Human Rights and Public Interest Law

Issues of public law achieve prominence during public inquires such as the Leeveson Inquiry into the ethics and culture of the media and the Grenfell Tower inquiry. However, much of public law deals with daily decisions on immigration, welfare, taxation, data protection, the environment and more.

Public Law is also concerned with how a state treats its citizens. The term Human Rights broadly refers to the basic rights and freedoms set out (in the UK) in the Human Rights Act 1998, which made the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) directly enforceable in the UK courts.

Here we focus on careers in public & human rights law in the United Kingdom. Also see our related information on:

  •  Solicitors – for details on becoming a qualified solicitor in the UK
  • Barristers – a comprehensive guide to becoming a barrister in the UK
  • International Law – focuses on public and private law on an international stage, including international human rights.

Employers in the UK include:

  • National government (e.g. the Government Legal Programme)
  • Courts, Tribunals and the Crown Prosecution Service
  • Public bodies (e.g. NHS Trusts, BBC)
  • NGOs (e.g. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, JUSTICE, Friends of the Earth)
  • Private law firms with a public law practice area
  • Armed Services
  • Academia
  • Charities (e.g. Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Refugee Action, Law Works)

The legal landscape is changing – read more on this in the “about this sector” section of our information on solicitors.

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A practising solicitor/barrister working in relevant practice areas to public law.

Paralegal / Legal assistant

Supporting lawyers in their work, such as drafting documents and collecting, analysing and summarising information. Could go on to study as a Chartered Legal Executive to become a ‘fee earner’, or pursue qualification as solicitor/barrister.

Project officer / assistant

Working within an organisation with a link with human rights law, often an NGO or a charity. Providing administrative, project management or field work support to a project which relates to the field, not working in a legal capacity. Projects could range from awareness campaigns to research work, to direct support for beneficiaries (e.g. refugees).

Support roles

Every organisation, whatever their cause or values, has a range of support roles, which keeps everything working smoothly: from finance, to marketing, to HR, to IT, to senior management.  Direct-entry roles exist within most organisations to support these departments.


Providing similar support roles to a legal assistant in some cases, but usually also face-to-face advice for clients (e.g. prisoners, immigrants and asylum seekers).

Policy advisor / analyst

Working in an organisation with a remit for advocacy – seeking to question, analyse and propose solutions to policy and political agendas.


Researching, publishing and teaching, having studied higher degrees (usually a doctorate) in a public/human rights law specialism.

There is no one route in to a career in public interest law, and it’s worth remembering that there are roles for those who are not qualified lawyers too, particularly in supporting functions within the same employer, which can be more instantly attainable.

Legal qualification:

Full details are available within our advice for Solicitor or Barrister routes, but it’s worth pursuing relevant law options where you can during your degree. If you don’t have a legal undergraduate degree, research GDL course providers to see which allow you to take relevant options in addition to the compulsory subjects.

Your LPC (solicitors) or BPTC (barristers) is the next step in your training, followed by a training contract (solicitors) or pupillage (barristers). There are changes that are coming to legal training routes with the introduction of the SQE. See our solicitors briefing for further details.

A number of public bodies offer legal training programmes in the UK which lead to qualification as a solicitor (see below). If your aim is to become a criminal or human rights barrister is is unlikely that this stage of qualifying will be highly specialised around your interests, as very few chambers take on only human rights cases, and you will be required to work in different practice areas for your training contract. This provides a solid base in law, which can provide a good ‘fall back’ option while looking for law roles more suited to your interests, post qualification. However, it also means that an interest in the law itself, not just the cause, is essential.

If working on other areas of law isn’t something that will motivate you, it might be worth considering working in the field, but not as a lawyer (look for vacancies in project support, communications, policy, and research to explore other ideas).

Skills needed

Skills will vary depending on the nature of the role, but those often sought for legal roles in this sector include:

  • A commitment to social justice, supporting principles of fairness of opportunity for all
  • Resilient and committed
  • Strong legal professional skills, such as research, drafting, advocacy
  • An analytical mind and good judgement
  • Articulacy in written and spoken English
  • An ability to think and communicate clearly under pressure
  • The ability to describe complex matters of law in a simple manner
  • Ability to deal with a wide range of people
  • Good research skills and able to synthesise large volumes of information
  • IT skills
  • Ability to operate with total integrity and confidentiality

Getting experience

Here we primarily cover human rights and public law work experience opportunities in the UK, but some intergovernmental bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also offer internships internationally. Examples of these are listed in our information on International Law.


  • Government Legal Service Diversity Summer Scheme provides a 1 week vacation placement to undergraduates or graduates from diverse backgrounds which are currently under-represented across the legal profession.
  • Research Assistant at the Law Commission – a one-year paid internship with one of the five teams at the Law Commission (includes public law) for students with some academic legal knowledge (for example law or GDL students).
  • Mini-pupillages with barristers’ chambers. Use or similar to identify chambers that have civil liberty and human rights, or relevant public law specialties. Our information about Barristers has more information on mini-pupillages.
  • The Summer Internship Programmerun by The Careers Service offers placements in a wide range of organisations, all over the world some of which are based in legal or other sectors relevant to human rights. Recent internships include roles with the Academy of European Law, research into human rights violations with the Academie Diplomatique Internationale, and with the World Food Programme Legal Office.
  • The Micro-internship Programme run by the Careers Service offers 3-5 day placements during 9th week of each term.

Volunteering opportunities

Pro-bono work

  • Free Representation Unit – a charity providing individuals with legal representation that they could not afford otherwise. FRU volunteers receive training to provide case preparation and advocacy to clients. London-based and suitable for third year law students and beyond.
  • Bar Pro Bono Unit offers three or more days per year of pro bono work to trainee barristers from the second sixth of their pupillage.
  • Oxford Law Faculty: Oxford Pro Bono Publico– Graduate law volunteering

Other volunteering opportunities

  • Oxford Legal Assistance– for undergraduate law students, applications open in Trinity term each year
  • Citizens Advice Bureau offer many volunteering roles. Advisor and witness service volunteers may be particularly relevant.
  • POhWER are a charity that provides information, advocacy and advice services across the UK and offer a variety of volunteer advocate and customer service roles.
  • Law Centres Network. Law Centres provide advice to disadvantaged individuals in their local area. Students volunteers are occasionally recruited to provide casework assistance and administrative support.
  • Getting Heard– Joint charity made up of Oxford Advocacy and SEAP – advocacy volunteering opportunities
  • Volunteering with other public interest or human rights charities – search for relevant charities using directories such as Charity Choice.

Other organisations to engage with in Oxford

  • Oxford Human Rights Hub (OHRH), based at the University of Oxford Law Faculty, brings together academics, practitioners, and policy-makers to advance the understanding and protection of human rights and equality. Sign up for their newsletter, attend seminars and webinars, listen to podcasts etc. They occasionally hire students as blog editors, and facilitate a small number of internships with relevant organisations each year.
  • Oxford Hub is a charity offering practical volunteering, skilled placements, project incubation and events. They may have relevant events or programmes depending on your interest.
  • Consider joining relevant clubs and societies at Oxford for speaker events and volunteering opportunities. Examples include Amnesty International, Oxford Women International, Oxford Homeless Action Group.

Speculative applications

Many students each year are successful in arranging their own work experience by identifying and then directly approaching organisations of interest speculatively. Linked In is a valuable tool for researching relevant organisations and for identifying Oxford alumni using the University of Oxford page to approach for an initial conversation to learn more about the sector.

Sources of funding for internships

Many internships available within public law are unpaid, offered as they are by charities or public bodies with limited funds.  To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the UK Government: National Minimum Wage webpages.

Although it may not be possible to take every opportunity, the following represent ways in which previous students have accessed unpaid internships:

  • ASIL: Helton Fellowship Program – up to $2000 for field work or research on issues around international law, human rights, humanitarian affairs etc. In previous years applications opening in October, but only the first 50 were reviewed. Limited to current law student or recent law graduates.
  • HRLA: Bursaries– up to £3500 for work related to human rights law for those who would otherwise lack financial means to do it. That work need not take place in the United Kingdom, but it must be relevant to human rights law in the United Kingdom.
  • Enter essay competitions (few competitions, but sizeable prize money)
    The Times Law Award
    Graham Turnbull Essay Competition
    Bar Council Law Reform Essay Competition
    Hogan/Smoger Access to Justice Essay Competition
    Junior Lawyers’ Division Essay Competition (Law Society)
    UKELA (UK Environmental Law Association) Andrew Lees Essay Prize
    Marion Simmons QC Essay Competition
    Commonwealth Law Student Essay Competition
  • The Inns of Court provide funding for their barristers to undertake internships during or just after the pupillage year. See the Inns’ websites for more details.
  • Check with your college as you may be able to apply for travel grants or other financial aid for work experience.

It may be worth contacting regional alumni offices for the country or region you wish to work in, or perhaps speak to your college alumni office, many are happy to circulate requests for advice which could lead to low-cost accommodation solutions.

See also our information on BarristersSolicitors and International Law.

  • Government Legal Department (GLD) provides legal services to the majority of central government departments, undertakes parliamentary advisory work, provides litigation and commercial legal expertise to the government and has one of the largest employment law practices in the UK. The GLD Legal Trainee Scheme offers training contracts and pupillages. Applications usually open and close in July, recruiting two years ahead of the start date.

    In 2018, 75 legal trainee places were offered through the Government Legal Department (GLD) including the Commercial Law Group, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA).The Civil Service nationality rules apply. Applications can be accepted from: UK nationals, European Economic Area (EEA) nationals, Swiss nationals and, in some circumstances, Turkish nationals, Commonwealth citizens and dual-nationality holders with one part British. You must have, or be predicted to obtain, a minimum of a 2:2 in an undergraduate degree. This does not have to be in lawFor successful candidates, government departments will pay Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) fees in full provided you have not yet started the course and there is no preference which law or Bar school you attend. You may also be eligible for a grant to support you during your vocational year. The salary as a trainee solicitor or pupil varies according to department. First year salary is circa £28,000. The second year salary is circa £32,000.

  • Crown Prosecution Service Legal Trainee Scheme offers up to 30 positions to those with an interest in criminal law, seeking to become fully qualified barristers or solicitors. They offer the opportunity to become a permanent Crown Prosecutor upon successful qualification with an expectation that graduates of the scheme will develop further into senior and specialist roles. Apply in the Spring of the year in which the training contract starts (typically November). To be eligible to apply, candidates need at least a 2:2 level undergraduate degree and have passed either the Bar Professional Training Course or the Legal Practice Course in time to commence pupillage or a training contract.
  • Public law and human rights law at the Bar
    The competition for public law pupillages is fierce. Successful candidates are likely to have experience in the public or voluntary sectors in addition to exceptional academic credentials. Use the Training Contracts and Pupillages Handbook, available to take away from the Careers Service or the Law Fair, to identify chambers with relevant expertise and see further information on routes to practising law as Barrister.
  • Training contracts with solicitors firms
    It is rare to find private law firms with substantial human rights practices, though you may find some overlap between practice areas such as employment law and environmental law and public law. Trainee solicitors are required to gain experience in at least three areas of law, you cannot specialise in a single area such as human rights from the beginning of your legal career. Beginning your career gaining experience in relevant law in the private sector could be good grounding for a move to public law later on. See further information on routes to practising law as solicitor.
  • Army Legal Services is a branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps, a specialist all-Officer branch of the British Army providing legal support to the Army. They recruit qualified lawyers who already hold a current practicing certificate issued by the relevant regulatory authority.
  • RAF Legal Officer roles are for qualified barristers or solicitors and are available as a full-time regular or as a spare time reserve committing 27 days per year.
  • Opportunities for post-qualification lawyers
    Government departments and other public bodies recruit qualified lawyers to join their legal teams. Key vacancy sources include Civil Service Jobs and searching public sector/human rights law jobs at The Lawyer and The Law Society Gazette.
  • Internationally qualified lawyers
    The Solicitors Regulation Authority operates the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) to enable you become a solicitor of England and Wales if you are already a qualified lawyer in a recognised jurisdictions.


The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Human Rights, A Very Short Introduction, Andrew Chapman
  • International Law, Vaughan Lowe
  • A guide to International Law Careers, Anneke Smit, Christopher Waters, 2015
  • Careers in International Law, Salli A Swartz, ed., 2013
  • Careers in International Law: A Guide to Career Paths in International Law 2013/14, D. Wes Rist
  • EU Law Q&As 2013/14, Nigel Foster
  • EU Law, Ewan Kirk
  • EU Competition law, Ariel Ezrachi
  • Is Law for you?, Christopher Stoakes
  • Understanding the Law, Geoffrey Rivlin
  • Getting into Law, Lianne Carter
  • Employability Skills for Law Students, Emily Finch & Stefan Fafinski
  • Jursiprudence Q&As, David Brooke
  • Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind
  • Letters to a Law Student, Nicholas J McBride, 2013
  • First Steps in the Law, Geoffrey Rivlin, 2015


It is also worth looking at e-books, through SOLO.


We subscribe to the following journals in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • The Lawyer, weekly
  • The Law Society Gazette
  • Counsel (barristers’ professional journal, monthly)
  • Lawyer 2B (quarterly)

Take-away material

  • The Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook
  • Chambers Student Guide
  • The Lex 100
  • TARGETjobs Law
  • TARGETjobs Law Vacation Schemes & Mini Pupillages
  • TARGETjobs Law First: How to get hired.
  • TARGETjobs Pupillages Handbook (from April onwards)
  • Prospects Law

Sector Information

  • Oxford Human Rights Hub – facilitates the exchange of ideas and resources through it’s website, blog, seminars and conference.
  • Human Rights Careers – has lots of information on different areas of work, how to gain relevant skills and has a jobs blog with current vacancies.
  • Target Law Public Law (barristers)
  • RebLaw UK –a community of law students, practitioners, and activists striving to work in the service of social change movements and to challenge hierarchies of race, wealth, gender, and expertise within legal practice and education. They also host a facebook page with relevant vacancies and news.
  • Lawyers Without Borders

Directories of firms & organisations

  • Chambers and Partners– Research firms and rankings within preferred practice areas (e.g. ‘public law’)
  • Legal 500– Research firms within preferred practice areas (e.g. ‘civil liberties and human rights’ – under ‘public law’)
  • HG: Practice Areas– A useful summary of key firms and other organisations around 260 practice areas

Sector vacancies

Please see the sites mentioned in the work experience list of this briefing and details of pupillages and training contracts in the Law Society’s “Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook”. Free copies of this are available at the Law Fair and in the Careers Service.
General legal job boards (such as Legal Week, The Lawyer, Law Society Gazette Jobs) do occasionally carry public roles, but they’re rare here. It’s more common to see roles listed directly on organisation websites. Use the organisations and associations mentioned here to find post-qualification and other supporting roles.

Professional associations

YouTube videos

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they are a Disability Confident employer or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

Law firms are particularly active in this area and have well established programmes in place with long standing organisations such as Employ-Ability, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, RARE, the Sutton Trust and the BLD Foundation. In addition, new organisations are growing such as Aspiring Solicitors, which provides mentoring and CV/application help for any students in its target groups.

The Law Society also operates its Lawyers with Disabilities Division They regularly run a series of informative talks throughout the year to which students are usually invited for free.

The Bar Council, the Inns of Court and many barristers are determined to widen access to the Bar, and to create a diverse and inclusive profession. A number of initiatives exist to help achieve this from offering specific bursaries and scholarships to work experience programmes. The Pegasus Access & Support Scheme(PASS) administered by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. PASS is a co-ordinated work experience programme for students considering the Bar as a career.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s website on discrimination.

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