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  • Writer's pictureKath Hall

When Working in a Law Firm Doesn't Work for You

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

Work beyond a law firm | What are your options?

One of the biggest complaints I hear from students is that there isn’t enough information on careers outside conventional legal practice. While over 60% of students start studying law with the goal of “making a difference in the world”, research in both Australia and the USA suggests that less than 10% go into public interest positions/work after graduating. This is quite shocking. The problem, in my opinion, is not that there aren’t enough public interest jobs, it’s that the work is extremely varied and there's no clear pathway to get there (like there is for getting a job in a law firm). To get an idea of just how varied the work is – check out Ethical Jobs – Legal and Human Rights postings, and Social Justice Opportunities jobs page.

To help fill the gap, this guide sets out the major areas of public interest work in Australia. While helpful (I hope), this information alone isn’t likely to provide you with a clear pathway forward. Instead, you will have to dig down further into the areas and roles you might be interested in and then speak to people working in those areas. This can seem daunting – but it’s absolutely worth it and you’d be surprised how much people like chatting with students about their work. I suggest visiting the organisation or department’s webpage to find people working there and then reaching out to them through LinkedIn and ask if they are happy to chat. Alternatively, there is huge value in getting personalised career advice. It can really help you work out what type of work might suit you and where to find it. Check out the Law School Success Public Interest Law Mentoring Program.

Advocacy work

Advocacy work involves representing and advocating for vulnerable members of the community. There are 2 types of advocacy work – individual advocacy and systemic. Individual advocacy generally involves assisting vulnerable people to understand their rights and choices (particularly with legal problems), providing advice, representing people in court or in meetings, and advocating for specific changes in law or policy. Systemic advocacy involves working more broadly to influence laws, policies and decisions by researching the needs of a vulnerable community group and then approaching government to propose and advocate for solutions. Some organisations do only individual or systemic advocacy work, while others do both.

There are many organisations that do advocacy work around Australia in areas such as disability, women and domestic violence, homelessness, social justice, refugees and asylum seekers, older persons, children and youth, indigenous and LGBTQI+. Organisations doing this work include sector-specific community legal centres (find a list here) and sector specific community organisations, through to large not-for-profits (including religious organisations and charities). Many of these organisations accept law students as volunteers and para-legals. This is a great way to see if this work suits you and to build experience in the area if it does.

Courts and tribunals

There are many courts, tribunals and commissions (including Ombudsman) at both federal and state level in Australia (find a general list here). These organisations deal with disputes – whether through adjudication, dispute settlement or investigation and reporting. They employ legal and quasi-legal staff to assist decision makers, assist with the running of the court/tribunal/organisation and conduct research. One of the most common roles undertaken in this area is that of Judge’s Associate. However, there are many more types of work in this area including with Corruption Commissions, tribunals, Royal Commissions and Enquiries. These jobs are usually advertised on Seek and on the court/organisation’s webpages.

In-house counsel

Many large public sector, not-for-profit and NGO organisations have their own in-house legal departments. Think universities, hospitals, religious and social justice organisations, public superannuation funds and government authorities. In- house counsel are sometimes referred to as the “GP’s” of the legal profession because of the variety of matters they deal with. While most lawyers doing this work start out in private practice and move in-house after a few years, it is also possible to go directly into graduate roles with some organisations.

Non-traditional legal practice

There are a number of law firms in Australia that are now providing specialised services for people who are unable to access legal advice or in public interest areas. Two examples of these are Equity Generation Lawyers and Shakti Legal Solutions. Equity Generation Lawyers is an independent legal practice specialising in climate risk litigation. Its lawyers work on landmark climate change matters across Australia and provide advice and opinions on related issues.

Shakti Legal is a low-bono law firm that provides access to legal assistance for the “missing middle” and vulnerable people through a ‘pay what you can’ and fixed pricing model. It also works to empower individuals, organisations and communities to help bridge the access to justice gap.

Non-government organisations

Many students dream of working for an international NGO on graduation. This is a very worthwhile goal – but one that can take perseverance and hard work to achieve. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 NGOS operating around the world. For a list of the 20 largest NGOS go here.

To start the process, think about a region/country or issue that you are interested in. With regions/countries – see if you can add some subjects into your study that focus on that area or study the relevant language. If you can, visit the country or region and arrange to meet local and international NGOs working there. While this step is expensive (both in terms of time and money) it is the best way to learn about opportunities to work there. It is also good to look into exchange opportunities (and university funding) or other programs offered by your university or law school.

If there are particular issues you are interested in (such as refugees, climate change, natural disasters, human rights, aid and development), get any experience you can in Australia in relation to that issue. Look into volunteering or working with a national NGO that does similar work. For a full list of NGO’s accredited in Australia go here. As this list indicates, many international NGOs also operate in Australia, and accept interns or employ paralegals. To find out more, go to their website, research the organisation’s operations in Australia, then send an email or phone to ask about volunteer or work opportunities. It may take a few attempts before you find a project or organisation to get involved with, so be patient and try not to give up.

Policy & Research

If you like research or policy, there are many work opportunities available in parliament, government departments, think tanks, NGOs, royal commissions and enquiries. Some community organisations also employ people to conduct research and write government submissions. Law graduates are usually well qualified for this work due to your research, analytical and writing skills. If you are particularly keen on legal research, you might also consider academia as a career. While a basic requirement for most university positions is now a PhD, it is often easy to get work as a casual tutor in the university you graduated from. This provides an excellent opportunity to see if you like teaching and to meet and talk to academics about further work and study.

Professional bodies

Most law students don’t even think about the opportunities that can exist to work with professional bodies such as state/territory law societies, national organisations (such as the Law Council of Australia) or international organisations (such as The International Bar Association). These bodies often employ researchers to work on policy and advocacy issues that affect the legal profession, and on key legal issues such as access to justice, regulatory policy, rule of law and human rights. State bodies also employ staff to assist with admissions, investigations and disciplinary processes.

Public sector

The public sector (state and federal government departments) is one of the biggest employers of law graduates. Roles include litigation work with national or state Attorney Generals/Crown Solicitors/Departments of Public Prosecution; policy and advisory work in Prime Minister or Premier departments; legislative drafting; working with government ministers; and conducting research in parliamentary libraries. There are also many legal and quasi-legal roles in federal government departments (the largest being Defence, Health, Home Affairs, the AFP, and Environment) and the many state departments and agencies. For a list of all government departments and agencies (both state and federal) click here. Many departments and agencies have graduate programs, and can also offer paralegal work during your degree.


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