The rights stuff
27 October 2011 | By Laura Manning
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A career as a human rights lawyer is a popular aspiration among students, but it requires a lot of hard work and dedication.
Strictly speaking, human rights lawyers do not exist. They are a myth born out of the pervasive notion that human rights is an area of law in its own right. In fact, it encompasses a diverse range of legal areas, blending discrimination, actions against the police and mental health law, while also overlapping with immigration and employment.
“It’s the biggest misconception of my field of law,” says Leigh Day & Co associate Jamie Beagent, whose career in public law and human rights has seen him act on a number of high-profile cases, including representing a Guantanamo Bay detainee and successfully challenging the detention of Algerian nationals whose government was refusing to accept them back.
“Anyone interested in this field needs to think of it as public law, and human rights is just a part of that,” Beagent explains.
The increasing number of high-profile and specialist cases since the ratification of the Human Rights Act has attracted the attention of aspiring lawyers. But what is it that law students find attractive about this area?
For Beagent, it is the principle and ethos of public law that attracts him to the field. He also speaks warmly about client relationships, adding: “You never really get any nasty litigation, but usually there are cordial relationships between parties. I also love the variety - my attention span wouldn’t have worked in another area of law.”
Bindmans public law and human rights trainee solicitor Clare Jennings says that pursuing a job that contributes to society and “makes a difference” can have its downsides, warning that it is common to become personally invested in cases.
“There’s an added pressure when you feel your client’s hopes rest on you,” says Jennings. “The law isn’t always a magic wand - there are limits to what can be done.”
Bindmans is one well-known firm in this field that recruits trainees. The bulk of its work sees its lawyers act for individuals, with the firm handling mainly contentious matters.
Beyond the media gaze
However, you would be wrong to think that public law and human rights work is only for claimants, as you may find yourself providing advice to the Government too.
“You never know what area you’ll be looking into next,” says Beagent, who was named The Times Lawyer of the Week after acting for The Corner House and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). “The work won’t always be high-profile or have strong media involvement.”
This view is shared by Jennings, who says that “there’s a less glamorous side to it”.
“It’s not every day you’re going to be in court,” she says. “There’ll be a lot of administrative tasks, bundles and getting supporting documents together.”
University of Warwick legal careers adviser Anna Preston says that with a lot students focusing their ambitions on a career in human rights, many have unrealistic aspirations.
“Students can be a bit woolly in their knowledge of this area,” asserts Preston.
“They want to help and make a difference straightaway, but many will first need to train in firms doing broader areas, then specialise further down the line.”
Preston also believes that students must be pragmatic. With a lot of competition and the lack of funding opportunities for the Legal Practice Course (LPC), it is advisable for students to secure a training contract in a
field linked to their career goal.
Blackstone Chambers public law and human rights barrister Hanif Mussa highlights how important he found it to pursue other areas to gain greater exposure.
Indeed, his current and recent work has been spread between public law and human rights, EU and competition law, and commercial and employment law.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is the idea that lawyers in public law and human rights just do that and nothing else,” says Mussa. “The most successful human rights lawyers are the ones who practise in diverse areas.”
Being such a niche field, human rights is an intensely competitive area. Beagent stresses the importance of gaining practical experience over going down the academic route.
This is often easier said than done, though. Unlike the corporate and commercial law firm giants, many specialist public law and human rights firms will be unable to provide paid internships, offering only voluntary work experience.
There are a few options open to fund work placements. One example is the Human Rights Legal Association’s (HRLA) bursary scheme, which offers up to £1,000 to fund internships with human rights organisations.
“There’s no doubt that we’re overwhelmed with interest from students,” says HRLA chair Jonathan Cooper, who explains that the association provides the bursaries to allow people to take part in unpaid work placements. “We just want to try to give people another option.”
That said, Mussa does not believes it is essential to do voluntary placements to carve out a career in this field.
“It’s easy to overstate the importance of doing unfunded work experience,” he insists, adding that recruiters in the field look for skills relevant to becoming any type of lawyer. In his view, the most important thing is to demonstrate an interest in public law and human rights.
Prior to joining Bindmans, Jennings worked as a data protection officer for a national children’s charity. She believes it was this experience that helped her secure the role at the firm.
“You don’t necessarily need legal work experience, although it can be helpful,” she says. “Work at your local law centre or at a charity concerned with human rights issues, or that makes some sort of contribution to
the community or different groups within the community.”
Jennings maintains that students do not need to complete a six-month unpaid internship to get the necessary experience.
She embarked on her career at the London firm in a paralegal role in the public law and human rights department. She obtained her training contract in the team in 2010.
Getting a start
Starting as a paralegal is a common route into this field due to the limited number of dedicated training contracts. It is an attractive option, as some firms will knock six months off your training contract.
There are also several institutions that offer postgraduate human rights courses, such as the London School of Economics, the University of Nottingham, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex (see table, above).
“I don’t think you need a Masters to get into this area of law, but it doesn’t hurt,” Jennings advises. “The key thing is to demonstrate an interest in the type of work that we do. Getting experience is important, and this doesn’t necessarily have to be legal.”
Unlike a training contract at a top commercial law firm, few firms specialising in public law and human rights willrecruit aspiring lawyers more than a year in advance, giving you plenty of time to bulk up your CV.
And there are plenty of organisations connected to this area of law that offer student membership. One example is Lawyers for Liberty, a human rights and law reform initiative that helps defend access to justice, takes on landmark test cases and guides people through public advice services.
Beagent describes his career as a “luck-filled rollercoaster” after landing a paralegal role between his LPC and training contract with a local firm that specialised in immigration work.
“The firm I worked for was jumping on the bandwagon at the time of a huge influx in asylum seekers, allowing me to be utterly immersed in the work,” Beagent says. “I didn’t have experience of this type of work, but I fell in love with it. It was a complete eye-opener, a massive step away from the turgid approach of legal education.”
But what does practising public law and human rights actually involve?
“It really does vary,” insists Mussa, explaining that he can have whole weeks out of court handling document work in chambers. For him, this has included drafting detailed grounds for judicial review in relation to a claim brought by Iraqi civilians for extra-territorial breaches of human rights as a result of alleged mistreatment by British troops abroad.
He explains that almost every court appearance is preceded by work on documents, and some of this work does
not lead to an appearance in court at all.
“Part of being self-employed means it’s up to you when you do your work,” he adds. “You have to work quite hard, but you can change your workload.”
“It’s a quid quo pro,” Beagent says, “because you’re never going to earn a fortune doing this type of law.”
Mussa believes the most important thing needed to succeed in this area of law is the ability to show a genuine interest in the related issues. “There’s not a particular magic or secret quality to being a good human rights lawyer,” he adds.
Beagent says that students need to look at the field in a more balanced way. “Try to view public law and human rights from the perspective that it’s part of our democratic mechanism rather than it being just about the rights of the individuals,” he concludes.