There are many ways you can get involved in social justice work while you are still at university. Most universities offer a variety of ways to get involved through student pro bono programs, awards, internships, electives and clinical legal education programs. There are also many volunteering opportunities for law students that you can apply for independently of your university.
Getting experience in social justice work whilst at university can improve your awareness of social justice issues in Australia, it is also a great way to gain knowledge, contacts and experience that will be valuable for people interested in a career in social justice.
You can find opportunities at your law school to get involved in social justice work, plus there are many other things you can do outside your university to get involved. Many law schools sponsor and support clinical legal education programs, social justice internships/outreach programs, stand alone public interest electives and student pro bono programs.
Ask your law school what social justice opportunities they offer through clinics, internships or other programs. Talk to your Dean, your lecturers and fellow students about the curriculum and creating more opportunities for students.
Many Australian law schools offer their students the opportunity to work and study in a legal clinic environment. Legal clinics typically provide free legal services to clients in a community legal centre environment.
You get hands-on legal experience by providing assistance to solicitors with research, drafting legal arguments, providing advice, meeting with clients and perhaps accompanying clients to court.
Participating in clinical legal education will give you a deeper understanding of how a legal clinic operates and its role within the legal system, as well as the ethical aspects and impact of the law and legal processes. You learn a lot from interactions with clients, your fellow students and colleagues and your supervisor – more than you could ever learn from textbooks and lectures.
Internships give you the opportunity to be placed in a centre or organisation with a social justice focus and to see how they do their work. 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 often external to your university, and can include an overseas placement. Some are sessional internships, e.g. 1 day a week for 13 weeks, or block placements, e.g. every day for a month or longer. You can even obtain academic credit for undertaking an internship at a number of law schools which have an active internship program.
Internship opportunities can be quite diverse, whether it is a placement with a state-based Public Defenders Office, an NGO such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace, or a court such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
You can also apply for some internships on your own, 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 are:
- The Aurora Project places interns in indigenous corporations, government bodies, community groups, not-for-profit and policy organisations across Australia.
- The Australian Law Reform Commission’s Legal Internship Program allows interns to work with the ALRC in Canberra, working on research and writing for the Commission’s inquiries and publications.
- The Cancer Council NSW Legal & Financial Planning Referral Service has opportunities for penultimate and final year students to undertake volunteer legal internships in its offices, which can also count toward PLT.
- Human Rights Watch offers a number of internships in the US and Europe, application is open to Australian university students.
To find external internships offered in your area speak to your Law Student Society or check your faculty’s noticeboards. You can also check the Latest Opportunities section of this website for any that might be coming up. It may be worthwhile looking at the websites of other universities or Law Student Societies in your area – for example, the Monash Social Justice and Equity Handbook is an excellent guide to volunteering and internships in Victoria.
When it is time to choose or plan which electives you will take during the course of 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 Murdoch University’s Law, Justice and Social Policy course.
Many universities also offer clinical legal programs as electives (see above), where students can gain experience working in a community legal centre as part of their degree.
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 Pro Bono). 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.
Get involved with your Student Law Society to organise a student pro bono program.
Some law student societies have successfully established student pro bono programs at their universities. The Australian Pro Bono Centre can provide you with a template to set up a program called the Pro Bono Students Australia program.
In addition to the satisfaction of contributing to your community, you can also gain recognition and awards.
Check with your law school about what, if any, awards exist to recognise student involvement in social justice work. For example in Victoria, there is the Chief Justice’s Medal for Excellence and Community Service which is awarded each year to one graduating Victorian law student who has demonstrated academic excellence in their legal studies and a commitment to community service.
At the University of Technology, Sydney, the Brennan Justice and Leadership Program provides an award for students who, over the course of their degree, complete both ‘Reflections on Justice’ and ‘Leadership through Service’ elements and accrue points from a combination of lectures, discussions groups and voluntary activity.
Many other awards exist, including Griffith University’s Rubin Carter Award for Commitment to Social Justice – to see if any awards are available at your university or in your state contact your Student Law Society or Faculty.
You may be able to find a barrister who is willing to offer you volunteer work for a period of time, doing research work with a social justice focus. The type of work will depend on the barrister and his or her practice. You could approach a state bar association or a barrister’s clerk, but these opportunities often come about informally by asking around your legal contacts such as lecturers, supervisors, mentors and colleagues.
You can volunteer at any time, and sometimes this makes it easier to get a social justice job later! For more information on volunteering see Ready to Volunteer.
If you are interested in social justice in an international context, you can apply for unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities with international organisations.
There is a diverse range of causes you can get involved in overseas, from development and health to diplomacy and human rights. Find out more by contacting the organisation you are interested in!
Formal internship programs are usually limited to graduate law students, so check before applying, although opportunities for undergraduates do exist through some clinical programs at some universities. However, volunteering overseas in a social justice environment is usually open to undergraduate students. Selection criteria differ between organisations, but generally, you will need to demonstrate a genuine interest in the relevant subject area and a strong academic record. For some positions, you will have an advantage if you have a working knowledge of the working languages of the organisation or the country where the internship is based.
There are internship opportunities for final year students available at the United Nations in its New York headquarters and the UN’s Social Policy and Development Division has links to internships at other UN offices, funds and programmes on its Youth page. You can also check out employment websites such as reliefweb.int/jobs or devnetjobs.org to find opportunities to intern or volunteer with other international organisations. For example, internships for undergraduate students are offered by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which prosecutes war crimes that occurred during the Balkan conflicts, and Reprieve Australia offers 3-month overseas internships to assist in death penalty cases in the USA.