How to Choose a Civil Rights Law School | Education

Choosing a good civil rights law program is critical for students who want to advocate for justice, equality and societal change. And aspiring civil rights lawyers should look for certain criteria to find the right law school to support their career goals, experts say.

“I would identify law schools that highlight a specific commitment to social justice. This work is rooted in the pursuit of justice and protecting and safeguarding civil rights,” says Matt Etter, assistant dean for the Center for Professional Development at Seattle University School of Law in Washington.

The U.S. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ban segregation and discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Civil rights attorneys typically take on cases involving some type of discrimination against an individual or community and work to protect their constitutional rights. These cases often involve freedom of speech, police misconduct, voting rights, disability rights, prisoners’ rights, educational rights, employment rights and immigration rights.

Here are some law schools with a special emphasis on civil rights law:

When researching law schools, it’s most important to determine whether a law school “has strong faculty, clinical programs for students, public interest scholarships, postgraduate grants and connections to the civil rights community,” says Sean Andrade, founder and managing partner of California-based Andrade Gonzalez LLP and a civil rights advocate.

For students interested in pursuing civil rights law, here’s how to choose a good civil rights law program to ensure your education leads to real impact.

Check the Curriculum and Clinics

Students should look for schools that have courses and legal clinics that focus on civil rights, constitutional law, human rights or public interest law, experts say.

“For someone who is interested in civil rights and constitutional law, the good news is that these courses are covered at every law school,” says Anne Levine, founder of Law School Expert, a law school admissions consulting business.

Many schools have legal clinics that allow students to work on actual cases under attorney supervision and often offer free legal services to the community. Students should search for schools with clinics related to civil rights or social justice.

“Ask about a school’s clinical course offerings,” Etter says. “Some schools may host student clinics that are specifically focused on civil rights work, or in subject matter areas that intersect with civil rights issues, such as housing law.”

In addition, since many civil rights attorneys will pursue justice in the courtroom, Etter says students should make sure a school has a robust trial advocacy program. Such programs allow students to hone litigation skills – such as practicing opening statements and cross-examinations – through simulated trials.

Examine Faculty and Staff Expertise

Researching faculty expertise is also important, since potential mentoring opportunities could benefit aspiring civil rights attorneys.

“Research a school’s faculty to identify any professors with civil rights law backgrounds or who are conducting research into civil rights issues and constitutional law matters,” Etter says. “A research position with such a faculty member would be helpful in gaining a deeper understanding into the nuance of such work and issues.”

To differentiate between schools, Levine says students should “research the faculty who teach these topics and determine whether their areas of specialization coincide with the aspects of law that most interest them, and to see whether their values and approach are aligned.”

In addition, it may be worth looking into whether a school has advisers in its career services office who primarily work with students interested in public interest or social justice-focused career paths.

“These advisers are likely to have strong relationships with organizations and practitioners working in the civil rights space,” Etter says.

Search Student Organizations

Active student organizations can provide workshops, guest speakers and abundant networking opportunities for students.

“Do they have both an ACLU chapter and a Federalist Society? Depending on your motivations for pursuing civil rights, this would be important to consider,” Levine says.

For example, the Loyola Marymount University law school has both the American Civil Liberties Union and Federalist Society among more than 50 student groups.

Etter says strong student organizations, like various mock trial teams, can also be important. For example, Emory University School of Law in Georgia has a Mock Trial Society that helps students “foster and develop practical litigation skills through participation in workshops and competitions,” according to the school website.

Look for Strong Alumni in Civil Rights Law

Students should also look at the strength of a school’s alumni, experts say. This can include more historical alumni like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who graduated from Howard’s law school and in 1954 fought to desegregate public schools in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education.

“Inquire about a law school’s alumni who are working in areas of law covering civil rights matters and issues,” Etter says.

Apart from offering insight into the field, alumni can provide students with mentorship and strong networking opportunities.

“Mentorship is key in developing a path to one’s ultimate career goal, and having a robust alumni population to meet with and gain support from will help a student create a strategy to gain the requisite knowledge and experience necessary in civil rights work,” Etter says.

Evaluate Internship and Externship Opportunities

Law school alumni can also provide experiential opportunities, like internships and externships in the field, Etter says. Students should look for schools that have connections to externship and internship opportunities with organizations focusing on civil rights or social justice.

“A school with a robust externship program will help students gain practical and hands-on experience at organizations that are doing civil rights work,” Etter says.

Internships and externships can build your resume, which is important for employment opportunities in this competitive field, say experts. Plus they can help students narrow their interests and focus on the specific areas within civil rights law that they are most passionate about pursuing.

Andrade says students interested in doing civil rights work should know that “there is such a need that opportunities are everywhere.” New groups and funding arise all the time, he adds.

“Although the field is very competitive … it can be very rewarding once you get in.”