How to become a civil rights attorney

Civil Court Cases

Civil court cases are divided into types depending on how much money they are worth.

  • Limited civil case — A general civil case that involves an amount of money of $25,000 or less.
  • Unlimited civil case — A general civil case that involves an amount of money over $25,000. Unlimited civil cases also include other types of disputes that do not involve money, like cases to resolve (or “quiet”) title to real property, cases asking for civil restraining orders, and requests to change your name or your child’s name. Basically, an unlimited civil case is any case that is not a limited civil case under the definition of Code of Civil Procedure sections 85 – 86.1.
  • Small claims case — A civil case filed in small claims court for $10,000 or less. If you are a business (except for a sole proprietor), you can only sue for $5,000 in small claims court. There are other exceptions. Read the Small Claims “Basics” section to find out more.

Representing Yourself in a Civil Case

If you are filing a limited civil case or an unlimited civil case, it is a very good idea to have a lawyer. But you are not legally required to have a lawyer (unless you are incorporated and your corporation is the one that is suing or being sued).

If you do not have a lawyer, you will have to act as your lawyer. And, to do so, you will have to know the laws and court procedures. The court cannot help you or give you a break just because you are not a lawyer and do not know the law. If you do not follow the many court rules and laws governing litigation, you could get fined by the court and you could even lose important rights or your entire case.

There are a lot of good reasons to have a lawyer, but not all lawyers are equally competent or qualified to help with your case:

  • Lawyers experienced with the type of case you have can better assess whether court or some other way of resolving disputes is best for dealing with your particular issue. For example, many people who file a lawsuit because they were wronged or hurt in some way (like in medical malpractice, for example) think that a lawsuit will bring them the justice they seek. But for many reasons completely unrelated to the skill of their lawyer, court may not be a good option because juries are reluctant to find doctors responsible even when there was negligent treatment.
  • Lawyers know the law and court procedures and how to research the law. They know how to manage the case and follow all the rules, which can be very confusing if you are not used to them.
  • Experienced lawyers know about the judges and how they like to run their courtrooms. They know court staff and local procedures in your court.
  • Lawyers can help you make important strategic decisions to help your case. For example, they can help you figure out if you should ask for a jury trial or a court trial (where there is no jury and the judge decides your case).
  • Experienced lawyers know juries — how to choose a jury that can be more favorable to your case, what juries are like, and how to present a case to a jury.
  • Lawyers are not personally involved in the case so they can see it more objectively than you can. This can be a great help, especially in cases that are very emotional or have a lot at stake.

Read the section on Representing Yourself for more information you should know if you are going to represent yourself.

Law and Procedures for Civil Cases

You can find the court’s rules, laws, and procedures that apply to civil cases in:

  • California Code of Civil Procedure
  • California Rules of Court, and
  • Local Civil Rules of Court in the county where you file your case. These local rules of court are usually posted online at your court’s website.

Other Types of Money Disputes

Money Disputes in a Family Law Case

This section does NOT deal with family law cases, even if there is money involved. So if you want to get child support or spousal/partner support from your former spouse or domestic partner, you need to go to the sections that deal with those topics, Child Support or Spousal/Partner Support. The same applies when you and your spouse/partner or former spouse/partner have a dispute about your bank accounts or a house or something else that involves money. In general, those issues need to be dealt with in a divorce or legal separation.

Money Disputes in a Housing or Eviction Case

This section also does NOT deal with disputes between landlords and tenants. If you are a landlord trying to evict your tenant or you are a tenant and your landlord is trying to evict you, you probably have a civil case involving money (back rent). But eviction cases are different from other types of civil cases. This Online Self-Help Center has information and guides to help you specifically with your eviction. Go to the Eviction and Housing section to learn more about evictions. In that section, you can also get information about foreclosures or security deposits.

If you have a dispute over money that involves housing, but it really has to do with someone breaking a contract (like if you want to sue a contractor who worked on your house), or with property damage (like if a city truck ran into and damaged your house), then the Problems With Money section is where you will find the information you need.

Money Disputes in Small Claims Court

This section does not provide information about small claims cases. Small claims cases are civil cases where the amount in dispute is $10,000 or less (with a few exceptions) and where the parties (the people or businesses in the case) choose to handle their case in small claims court. Lawyers are not allowed in small claims court, and the rules are more informal and the process is a lot simpler. Read the Small Claims section for more information on small claims court.

Keep in mind that you can have a civil case for $10,000 or less that is NOT in small claims court. There are many reasons why this may happen.

  • Sometimes, people choose not to file their case in small claims court because they want to have a lawyer represent them, even if the amount in dispute is less than $10,000.
  • Other times, you cannot sue in small claims court because of a technical issue (like you need the court to make some other orders that the small claims judge is not allowed to make, or you are suing someone who is not in California and you would not be able to serve that person within California as required for small claims).
  • You may be responding to a lawsuit for $10,000 or less, and the person or company that sued you chose NOT to file in small claims court. This is common in credit card debt or other collection lawsuits where you may owe less than $10,000, but the credit card company prefers to take you to court in a limited civil case, and not small claims. There are many reasons companies may prefer to sue you in a general civil court, and if that happens, you have to defend yourself in civil court and cannot ask to have the case transferred to small claims court.
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Why We Love It

Civil Rights Lawyers investigate and advise individuals who’s rights of religion, race, gender, sexuality, age or appearance have been violated in the workplace and medical facilities or any other public forum. They defend individuals that are discriminated against for their personal characteristics and ensure that their clients receive fair and equal treatment.

What is a Civil Rights Lawyer?

The following responsibilities are common for Civil Rights Lawyers:

  • Presents civil cases to judges and juries
  • Investigates legal data
  • Negotiates settlements of legal disputes
  • Drafts legal documents, briefings and contracts
  • Files legal documents and appeals in Federal Court on behalf of their clients

A Day In The Life

When an individuals civil rights have been violated, that person is entitled to file a civil suit against the institution that committed the offense. In a case such as this a civil rights attorney would be contacted. The lawyer may then be hire to represent the client. Their job is to then file a judgment in court to prove their clients civil rights have indeed been violated and pursue monetary compensation.

It is common for individuals to specialize their practices to a particular field of expertise or interest, like, human rights, human trafficking, disability rights or women’s rights.

Typical Work Schedule

This position is often spent in an office for at least 40 hours or more a week. The rest of their time is spent in courthouses and in mediation or conciliation offices.

Projected Job Growth

Although there has been a decline in the use of attorney’s as a result of greater reliance on paralegals and legal assistants. Although, due to the fact that the majority of civil rights cases are argued in Federal Court the demand for attorney’s in this particular field is still in high demand, particularly within the government.

Typical Employers

The majority of civil rights lawyers have positions in government or public service. For example, the FBI has its own civil rights division dedicated to focusing its efforts on hate crimes and human and sex trafficking victims. Most have their own private firms and consult on cases and testify in court proceedings as well.

How To Become a Civil Rights Lawyer

To become a civil rights attorney, one must first complete an undergraduate degree program. Bachelor’s degrees in areas of study like English, Statistics, Political Science or Philosophy would all be relevant ciriculums.

After completing their undergraduate studies they must then attend and complete law school which is typically a 3 year program. During this time in school one can discover and be directed to their specialized field of law.

After law school, individuals must then pass a state bar exam to the applicable state the individual wants to practice law in. Every state has its own requirements to pass the exam.

Civil Rights Lawyer Salary Data

We’ve provided you the following to learn more about this career. The salary and growth data on this page comes from recently published Bureau of Labor Statistics data while the recommendations and editorial content are based on our research.

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How to become a civil rights attorney

A civil rights attorney defends those who have been discriminated against for a wide range of possible reasons, including such factors as race, sex, and socioeconomic status. If you would like to become a civil rights attorney, you must successfully complete law school, ideally at an institution which emphasizes knowledge of civil rights. Then, you must pass any licensing exams required by your state or country in order to practice law. Before you begin practicing as an attorney, you may also wish to complete one or more internships at organizations which provide legal counsel to victims of discrimination.

To become a civil rights attorney, you must first complete law school. Depending upon which country you live in, you may be eligible to begin a law program immediately after finishing high school, or you may have to first complete an undergraduate degree. If you are required to complete an undergraduate degree first, as is the case in the US, consider majoring in a subject which will broaden your knowledge of civil rights policy and history in your country. History, sociology, or political science may be useful majors. Toward the end of your undergraduate education, you will likely need to take an entrance exam and complete an extensive application process to gain admission to law school.

Whether your law studies begin after high school or after you have earned an undergraduate degree, in order to become a civil rights attorney you should aim to attend an institution which emphasizes the study of civil rights issues. If you are uncertain which institutions emphasize civil rights, try speaking to a pre-law counselor at your current school or to representatives from the schools to which you are thinking of applying. Once you have begun your studies, try to take classes which will help you understand how the laws of your country can be used to protect civil rights.

Before you become a civil rights attorney, you may wish to complete one or more internships at organizations which provide legal services to victims of discrimination. You might, for instance, spend a summer working at a nonprofit organization which provides legal advocacy to the poor or to immigrants. This type of experience can give you a firsthand glimpse into the world of civil rights law, and can also help you establish a network of professional contacts.

Once you have completed your education and gained some work experience, you will be nearly ready to become a civil rights attorney. Before you can begin practicing law, however, you usually must pass a licensing exam. Licensing requirements vary depending on which state or country you live in. If you are uncertain about licensing requirements in your region, try consulting the website of your state or country’s bar association.

The term “civil rights” comes from the Latin words ius civis meaning “rights of citizens.” In the United States of America, civil rights are constitutional, outlined in the Bill of Rights. However, throughout the history of civil rights in this nation, Congress has responded to civil rights movements by enacting civil rights acts. For example, Congress authorized several civil rights acts for newly freed blacks in 1860 and in the years that followed.

The purpose of civil rights is to protect people against discrimination and harassment on grounds of physical or mental disability, gender, religion, race, national origin, age, status as a member of the uniformed services, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They also preserve individual rights such as privacy, the freedoms of thought and conscience, speech and expression, religion, the press, and movement.

Educational Requirements

In order to practice law as a civil rights attorney, one must have a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctor Law degree. A serious student wanting a competitive edge will build a resume and transcript that reflects a commitment to civil rights issues. During law school, he should take courses specializing in constitutional law. In addition, it is advisable to follow courses in civil rights litigation, employment discrimination, race and the law, human rights law, disability, education and family law to name a few.

Civil rights nonprofits prefer candidates who have in-depth experience and knowledge on one issue rather than those who have been involved in a large variety of public interest related activities. In addition, finding role models in the field who can advise about career paths and job opportunities is extremely advantageous. A law student seeking a career as a civil rights attorney should consider working as a research assistant or volunteering for a project to gain supplementary experience.

Pick from the links below, depending on your education level that best describes your situation

Featured Law School:

How to become a civil rights attorney

Featured Programs:

Job Description & Skills Required

Often, civil rights attorneys enter the field because they are passionate about justice for a particular people group or issue. Consequently, it is common for them to specialize their practice according to special interest groups or a specific civil rights issue. They may concentrate their case load on gay and lesbian rights, disability rights, human rights, and women’s rights. Or issues like privacy, freedom of expression, the eleventh amendment, sexual harassment and voting rights may consume their How to become a civil rights attorneycase load. The majority of civil rights attorneys hold positions in government or public service.

When a person’s rights have been violated, the individual has the right to file a civil suit against the person or institution that committed the offense. A civil rights attorney may be consulted to explain his client’s rights and the procedures for filing a civil suit. He then may be hired to represent the client. His job is to prove the infringement on the individual’s rights did indeed occur in hopes of receiving monetary compensation for his client in return.

A civil rights attorney’s job involves:

  • presenting cases to judges and juries
  • deciphering laws and rulings for individuals, businesses and organizations
  • investigating legal data
  • negotiating settlements of legal disputes
  • formulating legal briefs
  • filing legal appeals in the federal and state court of appeals

Certain civil rights cases attract a lot of publicity. Civil rights attorneys must be capable of handling high-profile cases while using the publicity to educate the public on civil rights issues.

The term “civil rights” comes from the Latin words ius civis meaning “rights of citizens.” In the United States of America, civil rights are constitutional, outlined in the Bill of Rights. However, throughout the history of civil rights in this nation, Congress has responded to civil rights movements by enacting civil rights acts. For example, Congress authorized several civil rights acts for newly freed blacks in 1860 and in the years that followed.

The purpose of civil rights is to protect people against discrimination and harassment on grounds of physical or mental disability, gender, religion, race, national origin, age, status as a member of the uniformed services, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They also preserve individual rights such as privacy, the freedoms of thought and conscience, speech and expression, religion, the press, and movement.

Educational Requirements

In order to practice law as a civil rights attorney, one must have a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctor Law degree. A serious student wanting a competitive edge will build a resume and transcript that reflects a commitment to civil rights issues. During law school, he should take courses specializing in constitutional law. In addition, it is advisable to follow courses in civil rights litigation, employment discrimination, race and the law, human rights law, disability, education and family law to name a few.

Civil rights nonprofits prefer candidates who have in-depth experience and knowledge on one issue rather than those who have been involved in a large variety of public interest related activities. In addition, finding role models in the field who can advise about career paths and job opportunities is extremely advantageous. A law student seeking a career as a civil rights attorney should consider working as a research assistant or volunteering for a project to gain supplementary experience.

Pick from the links below, depending on your education level that best describes your situation

Featured Law School:

How to become a civil rights attorney

Featured Programs:

Job Description & Skills Required

Often, civil rights attorneys enter the field because they are passionate about justice for a particular people group or issue. Consequently, it is common for them to specialize their practice according to special interest groups or a specific civil rights issue. They may concentrate their case load on gay and lesbian rights, disability rights, human rights, and women’s rights. Or issues like privacy, freedom of expression, the eleventh amendment, sexual harassment and voting rights may consume their How to become a civil rights attorneycase load. The majority of civil rights attorneys hold positions in government or public service.

When a person’s rights have been violated, the individual has the right to file a civil suit against the person or institution that committed the offense. A civil rights attorney may be consulted to explain his client’s rights and the procedures for filing a civil suit. He then may be hired to represent the client. His job is to prove the infringement on the individual’s rights did indeed occur in hopes of receiving monetary compensation for his client in return.

A civil rights attorney’s job involves:

  • presenting cases to judges and juries
  • deciphering laws and rulings for individuals, businesses and organizations
  • investigating legal data
  • negotiating settlements of legal disputes
  • formulating legal briefs
  • filing legal appeals in the federal and state court of appeals

Certain civil rights cases attract a lot of publicity. Civil rights attorneys must be capable of handling high-profile cases while using the publicity to educate the public on civil rights issues.

Learn more about pursuing a career as a civil rights attorney. Read on for an overview of the responsibilities, education requirements, and salary potential.

Civil Rights Attorneys at a Glance

Civil rights attorneys are tasked with arguing, analyzing, or researching cases dealing with equal protection under the law for all citizens. Civil rights cases may include the free right of assembly, freedom from discrimination, or lack of due process by law enforcement among many others. The table below is a general overview on pursuing a career in this field.

Education Bachelor’s and Juris Doctor (JD) degrees
License Bar exam in state of practice
Key Skills Verbal and written communication; critical thinking; analytical skills
Career Outlook (2018-2028) 6% growth (for all lawyers)*
Median Salary (2019) $84,298**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

What Kind of Cases Do Civil Rights Attorneys Work On?

Whether they are monitoring compliance on behalf of a government agency or defending a client in a complaint, civil rights attorneys get involved in cases where a private or public organization is accused of violating the civil rights of an individual. Some examples include cases involving police brutality, prison abuse, sexual harassment or right to free speech. These cases are argued based on constitutional amendments, applicable legislation in the relevant jurisdiction (federal, state, or local), as well as prior court decisions.

What Kind of Employers Do They Work For?

Government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels hire civil rights attorneys to monitor compliance of civil rights regulations. Many agencies, such as the Department of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Education, often have bureaus with many civil rights attorneys monitoring compliance in specified areas. Large and small nonprofit organizations sometimes hire civil rights attorneys to represent individual clients and bring their cases to court. These organizations provide their services to the clients without concern for their ability to afford their defense. Civil rights attorneys can also work for private firms, who defend clients in cases related to housing, employment and other civil rights matters.

How to become a civil rights attorney

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Unlike criminal lawyers, civil lawyers represent clients seeking to settle non-violent disputes, such as divorce settlements, custody battles and disagreements regarding property ownership, to name a few. Civil lawyers prepare cases for a variety of topics, including consumer law, employment law, entertainment law, family law, tax law and international law. Considerable education is required to become a civil lawyer, including four years of college, three years of law school and rigorous examinations. As of 2010, civil lawyers typically earned $112, 760 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bachelor’s Degree

Future lawyers are required to obtain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. A specific major isn’t required — in fact, law schools appreciate applicants with diverse backgrounds — but coursework in public speaking, English, history, economics, government and mathematics is recommended by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Undergraduate students applying to law school are required to submit Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score. Other law school requirements include letters of recommendation, a high GPA and participation in extra-curricular activities.

Law School

Aspiring civil lawyers are required to graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Typically, programs take three years of full-time study to complete. Students study contracts, constitutional law, civil procedure, property law, criminal law, torts, contracts and legal writing. Students also practice the oral, research and written skills required to become a successful lawyer. Most law schools also offers interactive experiences, such as legal clinics, moot court competitions, practice trials and writing and researching for the school’s law review. These experiences give students valuable experiences that will help them succeed after graduation. Many law students also gain experience through part-time or summer jobs, and law, business and government internships. Graduates from law school are awarded the JD, or Juris Doctorate degree.

With the exception of Maryland, Puerto Rico and Wisconsin, JD’s are required to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) before being allowed to take the bar exam. The MPRE tests graduates on the professional conduct required of lawyers by the American Bar Association. State bar associations determine individually what should be considered a passing score for the MPRE. Check your state’s bar association for details.

Bar Exam

Civil lawyers are required to pass their state’s bar exam in order to obtain a license to practice law. The two-day, 12-hour exam is typically broken down into two sections — the state section and the multi-state section. The multi-state section consists of questions regarding laws applicable to all states, while the state section asks questions specific to the laws of the state where you’re testing.

2016 Salary Information for Lawyers

Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $118,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, lawyers earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,580, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $176,580, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 792,500 people were employed in the U.S. as lawyers.

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Oubria Tronshaw specializes in topics related to parenting and business. She received a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Chicago State University. She currently teaches English at Harper Community College in the Chicago area.

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.”