Today is International Human Rights day and in recognition of this the Law Society is running a series of lectures on Human Rights. Since we have a number of students here at Warwick interested in careers in this field, I’ve been along to some of the talks. I’ve picked up on a personal interest in litigation and got a first-hand view on what it takes to embark on this career area.
Now, this isn’t going to come as a surprise to anyone committed to a career in Human Rights! Nobody told me that it was easy to get into the work, or that there was a clearly defined entry system which, if followed, ensures success. I did learn a few things however, about some of the attributes you might need for success and about some of the routes people have taken to “get in”. So here they are, this is no recipe for success but some points to ponder.
Have you got what it takes?
You need resilience. You’re likely to have to knock hard at lots of doors if you’re to build a career in this area, and you’ll need to be able to take rejection.
But what about once you start work? You’re going to have to be able to deal calmly and dispassionately with tragedies on all sorts of levels and there’ll be times when you’re going to be upset. You’ll need to remember that it’s not normally your tragedy! The choice of what sorts of rights and remedies might be pursued is not yours but your clients’. Your job is to listen, and not to judge and to find a way of understanding what might be right for a particular client. Sometimes that might mean taking no action. However inflamed you are by the injustice or cruelty, your thoughts won’t matter! You’ll have to be able to deal with the consequences of taking the action too. How will you look at horrors day after day and not become inured to them? You’ll have to keep working, to continue to see what happened and remain appalled. Then what if your client dies as a result of the action you took? I’ve heard stories about this over the last two days; will you be able to live with the consequences of what you do?
Still keen? Then here are some suggestions I’ve picked up which might help you get into this field.
Successful Human Rights work often involves the need to get issues to the forefront of peoples’ minds. There are all sorts of ways of doing this, lobbying of politicians, the organisation of petitions, journal writing, blogging, direct action, anything which raises the public consciousness. You can be doing that alongside your studies. Pick causes which really matter to you and raise your profile, start to develop a name for yourself as you support your cause and you’ll be a more interesting employee.
You’re likely to have to intern and the grim reality is that you’re unlikely to be able to get paid for interning, (if you do, you’re much more likely to be looking at minimum wage than a living wage!) Can you manage to do this? Not everyone has family support prepared to facilitate unpaid work, but perhaps there are other ways of doing this and surviving? You could consider interning part time and finding a part time job to pay the rent and feed yourself? Negotiate a limited period for the internship and try, at least, to discuss how your “employers” are going to help you with your career aspirations in return for your work.
Find a city job which pays well!
Really? Did I just write that? Actually, I did. One point which was made forcefully to me about those wanting to practise Human Rights law is that you need to learn to be a good lawyer first. Once you’ve learnt the skills of litigation you can pick up Human Rights law really quickly. If you’re going to have the greatest impact on Human Rights as a lawyer you need to be the best lawyer you can be. The City trains well, it pays for LPC and some firms offer employees the chance to really engage with high quality international human rights work on a pro bono basis. What’s not to like? You might find it hard to leave and give up the salary of course, but that doesn’t mean game over on the Human Rights aspiration. You might have the chance to work on the side, perhaps in law, or perhaps in campaigning. Alternatively, learn your craft, raise your personal profile and then leap off into full time, hard core Human Rights work.
Not for you? Ok!
Become a paralegal.
It’s another option. A number of top Human Right law firms only offer training contracts to those who’ve been paralegals first. You won’t earn as much, maybe you won’t get your LPC funded, but you might feel that you’re off on the path you want right from the beginning.
Get out there and make some contacts
This is the radical one, but I’m told it works. Pack your bags and head off to a world trouble spot. Definitely avoid those countries which might give rise to concerns for the UK Security services and think very carefully about your own physical safety, but that leaves you plenty of options. Once you’re there, start talking to the local Human Rights workers. They’ll be only too pleased to have some help on hand and you’ll probably find yourself working in no time. You might not be earning much, you’ll certainly be learning!
So is there a career for the truly determined? Yes, for some. The sad truth is though, that in this field, of all fields, contacts help and getting the job you really want might take you quite some time. You’re likely to have to be flexible as well as persistent. But the rewards? Simply knowing that what you’ve done has really made a difference!