of admitted students, that can help you come up with a target score you'd like to achieve.
    • Take practice tests under timed conditions, or take a prep course. No matter how you study, always try to replicate actual test conditions as closely as possible. Monitor your time with a stopwatch and turn off music or television.
    • You can take the LSAT more than once, but understand that a second score doesn't wipe out a previous score, and you have to pay the full fees of around $200 each time you take the test.[5]
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    Apply to law schools. Look for schools with strong civil rights programs or that offer clinics in civil rights law.
    • The Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT, also runs a Credential Assembly Service, which you register for when you register to take the LSAT. You send all of your undergraduate transcripts and faculty recommendations to the LSAC. They compile these along with your LSAT scores and send them as a package to each law school you request.[6]
    • The location of the school typically makes a difference as well. Since you want to practice civil rights law, there are certain parts of the country where you probably would have an easier time finding a job than in others.
    • Focus on law schools in major cities such as New York City and Washington, D.C. Even lower-ranked schools in those areas would be a better bet for someone wanting to focus on civil rights law than a higher-ranked school in a more rural or out-of-the-way area.

Part 2
Attending Law School

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    Take the core classes your first year. All law students take the same classes the first year, so use this time to nail down the foundation you'll need for the rest of law school.
    • Your first year courses teach you how to read and analyze case law and "think like a lawyer". You will need these critical thinking skills when you tackle more complex legal issues in your second and third years of law school, and later on in practice.
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    Focus on courses related to civil rights in your second and third years. Once the foundational courses are out of the way, take as many courses as you can that deal with constitutional law and federal civil rights statutes.
    • There are many legal areas that intersect with civil rights, so look at the group or issue you've focused on and notice where there's overlap. For example, sexual harassment is an issue both for women's rights and in employment law, so if you are focused on women's rights you might also take courses in employment law.[7]
    • Since civil rights acts are typically enforced by federal agencies, take administrative law classes so you have a better understanding of how those agencies work.[8]
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    Apply to work on a law journal. If your law school has a journal focused on civil rights, try to get on staff and write a student Note on an up-and-coming issue in civil rights law.
    • For example, Harvard Law School has the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.[9]
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    Volunteer with civil rights organizations. Civil rights organizations often need law students to do intake or assist staff attorneys. Employers will look for candidates with demonstrated commitment and passion for civil rights issues, so this work is important to your future career as a civil rights attorney.[10]
    • See if a legal defense fund has been formed for the group or issue that has become your focus. The first Legal Defense Fund, founded by Thurgood Marshall in 1950, was an offshoot of the NAACP. Since then, other groups have organized their own legal defense funds to advocate for their cause, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.[11]
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    Work with a law professor. Law professors often take on law students to work as research assistants. If you know a law professor who is doing research on civil rights, see if you can do some research. [12]
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    Use your summers to work in civil rights. Try to find a summer associate's position with a civil rights lawyer, or an internship in a government civil rights division.

Part 3
Becoming a Licensed Attorney

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    Pass the bar exam in your state. Before you can practice law, you must pass the bar exam in the state where you intend to live and practice law.
    • Research opportunities in civil rights law and be willing to move to places where there is more work available for civil rights attorneys. For example, many people interested in working in civil rights and liberties move to the Washington, D.C. area.
    • Don't expect to find a paying job right out of law school in civil rights. Be prepared to volunteer or work in an internship or fellowship.[13]
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    Apply for admission to practice in federal district court. Since most civil rights law is federal law, you should ensure you're admitted to practice before federal courts as well as state courts.
    • You must be admitted to each district where you want to practice. All you have to do is fill out an application, pay the admission fee, and be an attorney in good standing of the state where the district is located.[14]
    • Civil rights attorneys also may want to apply for admission to practice before the U.S. Court of Appeals in their circuit,[15] or the U.S. Supreme Court.[16]
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    Maintain licensing requirements. Most states require attorneys to pay dues and take a certain number of hours of continuing legal education, or CLEs, each year to remain active and in good standing.
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    Join professional organizations. Although many states don't require that you join a professional organization such as a state bar association, doing so can provide you with networking opportunities as well as discounts on CLEs and other practice-related expenses.

Part 4
Working in Civil Rights Law

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    Consider working for the federal government. Since many of the executive agencies are tasked with enforcing civil rights laws, many U.S. civil rights lawyers work for the federal government and file suit on behalf of individuals whose rights have been violated.
    • The majority of civil rights attorneys work for the government or in public service, not in private practice.[17]
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    Work in the nonprofit sector. Although some nonprofits are cash-strapped labors of love with only one or two attorneys and a lot of passion for their cause, some nonprofits are well-funded and massive.
    • For example, the ACLU employs more than 500,000 attorneys to advocate for the advancement of civil rights and liberties nationwide.[18]
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    Seek out informational interviews. Read civil rights cases and contact attorneys in your area whose arguments you read and appreciate.
    • In addition to work guidance, seek out established attorneys, especially in your chosen civil rights focus, to act as a role model or a mentor.[19]
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    Apply for judicial clerkships. Clerking for a judge, especially a federal Court of Appeals judge, can be an asset to a career in civil rights law.
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    Volunteer with nonprofit civil rights organizations. Working with nonprofits gives you an opportunity to assist clients who may not be able to afford an attorney.
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    Network with major civil rights activist groups. When groups stage major protests, they often need volunteer lawyers at hand to advise and assist protestors.

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Categories: Civil Litigation