Working as a human rights barrister?

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Crazy Jamie
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(Original post by IntisarChowdhury)
Would working as a human rights barrister allow me to do things like that, or would I be better off working for an NGO or something similar? I guess I’m particularly drawn to the idea of working as a barrister as I love the idea of public speaking and advocacy, especially when it’s for a good cause, and I also like scrutinising evidence.
Day to day, no, you would not be doing things like that as a human rights barrister. Fundamentally as a barrister you are instructed on cases involving legal disputes and legal issues, and carry out what work is required of you, be that representing a party at trial, advising on the case, drafting legal documents, and so on. Your day to day role is doing that work on specific cases, so whilst you may be involved in a case involving human trafficking (for example), you wouldn't be doing overarching work day to day on minimising human trafficking more broadly, advocating for victims of sexual assault and so on. That more overarching work is very much not what a barrister generally does, at least not as part of the job of being a barrister.
Also, is working as a human rights barrister a sustainable career? From what I hear, the majority of people that want to specialise in that field end up switching due to a lack of pay and job prospects, which breaks my heart as it is such a noble profession.
The Chambers that specialise in civil liberties and human rights are some of the more notable and prestigious sets in the country. If you were to obtain pupillage at one of those sets there's no reason why you should then be moving away from the profession due to pay and prospects.

I suspect the confusion is arising out of what you mean by 'human rights'. It is only a very small minority of barristers that work in the area, as indeed it's arguably not a separate area of law in and of itself. A great many different types of cases can involve human rights issues. Students that have an interest in human rights work also have an interest on criminal work, as they are drawn more towards the administration of justice than anything else. And pay and prospects and criminal work is a problem, with plenty of pupils and juniors in London in particular finding that the level of pay is simply not sufficient to sustain them. But being a pupil at a set that specialises in criminal law and being a pupil at a set that specialises in human rights law are two very different things. As I say, you wouldn't those issues if you found yourself in the latter situation.

One final point is a broader one, which is that if you decide to look closer at the role of a barrister and whether the profession ultimately interests you, you need to approach it from a wider perspective. As I've written quite a few times recently and countless times of the years, it is very common for students to want to go into human rights law, but relatively few understand what that means. Even fewer seem to have actually given proper thought what their aims are and how different areas of law might help them to achieve that. More often than not when a student says they want to go into human rights law what really means is that they are ideologically driven and have given no thought to what a role in the legal profession would entail, nor realistically what it is that they would want from a legal role. Which doesn't apply to you because you're actually asking the questions at any early stage, which is good.

The point is twofold. The first is that if you want to essentially protect the vulnerable and approach the issue of justice from that side, being a barrister might not be for you at all, because you largely don't get to choose your clients. Criminal barristers, for example, generally prosecute and defend, but even if you only defend those accused of crimes, you will often be representing clients that you strongly suspect are guilty. Equally, whilst you could represent an individual whose human rights have been violated, you may also be instructed by the entity that has been accused of violating someone's rights and will be tasked with defending them. Really, if you're ideologically driven as a barrister it has to be from the perspective of playing your part in the system generally and not from representing a particular type of client, because you have little control over that. Your job satisfaction comes from using your expertise and skills to represent a client to the best of your ability, not from who that client is, though of course on occasion you will get the sort of result that you strive for from a justice perspective.

The second is that if you do still have the aim of representing vulnerable clients or getting justice for people, that can be done in many different areas of law other than crime and human rights. To give some limited examples, housing cases often involve vulnerable people, education cases often under privileged children or those with special educational needs, and employment cases often involve employees who have been exploited, treated poorly, or discriminated against. So there are plenty of different areas of law that may satisfy you depending on what your personal aims are, and if you do look into the barrister side of things further, it would be a good idea to look at more areas of law than just human rights, which is extremely niche in the grand scheme of things.

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