The road to justice: Steps to becoming a civil rights lawyer in the US

civil rights lawyer
Kim Kardashian has been working as an apprentice at a law firm, gaining practical experience and knowledge of the legal system to practice law, while studying independently for the bar exam. Source: AFP

Antonio Romanucci. Benjamin Crump. Thurgood Marshall. These are the names of the prominent civil rights lawyers who created positive change and shaped a brighter future for our society.

Crump, for example, became the lawyer for the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, and George Floyd in 2020. Today, he continues to take on cases revolving around police brutality within the US and around the world.

Marshall, known as the “architect of the legal strategy that ended the era of official segregation” became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967.

As such, civil rights lawyers stand on the front lines of justice, defending the rights and liberties of all individuals, regardless of their background, race or beliefs.

In a world filled with challenges, the power of civil rights lawyers lies in their unwavering commitment to upholding the principles of justice and equality, paving the way for a more peaceful tomorrow.

But with so many areas of law, it’s normal if you’re confused as to what is a civil rights lawyer.

What is a civil rights lawyer?

A civil rights lawyer is a legal professional who specialises in ensuring that the fundamental rights of individuals and groups are protected by the law and upheld. They advocate for fairness, equality, and justice. 

For example, if a student with a disability faces discrimination in their school, a civil rights lawyer can step in to ensure that the student receives the support they are entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Civil rights lawyers also play a role in addressing systemic injustices. They may represent marginalised communities facing issues like racial profiling. These lawyers can take legal action against police departments to seek justice for victims of racial profiling and protect the civil rights of minorities. 

According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, civil rights lawyers have been instrumental in challenging racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Some of their work includes:

  • reducing the incarceration rates for Black Americans, which were more than five times higher than those of white Americans. 
  • advocating for changes in policies and practices,

From Constance Baker Motley (the first African American woman to hold the position of a federal judge) to Johnnie Cochran (who led the defence and criminal acquittal of the O.J. Simpson case), there have been many famous civil rights lawyers have left an indelible mark on the pursuit of justice and equality. 

Even reality TV star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian has worked on various criminal justice reform cases, often partnering with legal experts to advocate releasing individuals serving long sentences for nonviolent offences.

civil rights lawyer

Networking can help you build connections in the legal community. Source: ETX

Tips to become a civil rights lawyer

Becoming a civil rights lawyer demands dedication and a commitment to justice and advocacy. Here are several additional tips to help you navigate this challenging but rewarding career path.

  • Networking: Build a strong network within the civil rights legal community, which can provide mentorship, job opportunities, and support.
  • Stay informed: Keep up-to-date with the latest developments in civil rights law and the issues that are important to you by reading relevant books, legal journals, and news articles.
  • Volunteer: Consider volunteering your time and legal skills to organisations or causes that align with your passion for civil rights.
  • Be patient and persistent: Civil rights cases can be lengthy and challenging, so patience and determination are essential qualities for a civil rights lawyer.

5 steps to becoming a civil rights lawyer

The process of becoming a lawyer will change according to the area of jurisdiction. For this guide, we lay five steps to help you become a civil rights lawyer in the US:

civil rights lawyer

Before becoming a civil rights lawyer you will need to obtain a bachelors degree. Source: AFP

1. Get a bachelor’s degree

Start by earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as political science, pre-law, sociology, or any other major that develops critical thinking, research, and writing skills. 

Maintaining a strong academic record is equally important. Beyond this, consider participating in extracurricular activities related to social justice and civil rights issues.

Renowned civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, earned a bachelor’s degree in history before attending Harvard Law School.

His educational background empowered him to tackle issues like racial injustice and death penalty cases, ultimately helping to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. 

A bachelor’s degree is also a prerequisite for admission to an American law school.

civil rights lawyer

Law school is known to be difficult and challenging for many students. Source: AFP

2. Attend law school

To get the most out of your time here, maintain a high GPA and participate in relevant internships or externships during law school.

This specialised education equips you with the legal knowledge and expertise needed to champion civil rights causes.

Marshall attended Howard University School of Law and later became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.

His journey through law school paved the way for historic cases, including Brown v Board of Education, which marked a turning point in the fight for civil rights.

On top of this, law school allows aspiring civil rights lawyers to dive deeper into constitutional law, discrimination, and human rights issues.

If you want to practise in the US but your bachelor’s degree was from a university outside of the US, consider getting a Master of Laws. Many programmes provide pathways to help you get licensure in the US.

civil rights lawyer

Working side-by-side with legal professionals can help you gain experience as a civil rights lawyer. Source: AFP

3. Gain practical experience

Internships, clerkships and summer associate positions with law firms, non-profit organisations, government agencies, or public interest law firms that specialise in civil rights issues can provide valuable practical experience.

Nothing is more effective than working under experienced civil rights lawyers will help you understand this area of law.

Real-world exposure to the legal system and civil rights issues is essential for gaining skills and making an impact on the community.

According to the American Bar Association, statistics reveal that law students who engage in internships, clerkships, or volunteer work related to civil rights are better prepared for their future legal careers

Whether through pro bono work, internships at legal clinics, or advocacy for civil rights organisations, this practical exposure will help you build a network of contacts and contribute to the betterment of society. 

civil rights lawyer

To become a civil rights lawyer you will first need to pass your bar exam. Source: AFP

4. Pass the bar exam

After graduating from law school, you’ll need to pass the bar exam in the country where you intend to practice law. Bar exam requirements vary by country and state, so be sure to research and prepare accordingly. 

In the US, it is a mandatory requirement to pass the bar exam in order to become a civil rights lawyer. According to the American Bar Association, the bar exam pass rate varies by state but is around 78%

This exam ensures that all candidates possess the legal knowledge and competence needed to represent clients effectively. 

Passing the bar exam demonstrates a lawyer’s readiness to uphold the law and protect the rights of individuals. It equips them with the legal authority to represent clients in court and advocate for social justice. 

5. Specialise in civil rights law

Specialising in civil rights law is the last piece of the puzzle in becoming a civil rights lawyer. +

This might involve working at a law firm specialising in civil rights, joining organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), or pursuing further education in civil rights law.

You can also consider earning certifications related to civil rights law.