Careers in Public Interest Law

Hugh de Kretser

Hugh De Kretser.

Executive Director
Human Rights Law Centre

"After starting my career in corporate law, for the past 11 years I've been privileged to work in community legal centres, first at the Brimbank Melton Community Legal Centre, then at the Federation of Community Legal Centres and now at the Human Rights Law Centre. I love my job. The work is personally satisfying. I work with people I admire and respect. The clients we work with are often inspiring. I want to make a positive contribution to society and put my education and privilege to good use. Working in community legal centres allows me to do this.

I didn't set out to work at the Human Rights Law Centre and in fact it didn't even exist when I was at university. But I did have a general career direction and made choices to follow the work I wanted to do. Because of my interests, work and volunteering experience, I have had opportunities that have led me to my current role.

Students interested in working in public interest law should expose themselves to as much relevant experience as possible, through study, volunteering, internships and work. For those interested in human rights law, don't get stuck on the words "human rights". There are plenty of great lawyers doing human rights law working in areas like disability, child protection, elder abuse, family violence and more. If you work in a corporate firm, there are still opportunities to contribute through pro bono work, secondments, getting involved with Law Institute committees, volunteering and board roles on non-profit organisations."

Amy Frew

Amy Frew.

Graduate Solicitor
Federation of Community Legal Centres

"I volunteered at Community Legal Centres (CLCs) and Victoria Legal Aid throughout the JD. I am about to start as the Federation of CLCs 2014/15 Graduate Solicitor in September.

For me the value of working in public interest law is to empower people to understand their rights and assist them in seeking to enforce them.

Law students interested in public interest law should get involved as early in their degree as possible. This could be volunteering at a CLC or doing an internship at a related organisation (e.g. one with a rights based focus) and then looking for ways they can maximise their involvement. For example, I found I could offer the greatest value when I was able to align my studies with the focus of the organisations I was volunteering with."

Phoebe Knowles

Phoebe Knowles.

Victorian Bar

"I am a public law Barrister at the Victorian Bar. During my LLB at the University of Melbourne, I studied as a visiting scholar at Oxford University (St Catherine's College, studying philosophy and international law). I then travelled to Sierra Leone where I spent a year, first as an intern then as a legal assistant, on a defence trial team at the Special Court. Pursuing my interest in international justice, I then completed a Masters of International Law with Distinction (specialising in International Humanitarian Law) at the London School of Economics as a Chevening Scholar.

On my return to Australia, I worked on a programme documenting the war in Darfur and interviewing Darfuris in Australia. I completed articles at Minter Ellison and worked at the Homeless Persons' Legal Clinic and Human Rights Law Centre before going to the Bar. I now have a public law practice, including human rights and administrative law cases.

A career in public interest law can be immensely interesting and rewarding. It is also work that can be combined with a practice in other areas of law; a tax lawyer can also be a human rights lawyer! For me, it is about finding out how I can use my skills to help people."

Phil Lynch

Phil Lynch.

International Service for Human Rights

"I am the Director of the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva, prior to which I was the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne. Like many, I started my career in public interest law volunteering with Amnesty International, advocating on issues such as torture and the death penalty, and volunteering with what is now Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre, advocating on issues such as unfair fines and police harassment. I think this demonstrates the breadth of public interest law, but also the common features – respect for human rights, access to justice and the rule of law. After starting my professional career as a commercial lawyer with Allens, I was fortunate to be seconded to the Public Interest Law Clearing House (now Justice Connect), where an early highlight was acting for 433 asylum seekers detained by the Australian navy after being rescued by the MV Tampa. Since that time it has been my privilege to work in a field where my passions and responsibilities align and where I have had the opportunity to work with some amazingly dedicated, professional and courageous human rights advocates."

James Tierney

James Tierney.

Board Secretary
Environmental Defenders Office (NT)

"I came up to the Northern Territory after finishing my JD at the University of Melbourne in 2008. The NT is a small jurisdiction but it is home to a host of hot button legal issues such as mandatory sentencing, sky high rates of indigenous incarceration, the interaction of traditional and 'whitefella' law and most recently Alcohol Protection Orders. Working as a young lawyer in the NT is a real adventure – over the years I have been caught in tropical storms in light aircraft, driven down the dirt backroads in the central desert to attend bush court and have met a host of amazing people. I am now on the board of the Environmental Defenders Office NT, a committee member of CLANT 'Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT' (known for its infamous bi-annual Bali conferences) as well as a supervisor at Darwin Community Legal Service.

I would encourage any student who is interested in working outside the firms to give public interest law a go – whether you are working for a land council or a small community legal centre you will always have an interesting answer when people ask what your week was like! My best advice is to look at places you would like to work at and write to them directly. The whole reason I live in Darwin now is because I emailed my old boss up here looking for work experience and two weeks later they offered me a job. Don't be afraid to go rural and remote. Volunteering is always a great idea when you are a student."