You can use your legal skills to further social justice throughout your working life. There are opportunities to contribute on a full-time, part-time or volunteer basis. When looking for your first job, you should be aware that some organisations offer paid internships for new graduates, e.g. Legal Aid Commissions.
Boost your chances of getting a paid position by volunteering or interning first.
Given the shortage of lawyers in many regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, you are likely to find that there are more job opportunities there than in the city.
Legal Aid Commissions in each state and territory assist economically and socially disadvantaged people to understand, protect and enforce their legal rights.
There are a small number of highly sought-after positions with Legal Aid, so experience volunteering in a community legal centre or other similar role is one of the best ways to boost your chances.
- Legal Aid ACT: Does not have a dedicated graduate employment program. Vacancies are advertised as they arise on the Employment Opportunities page of Legal Aid ACT’s website.
- Legal Aid NSW: Has a Graduate Program. and also administers the Judge Bob Bellear ‘Legal Career Pathways’ program for Indigenous students, from high school through to graduate level. A link to general job vacancies can be found here.
- Legal Aid Queensland: Does not have a dedicated graduate employment program. Vacancies can be found here.
- Legal Aid Western Australia: Has opportunities through its Indigenous Law Student Program. Its Graduate Program is on hold, but general vacancies can be found on its Employment Opportunities page. Information Officer positions are offered within its InfoLine service which do not require you to be admitted.
- Legal Aid Tasmania: Does not have a dedicated graduate employment program. Vacancies are advertised as they arise under ‘Justice’ on the Tasmanian Government Careers website.
- Legal Services Commission of South Australia: Does not have a dedicated graduate employment program. Vacancies are advertised as they arise on its Vacancies page.
- Northern Territory Legal Aid: Offers 20-day placements for law students, but does not have a dedicated graduate employment program. Vacancies are advertised as they arise on the Employment Opportunities page of NT Legal Aid’s website.
- Victoria Legal Aid: Employs first and second year lawyers through the New Lawyers’ Program.
There are thousands of non government organisations (NGOs) in Australia whose mission is to further social justice in a wide variety of fields.
Only a few of the larger NGOs in Australia employ in-house lawyers, including the Salvation Army, Red Cross and Mission Australia. These organisations do not run formal graduate programs and don’t very often have vacant positions, so you will need to be proactive in your job search, and perhaps be willing to do non-legal work to get a start in the organisation. Sites like Ethical Jobs, Beyond Law and Pro Bono Australia are also good sources for finding opportunities.
If you are interested in working for a particular NGO, enquire directly about legal positions. Most organisations have contact numbers listed on their websites.
There are various lists of Australian NGOs and Interest Groups, for example DFAT provides a list of key accredited NGOs, but in general terms an internet search using your area/s of interest as keyword/s is the best way to find relevant organisations..
One of the roles of government is to improve social justice for its citizens. Government Departments and Agencies are tasked with implementing relevant policies.
Your view as to the extent to which a particular government agency or department furthers social justice may inform your decision to apply for a job there.
State and Federal Governments have developed strategies intended to promote a more socially inclusive society, in particular for those vulnerable groups most likely to be marginalised, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, children, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with disabilities, older people, women and young people.
You can find a diverse range of graduate employment opportunities within the public service at both the State and Federal levels. Each Department or Agency’s website has details of any graduate program offered. The Australian Public Service Commission has a Find Jobs tool which enables employment seekers to locate vacancies in the public service, and similar websites exist for each State and Territory (see here).
There are even job opportunities available while you are still a student. LawAccess NSW, for example, provides legal information to the public on a wide range of areas and has job opportunities each year for Customer Service Officers in its call centres.
Working in a CLC or other community legal organisation is working on the front line of social justice and can be incredibly rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to get involved in an area that you are passionate about.
You can get in touch with CLCs, ATSILS and FVPLS directly to find out about paid positions. The National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) website contains links to job advertisements with CLCs and also lists all community legal centres around the country. More information can often be found on the site of the peak body for CLCs in your state (also listed on the NACLC website).
Boost your chances of getting a paid position by volunteering or interning first.
Remember that while positions at inner city CLCs can be hotly contested, there are often many opportunities available in outer suburbs and remote, rural and regional (RRR) areas. More information on CLCs and the community legal centre can be found here.
You will always have opportunities to undertake pro bono work throughout your career – it’s just part of being a lawyer.
Pro bono comes from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, meaning ‘for the public good.’ In the legal context it generally refers to the provision of legal services on a free or significantly reduced fee basis.
You can provide pro bono assistance to individual clients who can’t afford legal representation and do not qualify for Legal Aid, to non-profit organisations and for matters that are in the public interest. You can do it on your own time or, where your employer has a pro bono scheme, on your employer’s time.
The willingness of lawyers to undertake pro bono work is a key fact that distinguishes the profession of law from it being a mere business.
Former Chief Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Murray Gleeson
Throughout your career as a lawyer, there are many different ways to get involved, whether it be as a law student, through your law firm or as a barrister, even after retirement. You may already be involved with a non-profit organisation that could use your assistance. For more information on how to get involved check out the Australian Pro Bono Centre’s website.
You can help someone in need and expose yourself to new areas of law and types of work by doing pro bono work. It can be one of the most rewarding parts of your law career.
Many law firms have organised pro bono programs and provide opportunities for their lawyers to undertake a range of interesting pro bono legal work.
See the Australian Pro Bono Practices Guide for details of the pro bono programs of many of the large and mid-tier law firms throughout the country.
You might be seconded to a CLC, providing advice to a homeless person in an evening clinic, preparing papers for a case in the Federal Court, becoming part of a litigation team pursuing public interest litigation or undertaking research on the effect of an international treaty. A diverse range of work is undertaken through law firm pro bono programs.
Ask every firm that you consider joining about their pro bono program.
I was surprised to find that all lawyers at the firm are encouraged to complete a certain number of hours of pro bono work each year. It is a refreshing change to deal with smaller scale legal problems (as compared to commercial legal issues) for individuals that really have nowhere else to turn to.
Anon, lawyer, large corporate law firm
Many of Australia’s great public interest cases have been run by barristers acting pro bono, e.g. Mabo, Vadarlis (the MV Tampa case), Roach (prisoner’s right to vote) and Mallard (wrongful imprisonment for murder).
You can contact your Bar Association to see if it runs its own pro bono referral scheme (in Victoria and Queensland the state’s Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) manages the Scheme on the Bar Association’s behalf). In all these cases your Bar Association or pro bono clearing house will assess applications from clients, community legal organisations and NGOs for means and/or public interest and merit and then provide a brief. You will only be offered matters that match your experience and interests and you will not be under any obligation to accept.
Many states and territories also have a Duty Barrister Scheme running in one or more local courts. These schemes operate on a roster system and allow you to gain experience representing clients in Court. Your Bar Association will have the details.
You can also build a relationship with a community legal centre (CLC) in your area or whose specialisation matches your interests. For more information on CLCs see here.
Working to improve social justice in an international context can be extremely challenging and rewarding as the inequalities can be vast and the social structures extremely undeveloped.
You could get involved in monitoring human rights compliance and abuses, evaluating developing legal systems, reviewing legislation, mentoring lawyers in basic legal skills, setting up legal system infrastructure, like case management systems for courts, or even finding furniture for courts.
You can look on websites such as reliefweb.int or devnetjobs.org to find opportunities to volunteer and work with international organisations. Some positions which are called ‘volunteer positions’ actually pay a substantial living allowance or stipend.
Australian Volunteers International connects people and organisations internationally to learn from each other and achieve shared goals, its work in people-centred development, particularly through volunteering, is central to this. AVI sends legal professionals on long-term, two year volunteer assignments overseas, in response to requests from its development partners. There is, however, a large demand for these assignments.
United Nations Volunteers (UNV) is a United Nations organisation that promotes volunteerism to support peace and development worldwide and specifically recruits volunteers with legal qualifications and experience. Many of the opportunities with UNV may be in the field in developing or post-conflict countries, so you will need to be able to adjust to difficult and sometimes dangerous living conditions. You need to possess a university degree or higher technical diploma, have two years of relevant work experience and be at least 25 years of age.
This work will give you valuable field experience but note that it may automatically disqualify you from being considered for any paid professional positions within the United Nations for 12 months, so you shouldn’t see it as an easy path to a career with the United Nations itself.
I wasn’t really sure about law until I started volunteering at a community legal centre. This gave me a new enthusiasm for law and a practical perspective on what I was studying which meant that my marks improved too. Working at a CLC was the best training I could have had for my job at the United Nations.
Leanne, lawyer, United Nations