From the classroom to the community

Senior Lecturer Kate Fischer Doherty is Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) at MLS. For Fischer Doherty, a highlight of her role is helping students put their learning into practice in the community.

“I’ve always been motivated by social justice,” she says.

“I was and still am quite idealistic about using law to achieve good outcomes for people.”

Fischer Doherty first practised in commercial law before she found her way to the community legal sector, working as a lawyer and community legal educator for probono legal organisation Justice Connect. Since 2015 she has directed the Public Interest Law Initiative clinical program at MLS.

“I was really excited when I saw the opportunity because it was exactly the kind of program I felt was lacking when I was a law student,” she says.

“The role seemed to bring together both my community legal centre orientation and working with students, which I really enjoy.”

PILI is the hub for public interest law at MLS, offering clinical-based subjects to engage JD students in learning through experience, allowing them to work under supervision on real issues and for real clients.

Some clinics are based at MLS and in others students are placed at a range of public interest legal organisations.

“I’ve got one student at the moment who is in a remote community in Western Australia and we’ve got clinic students who are working at Victoria Legal Aid,” Fischer Doherty explains.

“For students, often that experience of going outside the Law School and testing things out makes them think about their career and about what they want to do.”

Fischer Doherty’s own background in community legal education has made her well aware of the need for those entering the legal profession to have strong communication skills.

“I think there can be a bit of a tendency, as law students and law professionals, to think that people understand the law. In fact lots of people don’t understand or are just unaware of quite basic information,” she explains.

“Being able to explain the law in a simple, clear, accurate and engaging way is really crucial.”

Reflecting on her own career trajectory, Fischer Doherty tries to instill in her students a broad perspective of what a career in the law can entail. She advises that the skills gained through community legal work can be applied to any number of roles in the legal profession.

“Very rarely do people get the job they will ultimately end up with when they first leave,” she says.

“It’s all a process of working towards something that aligns with your core beliefs and working out what you do and don’t want to do.”

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