When I grow up I want to be a human rights lawyer (and marry George Clooney)
We’ve been meaning to write this article for ages and I was only jogged into action by a long train journey and a recent spate of enquiries!
So many teenagers and young adults have the idea that they want to have a career and:
- Change the world
- Do something constructive
- Do something their parents would approve of
- Get paid
- Have some excitement and be ‘professional’ and ‘respected’.
The main areas of law for doing this seem to be
- Human rights law
- Media law
- Sports law
Why? They are considered exciting and newsworthy.
This article is about human rights lawyers. If you don’t want to read the rest of the article here is my advice in 20 words.
“Human rights lawyers don’t exist, so qualify as a solicitor with a commercial law firm”.
I asked a few graduates and students why they want to be a human rights lawyer. Here is a flavour of some of their answers:
“I want to make a difference and help refugees”
“I want to use the law to do some good”
“I want a rewarding career”.
Should we be encouraging people with their ambition to become human rights lawyers?
The first thing to say to anyone who is planning to study law, complete the GDL and the LPC and then become a human rights solicitor is that human rights solicitors do not exist.
I’ll repeat that – human rights solicitors do not exist.
One used to exist. His name was Phil Shiner and he ran a law firm called Public Interest Lawyers, which took on the government, the army and just about every other pillar of the establishment. Unfortunately Mr Shiner was recently struck off the Roll of Solicitors after allegations surrounding some of his cases involving claimants making up instances of brutality against the British Army.
So there we have it – there are no human rights solicitors left. Please tell me if I am wrong in this assumption!
But if I have a problem with the government or have misconduct being perpetrated against me by a public institution, who should I call (apart from ghostbusters)?
The answer is that it really depends on what the issue is and this is the common fallacy about the term “human rights”.
Human Rights – the Fallacy
Human rights law covers a very wide range of fields of law including: crime, family, immigration, planning, child care, commercial and property litigation.
If I am wrongfully detained by the police and unlawfully arrested, I need to speak to a crime solicitor. The chances of me getting legal aid to pursue a claim against the police is very slim and I would almost certainly have to fund it myself or encourage a charity or organisation to help me.
If a local authority take my children away from me and I want to contest the decision, I would need to speak to a child care/family solicitor. Again, my chances of getting legal aid are slim unless I am on a very low income and I would need to fund the case myself or encourage a charity or organisation to help me.
If a local authority makes a decision on planning law that benefits a local county councillor who happens to chair the planning committee and I want to challenge the decision, I would need to find a planning solicitor who was prepared to apply for judicial review of the decision (or I would have to speak to the police if there was clear criminal intent). I would need to fund this action as there is no legal aid available for such cases.
If I manage to get into the UK by hiding in the back of a lorry and want to claim asylum due to likely persecution in my home country if sent back, I would need to seek the services of an immigration lawyer to represent me. There is legal aid available for this, although I understand it is a bit of a minefield when it comes to challenging decisions like these.
Where does the human rights lawyer fit in to any of the above scenarios?
They don’t. That’s because they don’t exist.
So if human rights lawyers don’t exist, what about Amal Clooney, Michael Mansfield and Cherie Blair?
They are all barristers. Barristers representing clients in circumstances like these tend to be working at a much higher level – for example appealing decisions in the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal, not turning up at Chelmsford Magistrates Court on a Saturday morning to apply for bail.
What about the lawyers who represented the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Hillsborough families?
All of these were specialist solicitors in a particular field of law. Most of them worked for a good proportion of the time for no fee as legal aid is rarely available for challenging convictions or attending inquests.
So I can’t become a human rights solicitor because they don’t exist?
What you can become is a crime solicitor, an immigration solicitor, a family solicitor or a litigation solicitor. At some point sooner or later you will come across human rights law. When you do, you will probably involuntarily groan, because anything involving human rights law is unlikely to pay you or your employer a sufficient amount of remuneration to make the work worthwhile unless you get a high profile case that generates free advertising for you.
The law is about money. It always has been, it always will be. Solicitors do not work for free. Even when legal aid existed for a number of fields of law it involved solicitors working to generate income or a benefit for their employer, whether this was a solicitors’ firm, a local authority or a charitable organisation. Every solicitor has to be able to justify their time spent doing anything at all.
The only organisations who genuinely get close to practising what students think of as a human rights law tend to be charities. So for example Amnesty International have a solicitor or two working for them internally.
This is another fallacy.
I suspect, and apologies to Amnesty International if this is not the case, that the solicitor(s) who work there are not employed to do cases of human rights, but rather to deal with regulatory and compliance issues, together with contracts of employment and for the supply of services etc.. Human rights issues are going to be looked at by volunteers and non-qualified caseworkers. They will almost always come from a commercial law background and not from a high street law firm (high street law is defined as the law as it applies to individuals – eg family law, wills, conveyancing and immigration).
Commercial Lawyers and Human Rights
Quite bizarrely you may be better off training to be a commercial solicitor in order to practice anything resembling law that helps the dispossessed and oppressed. This is because commercial lawyers tend to be the only ones who can afford to do this through pro bono schemes working in deprived areas. They have very few pressures on them to generate income because these schemes are set up to do good works rather than generate a profit or justify their existence.
A lot of commercial solicitors get involved with charitable organisations in their spare time or sit on boards of local organisations and clubs. This is because they tend to have the skills needed for those organisations to function.
So if I want to be a human rights lawyer I need to become a barrister? This is a long article to tell me this!
Well yes, but becoming a barrister and getting work to justify the investment in time and course fees is another matter entirely. You can read numerous articles on our website about training to be a barrister and how hard it is to get work in chambers that will justify the investment, but if you haven’t got one or all of the following it is highly unlikely this route is for you:
- A family member already in Chambers and practising as a barrister
- A former barrister in the family who has now retired but retained links
- A strong educational background with a degree from a well regarded university
- A background demonstrating the ‘right’ experience – eg 1st team netball captain, head girl, etc.. etc..
- Lots of money.
One thing is very clear – you cannot just study to become a barrister – you also need some of the above. Working as a barrister is not easy and generating work is not easy either.
So what should I do? You’ve just ruined all my dreams.
Don’t despair. If you were thinking of being a human rights lawyer it is pretty clear that you don’t actually know what a solicitor or barrister actually does in practice as otherwise you wouldn’t have had to read this article.
If you don’t know what a solicitor or barrister does in practice you need to go and get experience so that you are aware of what it is you need to do. Don’t spend money on courses before entering law. It is a terrible mistake. Experience is the key. Don’t think about getting paid, although it is nice! Any experience in a law firm will do. Think of work experience as an investment. The best sort of experience is in a medium to larger sized commercial law firm based in a city.
Note the words “law firm”. That doesn’t mean your local Citizens Advice Bureau, a local authority or anything else similar. You have to get actual work experience in an actual law firm which has solicitors in it. If you are thinking about becoming a barrister you need to ask for a mini pupillage at chambers. However bear in mind the points above.
We have all sorts of guides on our website about getting work experience, finding a training contract etc.. etc.. Have a read through and plan your future. Law is not for everybody but it is a rewarding experience.
Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten Percent Legal Recruitment. You can contact him for comment on this article or any other topic regarding legal careers by email at firstname.lastname@example.org