Human Rights Work

If you want to rescue someone from political persecution, free a prisoner who has been wrongly accused or lobby governments to enact changes in public policy, then a career in human rights law is the obvious choice.

But be warned, human rights law is not a particularly accessible area and potential candidates have to create the opportunity for themselves. Most of the full-time legal work is found in government agencies or human rights organisations where the financial rewards are extremely limited.

“It's not a job for the money,” explains Luca Lupoli, officer in charge of the co-ordination unit at the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in Geneva.

“I don't know if it is economically interesting enough for a young English person. Perhaps there are other jobs they would find more rewarding.”

Lupoli explains someone pursuing a career in human rights, “has a personal involvement in the issues”.

And he believes that it's a good time to pursue a career in this area. “At the moment there are a lot of opportunities. Human rights is considered a main issue. It didn't used to be, and in 10 years I don't know how it will be.”

Working at the UN centre, he says, “you are in the eye of the storm of human rights issues”.

For those students who want to pursue the corporate route, many large firms like Nabarro Nathanson have pro bono units which do human rights work.

“Working for a corporate law firm does not preclude you from doing human rights work,” says a spokesperson for the firm.

However, lawyers in large firms with idealistic visions must find the time for their pro bono work while still meeting their financial obligations to the firm.

Herbert Smith solicitor Paula Hodges is the co-ordinator of the London Panel of Solicitors, an organisation of 40 major law firms, (including Clifford Chance, Lovell White & Durrant, Allen & Overy, Norton Rose and Simmons & Simmons) that represents 300 prisoners in Jamaica and the Caribbean, most of whom have been tried for murder.

“If a prisoner suffers injustice but the domestic process failed to help them, we take their case to the Privy Council,” explains Hodges.

Hodges is extremely busy and is aware of the pressures to maintain her responsibilities to the firm. However, she manages to spend about one hour a day for pro bono work.

“I find the time because I'll put in my own time if I have to. But the firm gives me the time I need and it is recognised as a substantial contribution.”

Hodges encourages students applying for articles to see if the firms they are applying to have pro bono departments. She believes that many firms are making pro bono work more of a priority.

Saul Lehrfreund has managed to do pro bono work full time at a West End firm.

Lehrfreund is head of a free representation unit for death row inmates in the Caribbean at Simons Muirhead & Burton. The unit was set up by founding partner Bernard Simons and after Simons' death, Lehrfreund turned the unit into a fully fledged department with funding from Penal Reform International.

The department has two aims. It identifies miscarriages of justice and uncovers violations of human rights in Commonwealth Caribbean nations. It has succeeded in overturning several cases, uncovering gross miscarriages of justice and improving prison conditions.

Lehrfreund struggled for many years before he was able to work in human rights law and it was only through hard work and determination that he established a full-time paid position at Simons Muirhead & Burton.

“I always had a keen desire to find work in human rights,” he explains. “It was very difficult to find work even as a volunteer, but it was worth it.”

He says there are opportunities to work in human rights law but that students must often create them.

“It's a question of using your imagination and foresight and behaving in a pro-active way. You can actually make in-roads.”