The Amal Effect: More wannabe human rights lawyers, but where are the jobs?

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By Thomas Connelly on

Soaring applications for human rights courses may not be good news


Human rights has always been considered a difficult area of law in which to forge a career — and it may have just got more difficult.

University of London college Birkbeck said this week that it has seen a 75% increase in the number of students applying for human rights courses, with the surge being dubbed by the Evening Standard as the “Amal Effect”.

On one hand, as human rights solicitor Shoaib Khan told Legal Cheek, this is a good thing.

“We need competent, interested people to study, learn about and research human rights — if Amal has acted as a catalyst for this, then surely that benefits the field rather than detracting from the great things that some HR lawyers do,” he said.

But more interest in human rights law doesn’t mean more training contracts and pupillages in this area, with competition fierce for graduates looking to follow in Amal’s footsteps.

The holy grail for wannabe human rights solicitors is a training contract at a civil liberties firm like Leigh Day or Bindmans. But graduate jobs at these outfits are scarce, with Leigh Day offering just eight training contracts a year and Bindmans largely recruiting trainees from its pool of paralegals.

The picture at the bar is even more competitive, with top human rights sets Matrix Chambers and Clooney’s own Doughty Street offering just four pupillages between them. And with the government’s cuts to legal aid the situation is unlikely to improve.

Accordingly, it’s understandable that One Crown Office Row human rights barrister Adam Wagner voices a note of caution about the Amal Effect.

“More interest in human rights is undoubtedly a good thing,” Wagner told Legal Cheek. “But if additional law students are looking for jobs in human rights, the sad reality is that the government’s cuts to legal aid are causing the human rights legal sector to shrink, not grow.”

However Wagner offers some words of encouragement to human rights hopefuls who are willing to look beyond the traditional routes:

“The news isn’t all bad though,” he continues. “There are opportunities out there for those who are willing to work for them and take some risks. People who want to get into human rights law should also look to the NGO and governmental sectors as well as companies which are becoming increasingly aware of human rights as an international business issue.

“Also, think entrepreneurially. I set up the UK Human Rights Blog five years ago and am now launching a new organisation, the Human Rights Information Project, which is currently recruiting.”

As a postscript, it’s worth noting that not everyone believes in the Amal Effect.

Matthew Weait, a professor of law at Birkbeck reckons that George Clooney’s high profile wife has nothing to do with the huge jump in human rights course applications at his university. Instead, Weait has an interesting theory. He believes that it is the publicity generated by Chris Grayling’s attack on the justice system which is drawing students to human rights, telling Legal Cheek:

“I think that increased interest in human rights at Birkbeck has to do with recognition of the threat to them.”

If Weait is correct, it may prove a cruel irony for law students. The very thing that is inspiring them to pursue a career in human rights law could be the reason they fail to land their dream job in the future.