Civil Rights Attorney Career Profile

Civil rights attorneys are lawyers who represent people in cases where their civil rights are the basis for legal processes. Civil rights laws are based on the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the original form of anti-discrimination legislation in the US, designed to eliminate types of racial discrimination. 

Civil rights law is often complex. Civil law includes some of the most famous, and toughest, cases in the history of the United States. Civil rights lawyers are typically very dedicated, highly committed legal professionals. 

The Work Environment

The legal process in the civil rights area can be extremely complex. The civil rights attorney may have to start from scratch establishing a case for the client. Breaches of civil rights may involve very volatile local community situations, and some risk. 

The civil rights attorney acts as an upholder of civil rights in many cases. Representing people's rights is a somewhat different form of law, unlike normal adversarial law in many ways. Although the civil rights case may also relate to specific legal issues covered by criminal or other laws, the civil rights attorney primarily has to represent the client's rights, in relation to their legal situation. 

The distinction here is that the other legal matters may or may not directly affect the civil rights issues. A person may be charged with theft, and the civil rights issues are related not to the theft, but to the fact that the person has been denied civil rights at some stage in the legal process. For example, a person denied access to legal representation could claim that their civil rights had been violated. 

Common civil rights cases include:

  • Cases of discrimination: May include racial, gender, age,  disability or religious discrimination, including employment rights issues.
  • Constitutional rights cases: May include voting rights, issues related to legal rights granted under civil rights legislation and the Constitution and related matters.
  • Specific breaches of civil rights laws by law enforcement and legal process: This is usually related to Constitutional matters and legal processes which are alleged to be in violation of civil rights. This is a large, specialized area of civil rights law.  

The Career Environment

Civil rights attorneys tend to be specialists and career progression is based on personal commitment. This work may often involve very senior levels of legal practice. Civil rights cases may require representation in the Supreme Court, which is the highest level of legal process in the United States. Civil rights attorneys are highly respected in the legal profession for the important nature of their work, defending the rights of citizens.