There are many ways you can get involved in social justice work while you are still at university. These opportunities can improve your awareness of social justice issues in Australia, and can also provide a great way to gain knowledge, contacts and experience that will be valuable in your future career.
Most universities offer a variety of ways to get involved, including:
- clinical legal education
- internal internships
- external internships
- public interest electives
- student pro bono programs
There are also many volunteering opportunities for law students that are independent of universities – click here for more information.
Many Australian law schools provide their students with the opportunity to work and study in a legal clinic environment. Legal clinics typically provide free legal services to clients at a community legal centre.
Students get hands-on legal experience by assisting solicitors with research, drafting legal documents, providing advice under supervision, meeting with clients, and occasionally accompanying clients to court.
Participating in clinical legal education gives students a deeper understanding of how a legal clinic operates and its role within the legal system. It also allows students to appreciate the barriers to accessing justice experienced by many socially disadvantaged and marginalised persons. Students can learn a lot from interactions with clients, fellow students, and colleagues – often more than it is possible to learn from textbooks and lectures.
Internships give you the opportunity to be placed in a centre or organisation with a social justice focus. In addition to legal work, you will also be exposed to how the office functions and learn to operate in a real work environment.
You can find out about internship opportunities by contacting your law school. Internship placements are sometimes on campus, but are often external to your university, and can include an overseas placement. Some are sessional internships (e.g. one day a week for 13 weeks), and others are block placements (e.g. every working day for a month or longer). You can obtain academic credit for undertaking an internship at several law schools which have active internship programs.
You can also apply for some internships independently of your law school. At some law schools you may be able to apply for academic credit even though you have organised the internship yourself. Even if you will not be eligible for academic credit, participating in internships is a great way to get experience in an area of social justice that interests you.
Some organisations that offer internships to law students include:
- The Aurora Project, which contributes to capacity building for over 200 Indigenous organisations Australia-wide by placing interns within those organisations for full-time unpaid 4 to 6 week internships.
- The Cancer Council Pro Bono Program often has opportunities for penultimate and final year law students to undertake volunteer legal internships.
- Human Rights Watch offers a number of internships in the US and Europe, and occasionally in Australia.
To find external internships offered in your area, check the Latest Opportunities section of this website. It may also be worthwhile looking at the website of your law student society, and those of other universities or law student societies in your area. For example, the Monash Social Justice and Equity Guide is an excellent guide to volunteering and internships in Victoria.
When it is time to choose which electives you will take during your degree, you can look at your law school’s handbook or course list for classes that have a social justice focus. This might be in an area that particularly interests you and is related to social justice – for example, most universities offer an elective on human rights law.
Some universities also offer more general courses about public interest law, such as the University of New South Wales’ elective Public Interest Litigation: Origins and Strategies, or the University of Newcastle’s Public Interest Advocacy course.
If you get involved in pro bono legal work as a student, you provide your services without fee, reward or academic credit. (For more information about pro bono, see the Australian Pro Bono Centre’s website). While the primary drivers of student pro bono programs are community service and a concern for justice, you can also gain valuable communication, teamwork and leadership skills. As there is no academic credit for such activity, this option offers you greater flexibility in organising the program to suit your timetable.
Some law schools have successfully established student pro bono programs – for example, see the University of Queensland’s Pro Bono Centre. You can get involved with your student law society to organise a student pro bono program.
If you are interested in studying at university, but need assistance with your living costs, you may be eligible to apply for The Anton Hermann Memorial Scholarship. The Anton Hermann Memorial Scholarship Program honours the memory of Anton Hermann. Anton Hermann was a Monash University alumnus, dedicated Melbourne pro bono lawyer, and Jewish community leader who devoted his professional life to supporting marginalised and disadvantaged Australians.
Anton Hermann joined MinterEllison in 1990 and he served tirelessly in the role of the firm’s first National Pro Bono & Community Investment Director from 2004. He passed away suddenly in 2019. Anton Hermann has been described as an inspirational leader who truly believed in the power of the law to make a positive difference in the community.
Together, Monash University, MinterEllison and Anton Hermann’s family and have launched The Anton Hermann Memorial Scholarship Program. This scholarship will allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at Monash and change the world for the better. The scholarship offers students $6,000 per annum for the duration of their degree (up to four years) to assist with living costs.
Anton was deeply committed to the pro bono community. He acted with compassion and respect for the dignity of the individuals and communities he supported and his impact will continue to be felt for years to come.
In addition to the satisfaction of contributing to your community, you can also gain recognition and awards.
For example, at the University of Technology Sydney, the Brennan Justice and Leadership Program provides an award for students who, over the course of their degree, accrue 100 ‘Reflections on Justice’ points and ‘Leadership through Service’ hours.
Check with your law school about what, if any, awards exist to recognise student involvement in social justice work.