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If you are passionate about civil rights and fighting discrimination, you might be interested in a career as a civil rights lawyer. Before choosing this field, it’s important to understand that civil rights attorneys are not usually the highest paid lawyers in the field. Becoming a civil rights lawyer requires a lot of education and training, and the pay can be low compared to other legal positions. However, according to recent research, lawyers who choose public service fields may not make a lot of money, but they are the most likely to report being happy. For a spirited change-maker, becoming a civil rights attorney can be a fulfilling career track.
Civil rights lawyers can earn anywhere between $45,000 for a first-year lawyer to more than $140,000 for a highly experienced senior attorney. A civil rights lawyer salary varies dramatically, depending on the area of expertise, location, years of experience and specific employer.
Civil Rights Lawyer Job Description
Civil rights attorneys work to ensure that all people may enjoy the legal protections laid out by the law, regardless of race, age, gender, disability, military status, sexual orientation or national origin. Essentially, a civil rights lawyer fights against discrimination experienced by marginalized groups of people. Although civil rights attorneys are not usually the highest paid lawyers, the field is dominated by talented, passionate change-makers who work to make the world a better place for everyone.
Most civil rights lawyers specialize in one area of the law. For example, one civil rights lawyer might focus solely on racial discrimination in the workplace; another might focus on disability rights and access. In the world of civil rights, it’s considered a positive thing to specialize and gain expertise in one area. There are a few general civil rights organizations such as ACLU, but even within these umbrella organizations, most attorneys specialize in one specific field.
On a day-to-day basis, civil rights lawyers find themselves doing a variety of tasks:
- Meeting with and interviewing clients
- Building cases through legal research
- Learning all relevant legislation and keeping up to date with any important policy changes
- Negotiating settlements
- Presenting cases in court
- Filing appeals
- Writing legal briefs, memos and case documents
- Performing discovery and other trial processes
- Speaking to the press about your cases and relevant civil rights issues.
To become a civil rights attorney, you must earn a four-year bachelor’s degree as well as a three-year Juris Doctor degree. Both degrees must be earned from reputable, accredited institutions. While you’re in law school, focus on civil rights law to whatever extent possible. Try to find opportunities in the area in which you plan to practice. Take some constitutional law courses, as well as anything offered in the field of human or civil rights. If your school offers a program in civil rights, take advantage of it. Seek out internships, fellowships and legal clinics that demonstrate your commitment to civil rights. Again, it is a good idea for civil rights lawyers to specialize in one subject area. So if there's one area of civil rights you are particularly passionate about, that is where you should spend your time and energy building your resume.
After law school, you must pass the bar exam in the state where you plan to practice law. Studying for the bar is quite an undertaking, so be prepared to set aside a few months to focus on passing your test.
Civil Rights Lawyer Salary
Civil rights lawyers can earn anywhere between $45,000 per year for a first year lawyer to more than $140,000 for a highly experienced senior attorney. A civil rights lawyer salary varies dramatically, depending on your area of expertise, location, years of experience and specific employer. For example, the ACLU salary scale ranges from $46,295 per year for a paralegal to $87,400 for legal counsel. Some senior ACLU attorney positions pay even more.
In general, more expensive locations tend to pay higher salaries, and gaining more years of experience will certainly bump up your pay. Further, private law firms hiring civil rights attorneys tend to pay more than nonprofit organizations. For a highly specialized civil rights lawyer with many years of experience, it is not unheard of to earn more than $140,000 per year.
Chelsea Levinson earned her B.S. in Business from Fordham University and her J.D. from Cardozo. She specializes in labor and workplace issues, and has created content for Vox, Levo, AOL and more.