Experience that serves the community

By Lianne Hall

A new initiative is putting into practice Melbourne Law School's belief that real-life experience in public interest law will better equip students for professional life whilst making a difference to the community.

When Professor Carolyn Evans took up her position as Dean of Melbourne Law School, one of her earliest official encounters was with a group of law students that had just finished legal internships.

"The students had really enjoyed their internship experience, but they wanted to take it further. They encouraged the Law School to think about a broader range of experiences for students with a desire to undertake public interest placements," said Professor Evans.

This idea resonated with the Dean's own views on clinical legal education, and with those of colleagues, many of whom had already started experimenting with exciting ideas in their own classes. Building on research strengths and existing activities in public interest law, the Law School decided to establish a program that would give students professional skills and provide tangible benefits to the community: the Public Interest Law Initiative.

The Public Interest Law Initiative will provide students with experience in public interest law environments where they can develop skills through practical application of their legal knowledge. Clinical law placements with partner organisations, as well as a wide range of internships, will allow students to facilitate access to justice for members of the community experiencing financial and social disadvantage.

"This initiative creates wonderful opportunities for our students to develop their practical legal skills and understanding, while also making a real difference to the lives of individuals with legal problems," says Professor Evans. The Public Interest Law Initiative embraces innovative subjects that see students testing their legal knowledge beyond the classroom. Through the subject Street Law, JD students are taking law into the everyday lives of secondary school students by delivering lessons in schools on legal rights and responsibilities.

Other students are gaining exposure to the work of lawyers with Victoria Legal Aid - just one of a range of clinical legal experiences available under the new subject, Public Interest Law in Practice.

Jo Kerr, Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative, says that by partnering with organisations in the legal assistance sector, the Law School hopes students will gain a better understanding of the impact of the legal system on the lives of those most marginalised. "And it will also provide students with an insight into the broad range of public interest law career opportunities available to them upon graduation," she said.

Such is the level of interest at Melbourne that students have set up their own Public Interest Law Network to help promote the field, with social media and events such as film screenings, discussions and visits by guest speakers to bring topical issues into focus.

JD student Rachel Macleod says that Melbourne's initiatives are definitely a step in the right direction for the Law School. She believes that the opportunity to gain clinical experience as part of a structured program "will allow students to solidify and contextualise the legal knowledge learnt in class."

Professor Evans says that the Law School is committed to supporting the work of public interest law organisations in an environment where funding has not kept pace with the growing demand for legal services.

"Bright, energetic law students can be a really valuable asset to these organisations when they are given proper training and supervision. I think that it is important for Melbourne Law School to play its part in supporting the valuable social role played by community legal centres, legal aid and other community organisations."

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 9, June 2013.