So, you want to be a Human Rights Lawyer?

Future Foreign Policy

amalclooneyAs pictures from her widely photographed wedding to a certain Hollywood powerbroker were splashed across the internet, I ordered a magnum of Veuve Clicquot in honor of Amal Clooney (née Alamuddin), for so effortlessly demonstrating the innate glamour of the human rights world.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an elegant brunette practicing humanitarianism with panache: recall, if you will, Colin Firth’s character in the Bridget Jones movies. Mark Darcy was a “top human rights barrister,” and very handsome and well-dressed besides. The new Mrs. Clooney—in addition to being extremely competent, well-educated, widely respected and tri-lingual—also happens to look great stepping off a boat in Venice, with the wind artfully blowing her hair to and fro. This, I should let you know upfront, is just part of the basic requirements for being a successful human rights lawyer.

I can speak authoritatively on this topic because I, too, am a 30-something human rights lawyer living in London, and my life is an endless round of cocktail parties, movie stars and running from the paparazzi (in heels). I commute solely by helicopter (you simply have no choice, what with the traffic in Central London), and I insist that my personal assistants keep detailed spreadsheets of all incoming calls from world leaders, color-coded by crisis. Really, it’s just too difficult to keep everything organized otherwise.

I jest, of course. Amal Alamuddin Clooney’s newfound fame and über-glam personal life do not resemble mine in any way whatsoever, much to my ever-lasting dismay. It is a shame that the media’s obsession with her wardrobe outweighs their interest in her substantive case load, but the fault for that imbalance does not lie with her. Nevertheless, the swirl of publicity that her nuptials has prompted provides a perfect opportunity to talk about how one “becomes” a “human rights lawyer”—a question I am asked by young, idealistic law students with some frequency.

Despite the air of mystery and vague superiority that some of us can be accused of cultivating, there is no special test or bar exam you have to complete in order to become a “human rights lawyer.” Rather, you just become a lawyer (or a solicitor, or a barrister, or a jurist) according to the prerequisites of the jurisdiction where you want to practice…and then you choose to take on human rights cases. That’s all there is to it: you get to define yourself as a human rights lawyer. There’s no global regulatory authority acting as gatekeeper, no worldwide bar association that decides whether you get to take part in this rarefied profession. Among the abundant varieties of human rights lawyers, you’ll find sole practitioners, NGO program managers, law firm associates, governmental civil servants, and legal officers at the United Nations. Obviously, there will be personal considerations and logistical practicalities along the way, but the same could be said of pursuing any legal career.

Unsure of where to begin? Well, it would be helpful to familiarize yourself with theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is generally considered to be the foundational document for modern international human rights law. Drafted in 1948 by the member states of the United Nations in response to the horrors of the Second World War, the Declaration is an excellent catalogue of the aspirations of humanity. The UDHR is not a binding legal instrument, but it is the inspiration for several subsequent treaties and conventions that do have binding effect, as well as the basis for many national laws that seek to promote and protect basic human rights.

A quick word of caution: don’t become dazzled by the United Nations or the regionalhuman rights systems and mistakenly believe that you are only a “real” human rights lawyer if you undertake high-profile cases or practice at the international level. While serving as a treaty body expert or judge on a transnational tribunal is unquestionably prestigious, it’s not the only way to be influential. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are great examples of people who were trying to address specific injustices that were personal to them—but no one would question their broader credentials as “human rights lawyers.” What’s more, they were “human rights lawyers” before such language was widely in vogue. Don’t get caught up in the labels.

Are you concerned about children having free access to basic education? There are groups that need your help to ensure barriers aren’t imposed against ethnic minorities. Do you feel strongly about women’s rights? The domestic violence charity in your city would welcome your expertise in drafting restraining orders for abused women. Do you passionately identify with the #Occupy protests? There are NGOs which work exclusively to promote freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Are you fired up about efforts to marginalize certain groups on the basis of race or sexual orientation? Channel your anger into helping overturn these unjust laws. Are you—like Amal Clooney—multilingual? Then I guarantee there is arefugee or asylum organization in your state or province that could use your help explaining the legal system to newly arrived migrants. All of these are examples of “practicing” human rights law—helping vulnerable groups claim the legal protections they are entitled to.

A caveat: all of this assumes you aren’t in it for the money. I know – it’s a bummer. But it turns out that the people who most need your help are often the ones least able to pay for it. This is true even of high-profile defendants, including noted Amal Clooney client and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. While I profess no specific knowledge of his fee arrangements with his legal team, I do know some lawyers who work on his behalf pro-bono, because they believe the issues at stake in his case (freedom of information, the right to a fair trial) are vitally important.

I can already anticipate your objections: but I need to make a living! Of course you do. There are ball gowns to buy and yachts to be photographed on—being a human rights celebrity requires serious upkeep. Far be it from me to encourage you to a life of penury in the name of saving the world. But here’s the best part: while you are waiting for your future movie star spouse to notice your brilliance and subsidize your lifestyle, you can be a human rights lawyer in your spare time. So many human rights groups would welcome your involvement on a part-time or volunteer basiswhile you maintain your day job as a ruthless corporate raider. Do it for the karma. Do it to get your foot in the door. Do it to fulfill a deathbed promise to your great uncle. Your motivation doesn’t really matter, so long as your commitment to your client is genuine.

If you are interested in becoming a full-time human rights lawyer and lucky enough to have a trust fund to support your more expensive habits, all the better. There aredozens of worthy organizations that would love to have you on staff. But whether full-time, part-time, or just occasional service in a volunteer capacity, the all-inclusive world of human rights needs your expertise and will value your engagement.

I’ll see you in Venice.

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