You can apply your legal skills to advancing social justice throughout your working life. You don’t need to work full-time in a social justice-related job to make a difference; there are various opportunities to contribute on a full-time, part-time or volunteer basis.
For recent graduates, volunteering or interning first at an organisation may boost your chances of getting your first job or paid position at a social justice focused organisation. Some organisations offer paid internships for new graduates, e.g. Legal Aid Commissions. See below for some examples of ways that you can start your social justice career.
Student Pro Bono Questions for Prospective Employers
We have created a set of five Student Pro Bono Questions for law students who are looking to learn more about the pro bono opportunities offered by prospective employers. When asked during a clerkship or graduate interview, these questions will allow you to better distinguish between the pro bono programs of different organisations, helping you to make a more informed decision about where you would prefer to work.
Other job sites
Below are some other great job sites worth keeping an eye on:
- Beyond Law – a legal job-search, news and resources site for Australian law students, graduates & young lawyers. Includes a list of employment and internship opportunities in the social justice sector.
- Ethical Jobs – a general job search website that only includes jobs “… that contribute to a more equitable, more just or more sustainable world “. Search using the classification “Legal & Human Rights.”
- Pro Bono Australia – includes a Jobs Board for the not for profit sector. Search under category “Legal”.
Given the shortage of lawyers in many regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, it is also a good idea to seek job opportunities outside the main cities.
Legal Aid Commissions in each State and Territory assist economically and socially disadvantaged people to understand, protect and enforce their legal rights.
Positions within Legal Aid are highly sought-after, so building up experience by volunteering at a community legal centre or other similar role is one of the best ways to boost your chances of getting a job.
Expand for links to Legal Aid in each State and Territory, as well as links to their graduate programs (if applicable).
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 Western Australia: Has opportunities through its Indigenous Law Student Program. It also has a Regional Graduate Program, which is advertised on the WA Government Jobs Board website. Other vacancies are advertised under ‘Legal Aid Western Australia’ on the website. Information Officer positions do not require you to be admitted and are offered within its InfoLine service.
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 (but has a Summer Clerkship Program). Other vacancies are advertised as they arise on its Careers page.
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 vacancies are limited. 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 good sources for finding broader non-legal opportunities.
If you are interested in working for a particular NGO, enquire directly with them about legal positions. Most organisations have contact numbers listed on their websites.
DFAT provides a list of key accredited Australian 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.
Community legal centres and other legal organisations
Working in a CLC or other community legal organisation involves working on the front line with clients and can be incredibly rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to become involved in an area that you are passionate about and boosts your chances of getting a paid position in the future.
You can get in touch with organisations directly to find out about paid positions. The Community Legal Centres Australia website 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/Territory:
- Australian Capital Territory
- New South Wales
- Northern Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
We also list paid job opportunities at CLCs for early-career lawyers here.
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 can be found here.
Government departments, agencies and authorities
The work of many government departments and agencies focuses on improving social justice for citizens. This includes implementing policies to promote a more socially inclusive society, particularly for the most vulnerable groups including people with a disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, women, older people, children and young people.
While many regard government work as a ‘public service’, not everyone sees it as social justice work. 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.
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:
- Australian Capital Territory
- New South Wales
- Northern Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
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.
At a law firm
Many law firms have structured pro bono programs, and provide opportunities for their lawyers to undertake a variety of interesting pro bono legal work.
A diverse range of work is undertaken through law firm pro bono programs. You might be seconded to a CLC, involved in providing advice to a homeless person at an evening clinic, preparing papers for a case in the Federal Court, be part of a litigation team pursuing public interest litigation, or undertaking research on the effect of an international treaty.
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
As a barrister
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.
Justice Connect in Victoria and LawRight in Queensland manage the Victorian and Queensland Bar Association schemes, respectively. Each pro bono referral scheme assesses applications from clients, community legal organisations and NGOs for means and/or public interest and merit and then provides a brief to a barrister registered under the scheme. Matters are offered to match experience and interests.
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. Contact your Bar Association for details.
You can also build a relationship with a community legal centre in your area or whose specialisation matches your interests. For more information on CLCs see here.
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, for non-profit organisations, and for matters that are in the public interest.
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
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.
There are many different ways to get involved, whether it be as a law student, through your law firm, as a barrister, or even after retirement. For more information on how to get involved, check out the Australian Pro Bono Centre’s website.
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 underdeveloped.
You could get involved in monitoring human rights compliance and abuses, evaluating developing legal systems, reviewing legislation, mentoring lawyers in basic legal skills, or setting up legal system infrastructure such as case management systems for courts.
You can look on websites such as reliefweb, devex or devnetjobs 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. 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.
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