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Working in humanitarian law is to be in a specialised and prestigious area of the legal profession. Humanitarian lawyers work on cases of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, genocide and human rights abuses. Humanitarian lawyers need to be highly qualified and experienced, with extensive technical expertise in international humanitarian law. So, how do you actually become a humanitarian lawyer?
To become a humanitarian lawyer, you need a law degree, formal accreditation and trainings on international humanitarian law. You also need a strong theoretical and practical understanding of international humanitarian law, as well as professional experience within the legal sector.
With that said, let’s breakdown exactly what each step takes to become a humanitarian lawyer…
Get Understanding What a Humanitarian Lawyer Does
The first step to becoming a humanitarian lawyer is to get a good understanding of what international humanitarian law is. International humanitarian law governs how armed violence, occupation and conflicts should be conducted. The aim of international humanitarian law is to limit the impact of war and conflicts on participants and civilians. Researching and building strong knowledge of what international humanitarian law covers is the foundational step to becoming a humanitarian lawyer.
Once you have a good understanding of what international humanitarian law is, the next stage to becoming a humanitarian lawyer is to gain knowledge of what the role covers. You need to know the ins and outs of what a humanitarian lawyer does so that you can know if you have the interest and aptitude to become one. Try and speak to humanitarian lawyers about what it involves, as well as reading and researching online. These are key first steps to becoming a humanitarian lawyer.
Complete a Law Degree
To become a humanitarian lawyer, you will need to have a law degree. The specifics of how you enter law school and what you need differs between countries so research your local requirements, but a law degree will be a must anywhere if you want to be a humanitarian lawyer. Some law degrees will allow you to specialise in international humanitarian law but most will be more general law degrees which you will then need to specialise from later to go on work in humanitarian law.
If you are studying a law degree with plans to become a humanitarian lawyer, do your best to combine building a general understanding of legal practice with as much specialist knowledge in humanitarian law as you can. Most humanitarian lawyers practice general law or other areas of legal practice before becoming humanitarian lawyers. Be sure to get a wide range of legal knowledge to help you early in your career, in case you cannot get work directly as a humanitarian lawyer.
Specialise in International Humanitarian Law
Either as part of your law degree, or in post-graduate study or work experience, to become a humanitarian lawyer you will need a develop a specialism in international humanitarian law. As we said, this should be built on a foundation of strong general legal practice knowledge. Getting specialised in international humanitarian law and working as a humanitarian lawyer could take several years, so make sure you take a long-term view on your goal to become a humanitarian lawyer.
There are many ways to specialise in international humanitarian law if you want to become a humanitarian lawyer. This can be done through undergraduate study in human rights or humanitarian law, post-graduate courses, internships or through professional experience. Your aim should be to build a strong theoretical understanding of international humanitarian law whilst also getting practical and professional work experience. These combined will help you become a humanitarian lawyer.
Humanitarian Law Online Courses
If you want to learn more about international humanitarian law, and how to become a humanitarian lawyer, we highly recommend the online course International Humanitarian Law in Theory and Practice offered by Leiden University in the Netherlands. It only takes around 20 hours to complete and provides a fantastic overview of international humanitarian law and its implications. Follow the link for more information.
Another online course we think is fantastic for those interested in international humanitarian is The Evolution of International Criminal Law. This short course goes over the history of international criminal law and relates it directly to the modern concept of humanitarianism. Click the link to visit the course’s page.
For those that want an overview to the wider concepts of international law, including humanitarian law, check out the Introduction to International Law online course. We think it’s the best short course for those wanting to understand the broader concepts of international humanitarian law. The link takes you to the course’s page.
Become an Accredited Lawyer
After completing a law degree, you need to become accredited to practice law in most countries, and this includes humanitarian law. Accreditation differs between countries but you will need to be able to practice law in order to become a humanitarian lawyer. In some countries, like the US, an exam such as the Bar must be completed to become an accredited lawyer. In some countries, like the UK, joining a professional body or getting work experience acts as accreditation. You will need to be able to practice law in your country in order to become a humanitarian lawyer.
If you are looking to become a humanitarian lawyer, you only need to be accredited to practice law generally. There is not special accreditation for practicing international humanitarian law. You will need to maintain your accreditation as you continue to practice as a humanitarian lawyer, so ensure you know what this requires when beginning your career.
Do Trainings on International Humanitarian Law
In additional to getting formal qualifications and becoming accredited, if you want a career as a humanitarian lawyer you need to do relevant trainings. Many organisations offer in-person and online training courses in international humanitarian law and it is highly advisable to take as many of these as you can. The more relevant knowledge, skills and qualifications you can get the better chance you have of being a humanitarian lawyer.
Get Professional Experience
A key part of beginning a career as a humanitarian lawyer is getting professional experience. After you have gained formal qualifications, become accredited and gained a deep understanding of international humanitarian law, you will need to build a professional practice. This may take time, and you might need to begin working in a different legal area before transitioning towards humanitarian legal work. However, gaining professional experience is crucial to becoming a humanitarian lawyer.
There are many ways to gain professional experience in humanitarian law as you build your career. You can do internships after finishing law school in legal practices that specialise in humanitarian law. You can also take entry-level jobs as well as work in other areas of the legal profession before transitioning over to humanitarian legal work. Becoming a humanitarian lawyer can be competitive and takes time, so see roles as stepping stones towards your final goal of working in international humanitarian law.
The final things you need to become a humanitarian lawyer is drive, determination and perseverance. It takes many years to complete the qualifications, becoming accredited and build the professional experience needed to be a humanitarian lawyer. To succeed you need to work hard and be dedicated to working in the area you want. You also need to have a passion for your work and know why it is that you want to become work in international humanitarian law.
The legal profession is a competitive field and specialised sub-sets, such as international humanitarian law, even more so. Therefore, if you want a career as a humanitarian lawyer you need to have the drive to beat the competition. You also need to know within yourself really why you want to do this as a line of work and be prepared for some inevitable challenges as you develop your career. With that said, being a humanitarian lawyer is a highly rewarding, exciting and noble career – well worth the work needed to get there!
If you want to know more about how to become a humanitarian lawyer, explore our list of the top online international humanitarian law courses here.