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Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

PSJD Career Guide

This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.

This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at the Harvard Law School.

What are Civil Rights and Civil Liberties?

Though civil rights and civil liberties represent two different areas of focus, there is no distinct line between the two. The term civil rights gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s and has become associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the March on Washington. The momentum of the struggle against Jim Crow laws and segregation across the nation carried over into other movements. One of the striking characteristics of today’s civil rights movement is its breadth and diversity, encompassing gay and lesbian groups, disability advocacy, and immigrants’ rights organizations. All share a commitment to creating a just society through legal means.

Civil liberties typically fall under the auspices of the First Amendment’s right to free expression, assembly, and religion. Civil liberties groups also actively defend the Fourth Amendment’s protections against search and seizure. With the “War on Terror,” these rights have become particularly important to protect as the Patriot Act and various government programs undercut basic privacy rights.

We have listed the main content areas below, though many of the areas overlap.

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice brings together civil rights groups with public defenders’ offices and legal services organizations. Cases include the death penalty, racial profiling, Miranda rights, prisoners’ rights, and police brutality. The majority of incarcerated persons are black males, and racial profiling has captured the media’s attention, with dozens of incidents reported in mainstream newspapers. At the same time, however, the Supreme Court has increased the police’s discretion in stopping drivers.

Perhaps the most significant trend in these arenas is the lack of competent counsel for indigent clients accused of crimes, together with the popularity among politicians of measures to crack down on potential terrorists.


One in every five Americans has a disability of some kind, yet only 32 percent of working age people with disabilities have jobs, as compared to 81 percent of the non-disabled population. Legal activists are trying to close this gap through litigation. Disability law is largely regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, education, and access to public services. In the government, agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Disability Section in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice are called to enforce the ADA.

In many ways, however, courts have stymied disability law’s potential. A 2000 survey of the American Bar Association revealed that employers prevailed in 95 percent of cases brought under the employment Title I of the ADA.


Almost half a century since Brown v. Board of Education, schools still suffer from racial segregation as the Supreme Court has passed down several decisions in the past decade limiting desegregation. In the decade from 1988 to 1998, the percent of black students in majority white schools decreased steadily from 43.5% to 32.7%. At the same time, pressure has grown to impose stricter testing standards and discipline in schools. These measures disproportionately affect minority students who haven’t had the same quality of instruction as other students.

One of the most controversial issues in education is affirmative action. The gap between whites and African Americans with college degrees grew from 10.5% in l971 to 16.6% in 1998. In Gratz v. Bollinger, the undergraduate affirmative action policy of the University was found unconstitutional, while Grutter v. Bollinger upheld the law school’s affirmative action policy. In the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court ruled that public school systems cannot take explicit account of race in seeking to achieve or maintain integration.


Employment law is one of the most widely litigated fields of jurisprudence. Ranging from discrimination in the workplace to unemployment compensation and safety on the job, employment litigation has been boosted by a series of statutes in recent years. The most important part of employment law is arguably Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This statute prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 are further benchmarks in the regulation of job settings.

First Amendment

First Amendment jurisprudence was developed in the 1920s, the decade in which the ACLU was founded, as thousands were deported for their political views. Freedom of speech was restricted again during the McCarthy era as lives and careers were ruined by blacklisting. Today, freedom of speech advocacy goes far beyond the right to protest and speak one’s mind. Controversy has arisen as civil liberties groups staunchly defend pornography and hate speech. And the presence of the Internet has posed new questions about how to differentiate between the private and public sectors and whether hate and sex sites are protected by the First Amendment.


The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. A landlord could be sued in a housing case for treating a tenant differently based on his or her race or gender. The Department of Justice, for example, has filed suits against landlords alleging that they or their employees sexually harassed female tenants by demanding sexual favors in exchange for rent.

In recent years, many civil rights organizations have been concerned about the rise in predatory lending practices by financial institutions, especially as revealed in the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry. Most often low-income communities of color and the elderly fall prey to these types of practices.

Immigrants’ Rights

Roughly 1 million people immigrate legally to the United States each year, with illegal immigration estimates as high as 1.5 million per year. More than 28 million immigrants now live in the United States. They often live at the margins of society, disadvantaged by their language, economic status, and social connections. There are many organizations and law firms that represent immigrants, ranging from region-specific groups like the National Council of La Raza to the National Immigration Law Center. In addition, many organizations concerned with civil rights will take on immigration cases. These include the ACLU, the Asian Pacific American Legal Defense Fund, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.


The Supreme Court has explicitly recognized that the Internet has the same level of First Amendment protection as any other form of mass communication. However, online privacy has extensive legal implications, and the Supreme Court has yet to make many rulings regarding Internet privacy and surveillance. Much controversy surrounds the privacy of communications records, particularly the observation of people’s web-browsing. Electronic files and online databases have also raised Fourth Amendment concerns.

A student interested in pursuing a career in Internet or technology civil rights law does not have to hold a degree in computer science or a related discipline. However, an interest in and knowledge of computer technology is extremely helpful on the job and is important to demonstrate during the hiring process.

LGBTQ Rights

LGBTQ rights have claimed nationwide attention in the past years through several legal battles, most notably Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Other prominent causes have been AIDS-based discrimination, housing discrimination, and adoption.

The largest LGBTQ litigation organization is the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, with up to 50 impact litigation cases on its docket at any time and offices across the country. Other organizations include the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Religious Liberties

Guaranteed by the First Amendment, freedom of religion is a frequent topic of discussion in the fields of civil liberties and civil rights. Generally defined, religious liberty is the right of the individual to follow and express his or her own faith or lack thereof. Today, working with religious issues means dealing with controversy, sensitivity, and sometimes hostility. Hot topics in religious liberties today include governmental funding of religious activities and entities, teaching religion in public schools, the relationship between religion and science, the placement of religious expressions and symbols on governmental property, land use (i.e. whether religious institutions are disfavored in zoning laws), and the religious rights of incarcerated persons.

Voting Rights

In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most effective civil rights acts ever passed. The VRA immediately eliminated the worst Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests and other devices that kept black citizens out of the voting booth. In subsequent years, court decisions and legislation in Congress slowly undid the prejudice against minorities in voting. In Mississippi, for example, black registration rose from 6.7 percent in 1964 to 70.8 percent in 1986. Overall, the number of black elected officials nationwide has increased from 300 in 1964 to almost 9,000 in 1998.

In 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court overturned important provisions of the VRA that were used to combat racial discrimination in voting, stating that the formula used in 1965 was no longer applicable and a new formula was needed. Civil rights attorneys and legislators have been attempting to re-strengthen the VRA ever since.

In recent years, erroneous allegations of voter fraud have caused legislators in some states to pass restrictions on 3rd party voter registration groups, which provide vital registration services to people traditionally disenfranchised, especially poor and rural voters.

Women’s Rights

Women’s rights include a wide variety of legal issues, including reproductive freedom, employment discrimination, family law, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Several large flagship organizations press for legal action in these substantive areas, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), which also has a legal defense fund called Legal Momentum, the ACLU, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

Where can I work on civil rights and civil liberties?

When working to protect civil rights and civil liberties, you may practice in a variety of settings across the country. This section describes and provides general background information on three distinct practice settings.

Nonprofit Organizations

A nonprofit can range in size from the ACLU, with over 500,000 members, to an office with two or three attorneys. All share a commitment to the public interest, but operate differently in order to improve civil rights and civil liberties.

For nonprofits, the focus is neither on the bottom line nor on enforcing laws or addressing only local problems, but on reforming society as a whole. Nonprofit organizations are often involved in community organizing and, unlike the government or private firms, can solicit cases. Community-centered civil rights advocacy, practiced by groups like Advancement Project, is among the new avenues civil rights advocates are exploring in their fight to break down structural barriers and bring about social change without use of the court room, leaving litigation as a last resort.


Created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is the largest federal government organization devoted to civil rights. In addition, civil rights bureaus can be found throughout federal and state government offices, addressing civil rights issues in the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education. They monitor compliance in areas such as school desegregation, discrimination in employment policies, and voting rights.

Law Firms

In recent years, the civil rights community has branched out to include for-profit private firms. Many of these firms got their impetus from the employment discrimination laws of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. But the issues covered can range from public accommodation to fair housing, police brutality, employment discrimination, and even environmental justice cases that affect poor communities. Many attorneys in law firms take civil rights cases pro bono, regardless of their regular practice area. Although these firms do have profit motives that can constrain the kind of cases they take, they are also free of the funding constraints and the political agendas of nonprofits and government agencies.

While attorneys in private public-interest firms will not make as much as some practicing in the corporate world, working in the private sector provides another option for those interested in working with civil rights and civil liberties.

Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?

Employers want attorneys who will be team players who can do their work with a smile, from the substantive exciting writing and preparation for depositions to the more mundane, almost paralegal-like responsibilities. Students interested in civil rights and civil liberties work should be able to relate to the community and the clients that they work with. Even the top writer on law review may not be effective in the field; experience is very important. Those who listen and learn from their clients while avoiding arrogance will do the best. Having empathy for people whose rights have been violated and a dedication to defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is also extremely important.

In order to show interest, individuals in the field suggest participating in a variety of related activities, such as writing, organizing groups or projects, and completing legal work surrounding your area of interest. Employers look at applicants as a full package, sometimes even looking as far back as high school activities.

What can I be doing in law school to help my career in civil rights and civil liberties?

You should gear your studies and activities towards the type of civil rights work you want to do: journal work can be invaluable for litigation, whereas research for a professor might give you the experience needed for a job in public policy. Keep in mind that civil rights and civil liberties organizations want to see that you have field experience, which is often valued above experience with a group like a law review (with the caveat that field work may be more helpful for legal services and similar client-based positions while research may be better for impact litigation shops).

Courses in history, women’s studies, and education often address civil rights as well, though a law school class in the substantive area in which you want to practice may be the most beneficial. Clinical work is an essential part of getting a career in civil rights and civil liberties, and is a highly desirable addition to your academic experience.

Your summers during law school are the perfect time to decide if civil rights and/or civil liberties work is right for you, or which particular issue area most interests you. Spend your time making contacts, and be sure to take advantage of opportunities to learn about other peoples’ projects and speak to attorneys who have been working with civil rights and liberties or have transitioned from another field of law. Building mentoring relationships is also an important way to get the most out of your summer—work closely with one or two lawyers and seek advice from them. The civil rights and civil liberties world is a fairly tight-knit community and making friends can make you more comfortable with the work and lead to positions with various organizations.

Generally, it is difficult to enter the field straight from law school unless a student obtains a fellowship or has completed a clerkship. If a student does not have a fellowship or clerkship, he or she can look to large and small firms for work. At a large firm, students should do a significant amount of pro bono work, preferably at a firm where pro bono hours are billable.


The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:

  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has become the nation’s largest civil liberties organization, and is active in a wide variety of cases involving both civil rights and civil liberties:
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center litigates constitutional and civil rights issues on behalf of victims of injustice, as well as pursues policy reform.
  • The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law works to secure equal justice by confronting the inequities facing racial and ethnic minorities.
  • The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund is the premier legal organization fighting for racial justice.
  • The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is the largest federal agency devoted to civil rights.
  • The Advancement Project pursues social justice and systemic change through a variety of methods including grassroots organizing.

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