Why an LL.M. in Human Rights Law is a Passport to Rewarding and Boundless Careers

There is a misconception that a post-LL.M. career in human rights is “mushy”, but it’s intellectually rigorous, from defending Guantanamo Bay detainees, to helping Roma children

An LL.M. in Human Rights Law is a passport to rewarding and varied careers in which the only limit to opportunity is your imagination, says Marko Milanovic, professor of public international law at the UK’s University of Nottingham School of Law.

He says: “[Graduates] can work for human rights NGOs. In government, or for international organizations and human rights courts. For law firms specializing in human rights litigation. They can even work in business, helping companies to act in a responsible way.” 

The caseload could include policing, privacy, immigration, housing, employment, commercial disputes or social justice. You could, for example, be ensuring a transgender person’s privacy rights are protected, or determining whether it’s legal for police to share conviction data with financial institutions. 

Plenty of people become barristers or solicitors or work with Big Law firms like Irwin Mitchell or Allen & Overy, which is hiring human rights lawyers in New York to defend the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees, and in Budapest to act for segregated Roma children. 

[See the Top 10 LL.M. Programs for Human Rights Law]

But there are many opportunities in the public, or governmental sector too with organizations such as the United Nations, British Red Cross or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. 

These public sector organizations, or NGOs may not pay that well, but that’s far from the point, says Milanovic. “The main advantage of working in the public sector is that one’s work is capable of directly making a difference, helping other people achieve a measure of a life lived with some dignity and justice.” 

He adds: “The basic question here, is what people expect from a job. I can only say for myself that I am much happier as a university professor than I would be as a practicing lawyer.” 

Post-LL.M in Human Rights Law career paths: academia and beyond

Indeed, having an LL.M. in Human Rights Law doesn’t mean you have to be a human rights lawyer. Academia is a common career path, trodden via a PhD, which is all about researching and writing a genuinely original contribution to human knowledge. 

“A PhD is today indispensable only for an academic job” but can be useful for other jobs, such as in international organizations where jobs are highly competitive, says Milanovic. 

But it has an opportunity cost, and is not something that should be pursued as a default option after the LL.M., he warns students. “Think about it carefully, and do it only if you have a good topic, feel passionately about it and are prepared to spend years thinking and writing about it.” 

Outside of academia, there are plenty of roles in which an understanding of law is helpful, even essential. Human rights activism is a good example. There are a myriad of recent high-profile cases involving activists, for instance the commutation of death sentences in Benin after a sustained Amnesty International campaign. 

“Sometimes the law just gets in the way,” says Milanovic. “Sometimes a point can be made more effectively and persuasively in political or moral language than in legal language. But you need to know the law, what it can and what it cannot do, to be a good a human rights activist.” 

There is a misconception that the work is “mushy”, but human rights law is intellectually rigorous. The work may include, for instance, conducting judicial review proceedings against governments, or conducting applications against journalists for disclosure of sources of information in their articles. 

In that sense, it’s a powerful agent for and champion of social change. 

A global approach is inherent in a post-LL.M. career in human rights

Another huge attraction is the opportunity to travel around the world. “You need to have a global approach to issues and if you study international human rights law, the law applies globally,” says Rachel Murray, professor of international human rights law at the University of Bristol.

But don’t presume that you will jump straight into a high salary, says Murray, also director of the UK university’s Human Rights Implementation Center. 

“People think the human rights field is impenetrable because it’s relatively small. But don’t be snobby. You need to be open to doing a whole range of things, much of it for free, as you don’t know where it will lead you.” 

Focusing on the most obvious organizations, such as the United Nations, will pit you against intense competition for jobs, says Murray. Looking at smaller organizations for internships can provide the experience you need to set yourself apart from the pack. “It can be daunting, but think creatively,” she says. 

Milanovic agrees. With such a breadth of career opportunities for Human Rights LL.M. graduates, the challenge is keeping a goal in mind, and an internship could be a good way to test the waters before committing fully to a career path. 

He adds, encouragingly: “An LL.M., especially with a specialism such as human rights, is an absolutely indispensable first step.” 

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