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What Is Civil Rights Law?

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Civil rights law is about fighting for people’s constitutional rights and against injustice for those who have faced discrimination. If you’re passionate about the law and working to protect the rights of your community, civil rights might be the right career path for you.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

Civil Rights Law Overview

Civil rights law advocates for individuals who have been discriminated against and protects individuals’ constitutional rights. It works to uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Since its passing, the act has impacted everything from employment rights to voting rights to LGBTQ rights. Civil rights law also protects people’s personal rights, like free speech, religion, and privacy.

When someone has been discriminated against, or their rights have been violated, they can file a lawsuit against the person (or corporation) responsible. A civil rights lawyer will represent and defend them in court.

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Yet “being a civil rights lawyer is not always about trials,” Christa Ramey, civil rights and trial attorney at Ramey Law, P.C, says. 

Civil rights lawyers research cases, consult with their clients, prepare legal documents, and negotiate settlements in addition to representing clients in court.

“Some of your best work is either in a deposition or in a motion, or in opposition to a motion,” Ramey says. “Most days, I am in front of a computer and not in court.”

Types of Civil Rights Law Cases

Civil rights law covers many different types of discrimination and protects the various rights Americans have by law. Because of this, civil rights lawyers work on a wide range of cases. For example, some specialize in sexual harassment, while others focus on employment law. Civil rights law can be applied in many ways, including: 

How to Get Into Civil Rights Law

Education and Certification

Civil rights law, like all types of U.S. law, requires considerable education, typically seven years after high school. So first, you’ll need an undergraduate degree. Many pre-law students major in political science, but if you’re interested in civil rights law, taking courses or majoring in criminal justice, sociology, American studies, English, history, and even philosophy can be beneficial. There’s no right or wrong major to make your way into the field.

After your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to apply to and graduate from law school, typically with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. This is the most common law degree in the U.S.; a few schools offer specific or more niche graduate law degrees.

Most law schools require the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The LSAT tests skills you’ll need for law school, like writing, reading comprehension, and analytical and logical thinking

Once in law school, you can learn about general law concepts and civil rights law, including courses on employment discrimination law, the law and religion, gender discrimination law, immigration law, and disability law.

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Finally, you’ll need to take and pass the bar exam. You must take the bar exam in the state you’d like to practice in, as you’ll be tested on national and state laws. The exam covers six topics: contracts and sales, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, real property, evidence, and torts.

Once you’ve gotten both of your degrees and passed the bar exam, you’re qualified to work in law.

Skills

All lawyers need research, analytical, and writing skills to succeed. These are crucial skills for researching the law and clients and drafting documents. You’ll develop these skills throughout law school and the first few years of working as a lawyer.

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Empathy and active listening skills are specifically vital to civil rights law. Civil rights lawyers often deal with emotionally challenging situations and work with clients who have gone through traumatic and upsetting experiences. Successful civil rights lawyers actively listen to their clients to truly understand what they’ve been through and extend empathy to help fight against injustice and discrimination.

“You must walk the line between remaining objective and yet passionately and zealously pursuing justice,” Angela Giampolo, LGBTQ legal expert and founding/managing attorney at Giampolo Law Group, says. “This enables you to remain emotionally unattached to the subject or subject matter and in so doing, you preserve your mental health.”

Pros and Cons of Working in Civil Rights Law

For Ramey, the pros of working in this field are “endless.” 

“I feel like I am truly helping people, and not just my client,” she says. “Holding businesses and the government entities accountable for all the harm they cause can and does create change.”

However, that change doesn’t always come quickly.

“Unfortunately, there are many facets of the law that need change and change is slow,” Patrick Boyd, founding partner of The Boyd Law Group, PLLC, says. “Our democracy is a blessing, but often a slow-moving blessing as legislative initiatives take time. This does not mean the work is in civil rights is not valuable — it is essential! It does mean that while you can enjoy great victories you need to appreciate they are often achieved after marathons of effort.”

Civil rights law is also ever-changing because it’s heavily “impacted by the shift in political tail winds,” Giampolo says. “You have to be ready and willing to have one legal landscape today and then four years from now, have all the tables turn on you — either for better or worse depending on where you sit.”

Overall, civil rights law can be an impactful and even lucrative career path (the average salary for civil rights lawyers is $119,526, according to Glassdoor). Yet the work isn’t easy, practically and emotionally, especially when you don’t win your case.

“The loss can be devastating,” Ramey says. “In short, it is an emotional roller coaster and is very rewarding in the end.”

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