Nurturing Champions of Justice: LL.M. Programs in Human Rights Law

In a world grappling with pressing social issues, an LL.M. in human rights can be a powerful catalyst for change -- through immersive education and practical experiences

Human rights law has never looked so vital. And, as nations grapple with issues of inequality, discrimination and injustice, the demand for legal professionals versed in the field continues to grow. But for those impassioned by the quest for equality and dignity, embarking on an LL.M. in human rights law can be a way to effect positive change in the world.

What’s more, human rights LL.M. programs have evolved to address emerging challenges in the human rights space. “It is now very common to find courses on human rights and the environment, or human rights and technology,” says Jess Peake, Assistant Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights UCLA School of Law in California.

“Many schools, including UCLA Law, also offer students the opportunity to get involved in human rights-related pro bono projects to allow them to engage in the practical application of human rights law while in school,” she adds.

Indeed, legal clinics or practical experiences are a key part of many Human rights LL.M. programs. For one, UCLA Law offers three human rights clinics -- including the International Human Rights Clinic which pairs students with leading human rights organizations and civil society groups to advance legal, policy and advocacy goals.

There’s also the Human Rights Litigation Clinic, while the Human Rights in Action Clinic gives students the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Honduras, central America. “These three types of experiences -- litigation, field work, and advocacy -- are very common in human rights clinics, but it is rare for a school to offer three separate human rights clinics to allow students to really deepen their skills,” says Peake.

Balancing theory and practice

Experiential learning is a key component of the LL.M. at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Switzerland, too.

In the spring semester, the LL.M. students go on a study tour to experience the practical side of international human rights law and international criminal law. “The trip is organized by the students themselves, which gives them a sense of initiative and allows them to put into practice what they have learned in class,” says Nathalie Mivelaz Tirabosco at the Geneva Academy.

“This is also a great opportunity for networking,” she adds. “In past academic years, our LL.M. students had the opportunity to travel to the Balkans (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia), as well as The Hague and Solferino.”

As well as its practical application, law school LL.M. programs provide a no less important theoretical grounding in the underpinnings of human rights law, such as international treaties and conventions, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society.

The LL.M. module International Human Rights in Law and Practice, at City Law School in London, gives candidates a background in international human rights law, but it also focuses on the application of the content.

“The aim of the module is for students to learn international human rights law, as well as how human rights is practiced – in international courts, through NGOs, and human rights campaigns,” says Marc Mimler, Director of module at City.

The module includes guest lectures and workshops from professionals working in legal practice, providing a real-world perspective to match the academic insights. LL.M. students also have the opportunity to be paid researchers assistants, working with City Law School faculty on projects related to international human rights law.

Rewarding career pathways

More still use the opportunity to undertake a legal internship during their time in London, a legal center. “A number of LL.M. students have gained experience at the International Bar Association,” says Mimler. “Others have volunteered at legal clinics in London, working on areas such as refugee and immigration law.”

Armed with both a theoretical foundation and practical experiences, what career opportunities and pathways do graduates of LL.M. programs in human rights typically pursue?

“They are generally interested in pursuing rights-based work. This can take many forms, from advocacy to policy to litigation,” Peake at UCLA says. “Many students are interested in positions with large human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, or with the United Nations.”

However, it’s not easy to secure these roles. “Entry level positions at those organizations are extremely rare, so many LL.M.s will pursue job opportunities at smaller organizations and with law firms as they develop the skills necessary to be competitive for those positions a little later in their careers.”  

Despite the difficulty, Mimler at City notes high demand for the LL.M. module International Human Rights in Law and Practice, pointing to candidates’ varied but usually very strong motivations. “There is a perception that human rights law does not pay well, but this depends highly on the type of practice and field of work,” Mimler adds.

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