How to Find a Strong Human Rights Law Program

Clinical opportunities, quality professors and active student organizations are important criteria when choosing a law school with a solid human rights program, experts say, and students should carefully research programs to find their best fit.

The Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law “played a major role in my decision of where to attend law school,” says Gita Howard, a human rights attorney who graduated from the Florida law school in 2021.

Howard’s initial interest in pursuing international human rights law was formed during the many summers she spent in India growing up. She says she developed a nuanced understanding of global issues and a drive to create a positive global impact.

“International human rights law seemed like a tangible and meaningful way to pursue my passion for social change.”

Finding a strong human rights law program is important to prepare students for a successful career as a human rights lawyer, experts say. Here are the top features they say students should be looking for in a program.

[Read: How to Figure Out Which Area of Law Fits Your Career Goals]

A Broad Selection of Human Rights Law Courses

An introductory course on human rights law is a start, but a good human rights law program should have a variety of related course offerings, experts say.

Prospective students should research whether the program offers courses “on the full spectrum of international human rights law,” says Diane A. Desierto, professor of law and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana, where she also is faculty director of the LL.M. in International Human Rights Law and founding director of the Global Human Rights Clinic.

Such courses should include civil, political, economic, social, cultural, developmental, environmental and labor topics, “as well as the frontier courses on the expanding applications of international human rights law across public law and private law,” she says.

Desierto says students should also find out whether a program offers legal and interdisciplinary methods, as well as theoretical and experiential opportunities to gain expertise in international human rights law.

Experienced Human Rights Law Faculty

Other features to look for in a program are faculty actively working on human rights law projects, faculty publishing human rights law papers and scholar-practitioners.

[Read: Tips for Law School Applicants on Choosing a Legal Career Path.]

Notre Dame’s program, for example, enables students “to customize their learning, training, and mentoring according to specific professional objectives across different forms of human rights law practice,” Desierto says. The small class sizes mean students have access to one-on-one mentoring and customized learning from different experts throughout the university and its global campuses abroad.

Students already in law school who want to specialize in human rights “should be researching which faculty are specializing in human rights in their scholarship and courses,” says Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting, which helps people apply to selective U.S. colleges and law schools.

An Impressive Job Attainment Record

Desierto says it’s important to look into whether a program invests in the well-being and success of their students during and after graduation.

“Our program does this extensively during the student’s matriculation into the program, as well as in supporting postgraduate clerkships and internships in international, regional and national courts and tribunals and organizations,” Desierto says. The program measures success by how its students “flourish and succeed in their work of striving for human rights outcomes in their respective countries and communities.”

It’s also important to find out whether alumni are working with major human rights institutions. Ivey recommends students check law schools’ social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, “to see what alums work in the field to get a sense of the alumni network for that specialization.”

A Human Rights Clinic or Law Journal

Participating in a human rights law clinic or contributing to human rights law journals is important on the resumes of aspiring human rights lawyers, as positions in the field are competitive, experts say.

“Human rights clinics provide a really critical opportunity for students to develop their knowledge of human rights law, as well as practice the necessary skills to succeed in the field under the guidance of experts,” Howard says.

For example, the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami provides students with experiential learning opportunities in U.S. and international human rights litigation and advocacy, allowing students to work with the United Nations and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

“Its inspiring professors and meaningful projects gave me the skills, support and network necessary to pursue a career in human rights law,” Howard says.

[How to Choose a Law School Specialization]

Apart from looking at whether a law school offers clinics or journals dedicated to human rights law, Ivey recommends looking at whether such a journal “hosts some kind of annual symposium on the topic.”

Other activities, such as participation in relevant student groups, are important, experts say. For example, Howard served as president and co-founder of the Human Rights Society, an advocacy organization at her school.

Scholarships and Fellowships

Law school can be expensive and human rights law may not pay as well as other law specialties, so scholarship opportunities are an important consideration, experts say.

Experts say a law school’s investment in human rights law can be seen in scholarships offered to students in the discipline. Students can check a school’s website for scholarship information. Notre Dame’s program typically provides full scholarships for 15 to 20 students, Desierto says.

There are also fellowships available during and after law school. Twice, Howard was a HOPE Fellow, receiving funding to pursue public interest summer jobs while in law school. She spent her first summer interning at the Tibetan Legal Association in Dharamsala, India, and her second summer as an intern for the U.N.’s Office of Legal Affairs in the general legal division.

“After law school, a common way to break into the human rights field is through a fellowship with a human rights organization,” Howard says.

Howard received a Human Rights Program Fellowship from her law school with a placement at Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international human rights organization. After her fellowship, she was brought on as an associate attorney. She notes that fellowship opportunities often require funding from a student’s law school, as well.

“It can be helpful for students to research whether fellowship funding is currently or potentially available at a prospective law school,” Howard says.

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