What Is Civil Rights Law?

Civil rights law is a type of law that focuses on protecting and fighting for people’s constitutional rights. Civil rights lawyers work to ensure that everyone is treated equally under law, regardless of their age, race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected characteristics. If you’re passionate about the law and working to protect the rights of your community, civil rights might be the right career path for you. 

Civil Rights Law Overview

Civil rights law is a field that focuses on protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals, specifically in their interactions with government entities, organizations, and society. 

This type of law originated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Since its passing, the act has impacted everything from employment rights to voting rights to LGBTQ rights. Civil rights law also protects people’s personal rights, like free speech, religion, and privacy.

Besides the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are also other federal civil rights laws that protect the rights of individuals. For example:

  • Age Discrimination Act: prohibits employment discrimination of people 40 and older
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: protects people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, and public accommodations
  • Equal Pay Act: prevents wage discrimination based on sex
  • Fair Housing Act: prohibits discrimination by people who provide housing (e.g., landlords) to make housing unavailable based on various personal characteristics
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act: protects job applicants and employees who are pregnant
  • Voting Rights Act: prohibits racial discrimination in voting practices

Some states have their own civil rights laws that protect individuals within their specific state.

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What Is a Civil Rights Lawyer?

Civil rights lawyers work to uphold civil rights law. When someone has been discriminated against, or their rights have been violated, they can file a lawsuit against the person (or corporation) responsible. A civil rights lawyer will represent and defend them in court.

Yet “being a civil rights lawyer is not always about trials,” Christa Ramey, civil rights and trial attorney at Ramey Law, P.C, says. 

Everyday tasks of civil rights lawyers include:

  • Consulting with clients to understand their case
  • Guiding the client through the case by educating them about the legal process and potential outcomes
  • Researching to analyze relevant laws, precedents, and regulations
  • Preparing legal documents like complaints, motions, and briefs to use in court
  • Building a strong case for their client, including collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses
  • Negotiating with other parties to reach a settlement

“Some of your best work is either in a deposition or in a motion, or in opposition to a motion,” Ramey says. “Most days, I am in front of a computer and not in court.”

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Unlike in other types of law, civil rights lawyers don’t typically work for law firms; instead, most work for either public service or for the government.

Types of Civil Rights Law Cases

Civil rights law covers many different types of discrimination and protects the various rights Americans have by law. Because of this, civil rights lawyers work on a wide range of cases. For example, some specialize in sexual harassment, while others focus on employment law. 

Common types of civil rights cases include:

How to Get Into Civil Rights Law

To become a civil rights lawyer, you’ll need the right education — including a graduate degree — and to pass the bar exam in the state you’d like to practice civil rights law in.

Education and Certification

Civil rights law, like all types of U.S. law, requires considerable education, typically seven years after high school. 

1. Get an Undergraduate Degree

First, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. Many pre-law students major in political science, but if you’re interested in civil rights law, taking courses or majoring in criminal justice, sociology, American studies, English, history, and even philosophy can be beneficial. There’s no right or wrong major to make your way into the field.

2. Apply to Law School

After your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to apply to and graduate from law school, typically with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. This is the most common law degree in the U.S.; a few schools offer specific or more niche graduate law degrees.

Most law schools require the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The LSAT tests skills you’ll need for law school, like writing, reading comprehension, and analytical and logical thinking. 

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3. Take Civil Rights Law Courses in Law School

Once in law school, you can learn about general law concepts and civil rights law, including courses on employment discrimination law, the law and religion, gender discrimination law, immigration law, and disability law.

4. Pass the Bar Exam

Finally, you’ll need to take and pass the bar exam. You must take the bar exam in the state you’d like to practice in, as you’ll be tested on national and state laws. The exam covers six topics: contracts and sales, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, real property, evidence, and torts.

Once you’ve gotten both of your degrees and passed the bar exam, you’re qualified to work in law.

Skills

All lawyers need research, analytical, and writing skills to succeed. These are crucial skills for researching the law and clients and drafting documents. You’ll develop these skills throughout law school and the first few years of working as a lawyer.

Empathy and active listening skills are specifically vital to civil rights law. Civil rights lawyers often deal with emotionally challenging situations and work with clients who have gone through traumatic and upsetting experiences. Successful civil rights lawyers actively listen to their clients to truly understand what they’ve been through and extend empathy to help fight against injustice and discrimination.

“You must walk the line between remaining objective and yet passionately and zealously pursuing justice,” Angela Giampolo, LGBTQ legal expert and founding/managing attorney at Giampolo Law Group, says. “This enables you to remain emotionally unattached to the subject or subject matter and in so doing, you preserve your mental health.”

Pros and Cons of Working in Civil Rights Law

For Ramey, the pros of working in this field are “endless.” 

“I feel like I am truly helping people, and not just my client,” she says. “Holding businesses and the government entities accountable for all the harm they cause can and does create change.”

However, that change doesn’t always come quickly.

“Unfortunately, there are many facets of the law that need change and change is slow,” Patrick Boyd, founding partner of The Boyd Law Group, PLLC, says. “Our democracy is a blessing, but often a slow-moving blessing as legislative initiatives take time. This does not mean the work in civil rights is not valuable — it is essential! It does mean that while you can enjoy great victories you need to appreciate they are often achieved after marathons of effort.”

Civil rights law is also ever-changing because it’s heavily “impacted by the shift in political tail winds,” Giampolo says. “You have to be ready and willing to have one legal landscape today and then four years from now, have all the tables turn on you — either for better or worse depending on where you sit.”

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Overall, civil rights law can be an impactful and even lucrative career path (the average salary for civil rights lawyers is $109,000, according to Glassdoor). Yet the work isn’t easy, practically and emotionally, especially when you don’t win your case.

“The loss can be devastating,” Ramey says. “In short, it is an emotional roller coaster and is very rewarding in the end.”

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Zoe Kaplan is a Senior Writer at Forage. Prior to joining Forage, she wrote and edited career and workplace content for Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women.

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