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Degrees Needed for and Salaries of Human Rights Lawyers

by Robin Elizabeth Margolis

Human rights laws protect fundamental freedoms, such as the right to equal treatment in courtrooms, workplaces and other social spaces regardless of gender, race, religion or other factors. While some human rights lawyers are globetrotting defenders of overseas political prisoners, human rights lawyers also work with domestic clients in many other areas of the law. Consequently, the educations human rights lawyers receive and the salaries they earn vary depending on the legal specialty they enter.

Law School Education

All future attorneys must complete a four-year bachelor's degree, followed by a three-year doctoral law degree. Law students interested in human rights may take classes and legal clinics in their chosen specialties. Human rights specialties include international human rights, AIDS advocacy, bioethics, child protection, disability law, domestic violence, death penalty prisoner representation, immigration, women's rights, elder rights, and many other fields. Students may apply for internships with human rights organizations and join law school clubs focusing on human rights.

Post-Law School Degree

After completing law school and passing a state bar examination, students seeking additional human rights credentials may return to law school and enter a one-year master's program in human rights or related topics such as international law. Students should consider joining the American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights, the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and other human rights attorney organizations, such as Columbia University's Human Rights Home Lawyers' Network.

Salaries Depend on Specialty

People interested in becoming human rights lawyers must review earnings within their chosen specialty to get accurate figures on potential future earnings. For example, a civil rights attorney in private practice with local clients in Michigan might bill between $175 to $450 per hour, according to a 2010 Michigan state bar association survey, but the attorney's total yearly income would depend on the number of hours billed each year. An entirely different niche, Human Rights Watch international law fellowships, paid $55,000 per year in 2013.

Government Agencies

Salary differences also appear among government agencies. A newly hired federal Department of Justice lawyer with a master's degree in human rights law might earn between $60,274 to $74,872 as of 2013. In contrast, entry-level public defenders earned an average yearly salary of $47,500 in 2010. An entry-level United Nations human rights attorney could earn $44,000 to $90,000, depending on whether that lawyer worked at the U.N. headquarters in New York City or outside of New York.

Career Outlook

There is considerable competition for human rights attorney jobs, because human rights organizations have fewer job openings and less funding than business-oriented law practices. A 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey showed the average number of hours worked by human rights organization employees steadily falling between 2011 and 2013, an indicator of little job growth in this field. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that all attorney jobs would grow by 10 percent between 2010 and 2020, an average growth rate. Students should examine human rights-related specialties and choose one where there is growth potential. For example, elder law is a profitable and growing specialty because the U.S. population is aging.

About the Author

Robin Elizabeth Margolis is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She has been writing about health care, science, nutrition, fitness and law since 1988, and served as the editor of a health law newsletter. Margolis holds a bachelor of arts degree in biology, a master's degree in counseling and a paralegal certificate.

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