We spoke to Avani Singh, a human rights lawyer at the Legal Resources Centre, about the joys and challenges of her job, and what steps to follow if you want to become a human rights lawyer.
Name: Avani Singh
Occupation: Human Rights Lawyer
Employer: Constitutional Litigation Unit, Legal Resources Centre
Qualification: B.Comm (Law) LLB
Institution: University of Pretoria
1. Why did you decide to become a human rights lawyer?
I come from a family of lawyers, and have always had a general interest in the law. By the time I completed school, however, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I decided to pursue law because I thought it would give me a range of options for future careers. However, once I started studying law – and particularly after taking courses like constitutional law, and participating in moot court competitions which exposed me to human rights and international law – I realised that it was a field that I really enjoyed, and wanted to explore further. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with great people who are inspired and excited by this work; their enthusiasm has been infectious, and has helped to nurture my own enthusiasm for it. More and more I have come to appreciate that, while it has its limits, the law can be used as a powerful instrument to achieve change and social justice.
2. Describe what a typical work day would be like for you
Part of what I enjoy so much about my job is that there isn’t really a typical day. As an attorney, some of the work that I do involves research, drafting court papers, consulting with clients, and going to court. I work on a range of different cases in different areas of the law, which helps to keep my work exciting.
3. What is the most rewarding thing about your job
I still feel very lucky to get to do the work that I do. The Legal Resources Centre is one of the oldest public interest law firms in South Africa, and has been at the forefront of a number of the leading constitutional cases. There is a deep sense of commitment at the firm to working towards the realisation of the rights in the Bill of Rights. I am fortunate to get to do work that I truly enjoy, and that has a tangible impact on people’s lives; this is something that I try never to take for granted.
4. What is the most challenging or frustrating thing about your job
I think it’s sometimes easy to become despondent when you don’t see results as quickly as you like, or change takes too long to materialise. The nature of litigation is that it can be long-winded and time-consuming, and there is always the risk of it not yielding positive results. We of course face a number of challenges in South Africa, and these can sometimes seem insurmountable. However, I recently read these words which gave me some perspective: “Do not be daunted by the world’s grief. … You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” It’s a helpful reminder that not being able to achieve everything is not an excuse for not trying to do anything.
5. What qualification(s) does one have to complete in order to become a human rights lawyer?
I studied a B.Comm (Law) LLB, which was a mixture of finance and law modules over a five-year period. However, there are also other possibilities to complete a law degree, including a straight four-year LLB. For anyone interested in human rights specifically, I would strongly encourage you to choose electives that lend themselves to this area, and participate in extracurricular activities to expose yourself to different aspects of the law. While I chose to become an attorney, there are various ways to get involved in human rights law, including becoming a researcher. I would strongly urge you to get in touch with organisations doing work in areas that interest you to learn more about the opportunities available.
6. Do you have any tips, words of encouragement, or a quote that inspires you that you would like to share with our learners?
I was in high school when my history teacher read us a quote from Haile Selassie (the former regent and emperor of Ethiopia, and the former chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity). He said: “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered the most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”. These words really resonated with me, and still today I find them inspiring. Every individual, regardless of background or circumstances, has a particular journey ahead of them made up of opportunities and challenges. Wherever your journey takes you, remember to think about the value that you want to add, and the legacy that you want to leave behind for future generations.