This article critically examines the concept of legal empowerment as it has been used with reference to transitional justice, mapping its rise and impact based on a selection of case studies. In recent decades, international transitional justice advocacy has evolved dramatically, with practice increasingly emphasising the centrality of criminal accountability for violence, precisely as more holistic approaches have emerged that have broadened the remit of transitional justice. Post-conflict justice advocates have thus become professionalised transitional justice entrepreneurs working on issues such as democratic transitions, rule of law and human rights. A legal empowerment discourse has emerged in a number of scholarly debates that discuss legalistic and normative issues related to the implementation of retributive and restorative justice mechanisms. In theory, the concept of legal empowerment addresses the issue of social exclusion in transitions, increasing the rights of the marginalised. In practice, however, legal empowerment has disappointed and raises several issues around its performance that are scrutinised in this article. Drawing on case studies in Nepal, Tunisia and Bosnia-Herzegovina the authors analyse issues related to agency, institutions and structure, and argue for a needs-centred, participatory approach in place of the rights-based legal empowerment concept.