If I were a lawyer, I would do...what, exactly?
January 21, 2008 9:38 PM   Subscribe

What exactly would one do as a lawyer with a background in international law (specifically human rights, refugees issues, things of that nature)?

OK, here's the deal:

I'm in my early 20's and have a BA in polisci. I'm working for the gubmint, and I feel vaguely bored and dissatisfied and want to make a difference in a more concrete way. I've been on and off about the idea of law school since mid-college, but I'm not sure that I actually want to be a lawyer, and I know better than to go to law school just to fill that "holy shit, what do I do with my life???" void. As some of you may recall, I just posted a question a few weeks ago about my ill-fated interview with a political fundraising firm, so obviously I have no fucking clue what I'm doing with my life, but I keep getting drawn back to wanting to do something vaguely related to the issues in my above question. I did take a couple relevant classes in college and did some relevant volunteer work awhile back.

Anyway, I guess I'm actually asking 2 questions here.
1) My original question: If, theoretically, I had a law degree and wanted to use it for this purpose, what sort things, would I be able to do with it? How, basically, would I make that sort of background real-world applicable?
2) And also, is law actually the best thing to do here, it would it make more sense to get a masters in something? And if so, in what, exactly (international relations, public policy, and international development are all things I've considered at least briefly)?
Sorry for severely open-ended nature of question and for stereotypical "blahblah quarterlife crisis" blathering.

P.S. Yes, I know, most people go to law school thinking they want to focus on one thing, and end up focusing on something else. I suppose this could happen to me too, but let's just ignore that possibility for the moment and assume that international human rights is the only thing I could possibly be interested in.
posted by naoko to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
well the one lawyer I know in this line of work is 10 years out of university, and has spent the last 6-ish years or so working in various places around the Asia Pacific region (India, Solomon Islands, PNG and Fiji are the ones that spring to mind) for a handful of NGO and government bodies doing human rights, public access and similar stuff... she seems to enjoy it (at least she keeps taking new contracts when the old ones expire, and hasn't gone back to being a solicitor)... I'll see if she's got any actual useful detail to add...

(she's Australian, and has been working for Australian and Commonwealth bodies, so ymmv on the sort of work though...)
posted by russm at 3:21 AM on January 22, 2008

Best answer: I'm in law school, taking an International Human Rights Course. I'll work under the assumption that you'll walk out of law school still wanting to do civil rights/human rights work.

HR lawyers can do the whole save-the-world thing in a few different ways. Some lobby foreign (or domestic) governments through NGO's. Others bring cases through the various international human rights courts. Others advocate for individuals in domestic government cases. Others work on fact-finding through NGO's. In the U.S., domestic civil rights cases are either handled by non-profit legal aid clinics, or through lawyers who generally get paid but donate x number of their hours to pro-bono work. Across the board, it's not the sort of work that pays well, if that matters at all.

I have no idea if law is the best way to go here; that answer depends on a host of different variables, preferences, etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:52 AM on January 22, 2008

Best answer: I think if you want to help refugees, it's probably better to get a degree in a technical field (sanitation, engineering, ect...) than law. Plenty of international refugee policy people don't have JDs, for the simple reason that there's just not really any "law" involved. (The same goes for most international human rights issues, actually.) The law that there is -- treaties and such -- can be adequately understood by nonlawyers. In the US, though, human rights is increasingly professionalized, and most people do have JDs at this point, I think.

The good thing about getting a JD is that human rights is a very, very hard field to break into. You either have to luck out and get a fellowship, or you have to have years of relevant pre-law experience. So if you get a JD, you'll have plenty of other people-helping options besides human rights.

I can't find them right now, but there were some good askme threads for aspiring human rights/civil rights lawyers that will explain the challenges.
posted by footnote at 6:34 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have a good friend who came into international law out of her public policy law interests. She works for NGOs, mostly. It's what she's always wanted to do, though now she's working with a public policy centre tied to a university in the US.

I could give you a list of successful skills you'd need for this (language skills are key), but the main things I'd recommend would be flexibility and adaptability to other cultures and points of view. And a clear idea of what you want to do. Womens rights in the developing world are what keeps my friend fired up. She went to work for a large, extremely well known international NGO and quit after 18 months because it was just too bureaucratic. It also held womens rights to be tangential to other rights it might be working on in any given area of the world at any time. She's doing hard core womens rights policy now and is happy as a lark.

It can also be disheartening. She found herself in the position of helping write law and attending meetings with consititutional committees that made it absolutely clear they had no intent of really changing things but were there for appearances for the sake of aid money. Could you survive something like that, day in and day out?

She also has a masters in international relations, so I guess she could go corporate in a pinch... but never would need to, at this rate.

If you are in the US, the ABA has some terrific fellowships for this field.

Good luck!
posted by Grrlscout at 7:39 AM on January 22, 2008

Get ready to suck the will to live out of completely ordinary, well-adjusted citizens on a daily basis. Ask Tex about this one, he seems good at it.
posted by baphomet at 7:53 AM on January 22, 2008

You may want to check out the International Criminal Court and/or International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia [1, 2].

These are high-profile cases and you will work with some of the best criminal attorneys in the world.
posted by GarageWine at 9:33 AM on January 22, 2008

Your best bet for using a law degree to make a difference in the area of international human rights is to work for the highest-paying corporate law firm you can find, donating your salary, minus living expenses, to relevant charities. You'll only cause harm (assuming for the sake of argument that corporate law firms are Satan) to the extent that you're better than the next-best person who would have been hired, just as, working for some ineffectual, bureaucratic-off-its-ass NGO, you'll only make a difference to the extent that you're better than the next-best person. Would you rather contribute that difference, or would you rather contribute the difference that hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars can make? I know what I'd choose.
posted by electric water kettle at 10:24 AM on January 22, 2008

Best answer: Of the 30 or so law students I studied with who focussed (as in specialist masters degree) on this area exactly zero of them managed to get paying, non-academic, work in this field. They were from all over the world, all different backgrounds, all very competent, etc. Sorry about the bad news.
posted by jannw at 3:15 PM on January 22, 2008

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