Civil rights lawyers are social justice advocates who advance and protect the rights of minorities, women, and other groups and the individual liberties of all Americans. Their work often involves affirmative or “impact” litigation (whether class action, test case, or individual) but also may involve legislation, public education and organizing. Working for the government or in private practice, civil rights specialists advise clients on how best to comply with the law and defend them in litigation. The sources of civil rights are many and include constitutional, statutory, and regulatory and international law.
The first-year curriculum lays the foundation for civil rights practice. Fundamental, of course, are Civil Procedure and Constitutional Law (a first-year elective). Torts is a foundational course because much civil rights litigation takes the form of, and relies on the basic elements of, a tort action for damages. Contracts doctrines are central to the negotiation and enforcement of civil rights settlements. Much civil rights law is statutory, and Legislation and the Regulatory State teaches core principles of statutory interpretation. First-year Criminal Law is the gateway to the study of the criminal justice system. The Lawyering program introduces students to the dynamics of the lawyer-client relationship and teaches essential writing, research, interviewing, and negotiation skills.
For upper-level students, doctrinal courses that focus on civil rights can be found across the curriculum. Some courses focus on the rights of members of specific groups (such as those based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or immigration status). Others focus on institutional settings in which civil rights issues arise (such as the education system, the workplace, the national security system, or the criminal justice system). Still others focus on specific rights (such as free speech or the right to vote), or sources of rights (such as international human rights law and state constitutional law). Students who plan to litigate will need to take Evidence and will benefit from Complex Litigation; those who hope to be involved in constitutional litigation will need Federal Courts.
NYU has a number of clinical programs that give students the experience in civil rights practice with the opportunity to advance the civil rights of actual clients and groups. In many of our clinics, students represent plaintiffs in civil rights litigation or affirmatively advocate for groups or causes. On the civil side, these include the following clinics, among others: Civil Rights, Civil Litigation – Employment Law, Immigrants’ Rights, LGBTQ Rights, New York Civil Liberties, Racial Justice, and Reproductive Justice. These programs help students not only to develop the lawyering skills necessary to civil rights work (and, indeed, to all professional work), but also bring civil rights law, process and theory together with clients in real-world contexts in which each perspective enriches the other. On the criminal side, many clinics represent defendants whose civil rights are implicated in their cases. Students interested in approaching civil rights issues through policymaking may join the Brennan Center’s clinic, which emphasizes the development of policymaking skills in fields such as elections and voting, access to justice, and national security. In addition, the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program Hays Program offers a capstone program for a small group of third-year students, who work in special internships for civil liberties and other human rights organizations and pursue research or special projects with the program’s faculty directors.
NYU’s interdisciplinary and theoretical curriculum has many courses of interest to future civil rights lawyers. These include offerings in critical race theory, feminist theory, civil rights narratives, political theory, and political philosophy. Many of these offerings present the opportunity for individual research and scholarly writing.
Find out more about Civil Rights at NYU Law.