Civil Rights Lawyer

Lawyers are people with specialized knowledge, who help people with a variety of legal issues. A civil rights lawyer is specifically experienced in issues regarding human rights, social freedoms, and equality. Read on to learn more about becoming a civil rights lawyer.

What Does a Civil Rights Lawyer Do?

A civil rights attorney specializes in protection and expansion of people’s civil rights and civil liberties. These rights are granted by the U.S. Constitution, as well as by legislation. Even when these rights are not specifically spelled out in such documents, civil rights attorneys advocate for the protection of basic human rights.

Civil rights cases involve such issues as the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers, false arrests, unlawful searches and seizures, and other cases of improper conduct. Other cases involve violations of basic human rights and social freedoms.

Because the area of civil rights law is so broad, it is common for attorneys specializing in this field, further specialize in a particular are of civil rights law. In accomplishing these goals involves drafting legal documents, conducting research, negotiating settlements, and arguing cases in a courtroom.

Professional Requirements to Become a Civil Rights Lawyer

The issue of civil rights is painted with a broad brush by law schools around the country, as all laws against discrimination. This includes labor rights laws and collective bargaining, employment equality and discrimination, discrimination by law enforcement or other agencies, and other impingements on basic human rights.

In general, law schools encourage prospective civil rights attorneys to broaden their focus, and not to become myopic toward civil liberties and civil rights law. Other courses of study that will prove valuable in your career as a lawyer include trial advocacy, statutory interpretation, negotiation, and mediation.

Additional Education and Experience

Regardless of a law student’s intended field of practice, gaining a broad education can make him or her a better lawyer. In addition to core courses, law schools offer a variety of elective courses, which can be quite helpful, increasing the law student’s scope of knowledge.

Examples of elective law school classes include:

  • Constitutional law
  • Disability law
  • Race and the law
  • Housing discrimination
  • Mediation
  • Negotiation
  • Trial advocacy
  • Advanced legal writing

Quality experience may also be gained by volunteering at legal clinics, helping people with civil rights issues. Such clinical experience gives prospective lawyers valuable hands-on experience, and may be counted as course credit in some law school institutions.

Where Can You Work as a Civil Rights Lawyer

Like other types of attorney, civil rights attorneys work in a variety of settings. Many work in private law firms – whether as part of a large firm that handles multiple areas of law, as solo practitioners, or at a government agency. There are also quite a few attorneys who do pro bono (free) work in the civil rights field, usually through non-profit organizations.

At the federal level, there are quite a few government agencies that focus on protecting the civil rights of U.S. citizens. These include:

  1. U.S. Department of Justice, Americans with Disabilities Act division – deals with disability discrimination.
  2. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – Aids in the development of civil rights policies, and aids in enforcement of civil rights laws.
  3. Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), Civil Rights Office – Advises and represents the FAA in matters of civil rights and equal opportunity.
  4. U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”), Office for Civil Rights – Helps to resolves complaints of discrimination in education.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), Office for Civil Rights – Protects people from discrimination in certain social service program and healthcare programs.
  6. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), Fair Housing Civil Rights – Enforces federal laws that ensure equal access to housing. This agency protects against discrimination based on color, race, national origin, religion, gender, family status, and disability.
  7. U.S. Department of Labor, Civil Rights Enforcement – Enforces federal labor laws, and fights discrimination in the workplace.
  8. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (“EEOC”) – Enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against job applicants – or employees – based on color, race, national origin, religion, gender (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), age, or disability.

Non-Government Employers of Civil Rights Lawyers

  1. American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) – Non-profit organization committed to protecting constitutional rights and liberties.
  2. Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund – Fights discrimination and prejudice against adults and children with disabilities, using policy reform, impact litigation, advocacy training, and education to create lasting change.
  3. Indian Law Resource Center – Provides legal assistance to help Indian/Alaska Native nations protect their lands and cultural heritage, and to combat discrimination. Advocates for justice for indigenous peoples.
  4. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund – Works to achieve equal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals. This is the largest, and oldest, national legal organization to do so.

Civil Rights Lawyer Salary

Salaries among civil rights lawyers varies, depending on the type of employer, the geographical location, and his or her experience. As of 2017, the average of civil rights attorneys’ salaries ranges from $65,000 to $200,000 annually. Those working for nonprofit groups make significantly less than those working in the private sector.

As an example, civil rights lawyer salary for those working for government agencies, such as the FBI’s civil rights division, earns an entry-level salary of a little over $50,000, and the more experienced lawyers earn around $87,000. This division investigates and prosecutes cases such as hate crimes, human trafficking, right of access to government buildings or clinics, and abuses of “color of law.”

Employment Outlook for Civil Rights Lawyers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), employment opportunities for attorneys in general are expected to increase – between the years 2014 and 2024 – by about 6%. This is an average growth rate. While the BLS does not keep statistics of growth in specific areas of law, an increase in civil rights violations, and perceived oppression, have called civil rights attorneys to service in ever-increasing numbers.

Essential Information

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Degree Field(s) Law
License/Certification Licensure in state of practice
Key Skills Understanding of constitutional law, and civil rights and discrimination law, as well as civil litigation experience
Number of Jobs (2016) 792,500
Job Outlook
8% growth rate  (average growth rate)
Median Salary (2017) $119,250*    (*Source: BLS)
Top Earners Top earners in the civil rights field are generally employed by federal government agencies.