How to Become a Civil Rights Lawyer - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Tanisha Makeba Bailey-Roka

Brief Historical Perspective
The civil rights lawyer has played an integral role throughout American history in furthering the path toward equality and freedom under the law. Historically, American Civil Rights Laws derived from the emancipation of African - American slaves. It began with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, which states, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." The Thirteenth Amendment vested Congress with the power to enforce its newly - created provisions through the creation of laws against involuntary servitude.

In the following years, Congress adopted the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments which respectively provided all citizens the right to equal protection and the right to vote. In the late 1950's, Congress authorized the creation of a Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice. This division was charged with the enforcement of all federal laws relative to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968.

Civil Rights Law has grown to encompass a diverse range of social issues on both the federal and state levels. Some examples of these issues include Voting Rights, Gender and Racial Equality, Housing, and Disability Law. This branch of the law has called as its champions many of the finest litigators in our country, including the Honorable Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

For an attorney interested in beginning a career in the field of Civil Rights Law there are many ways to begin. Here is a simple three step approach that may offer you some insight to beginning a career in Civil Rights Law. However, this is by no means the only path to beginning a rewarding career in this field. Feel free to use these questions to spur your imagination, and commitment to this rewarding practice.

Step 1: Why am I interested in becoming a civil rights lawyer?
Investigating your motives for participating in this area of law can be a great way to start you on the path to becoming a civil rights lawyer. Specifically, it can help you identify what are your passions and interests. By knowing what causes you are committed to and interested in, you create a powerful motivational tool to keep you moving toward your goal of becoming a Civil Rights Attorney.

Step 2: What area of civil rights law am I interested in practicing?
The area of Civil Rights Law is a diverse and far-reaching field. You can choose from a vast array of practices including, Housing Rights, Disability Law, Civil Liberties, Gay Rights, Racial and Gender Equality, Privacy issues, Criminal or Prisoner's Rights, Education, and Voting Rights. You can also investigate other issues that may not be listed here, but that may appeal to you, and tap into ideas to which you are committed.

Another consideration for the would-be civil rights attorney may be in what context would you like to work? For example, would you like to work as a prosecutor on hate - crimes issues? Would you like to work as a private or government attorney for prisoner's rights? Or would you simply prefer to volunteer your time and services to the myriad of non - profit organizations that support and further the cause of civil rights and equality? The possibilities are endless and are only limited by your imagination and the creativity you bring to shaping your career path in civil rights law.

Step 3: Where can I find out more about the area of law I have decided to pursue?
The most difficult part of this process will be to identify the area(s) that you are interested in working. Once, that is done you should explore through research how you can put your commitment and talents to service. There are many private and governmental agencies that are always in need of quality legal services. However, I would encourage you to consider volunteer positions as well as paid employment. There are many non-profit organizations dedicated to the ideals of civil rights and equal protection that could benefit from your help as a volunteer. It allows you to offer your legal insight to organizations that may be in great need of your skills and talents. As an added benefit, volunteering can be a powerful networking tool that may lead to other opportunities that could take you closer to your goal of becoming a civil rights attorney.

Conclusion:
These are just a few tips to help you begin your journey towards becoming a Civil Rights Attorney. Remember, the key to being a successful civil rights attorney is based in your passion and commitment to the issues and people you will represent. Be creative in your approach to beginning your journey, and look forward to a rewarding career that will come from your dedication to equality and fair treatment under the law. Here is a brief list of governmental and non - governmental organizations that work on civil rights issues and their contact information to help you get started. For more information visit their websites or contact them personally to learn more about a career in civil rights law.


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About the Author

Tanisha Makeba Bailey - Roka, Esq. is District Legal Counsel for the United States Virgin Islands Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs. She is the Chair of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyer's Division Individual Rights and Responsibility Committee. She is also the YLD's Liaison to the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity. Mrs. Bailey - Roka is also a member of the Legislation and Law Reform Committee for the United States Virgin Islands Bar Association.

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