Planning your law career path in community sector

Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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Overview

The Australian community sector – sometimes referred to as the not-for-profit sector, third sector or social sector – encompasses a variety of organisations that are neither commercial nor governmental. These organisations pursue a range of charitable purposes through service delivery, grant making and other activities which advance health, justice, education, social welfare and religion.

Entering the community sector

Given the breadth of the community sector and the issues with which it deals, the first step to finding an entry point is figuring out which social challenges you’re most passionate about. For example, if you feel strongly about fair access to legal representation, you may gravitate towards community legal centres. If you are passionate about addressing the ways in which specific laws may disproportionately affect certain demographics, you may find it more fulfilling to work for an advocacy group.

Alternatively, if you’d like to contribute to the community sector without necessarily committing to it, you might research commercial firms or private practices that have active pro bono programs. The Australian Pro Bono Centre, which is supported by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, provides information on how lawyers from all different backgrounds can offer their skills back to the community on a pro bono basis. Law students can also apply to undertake practical legal training or work at community legal centres or advocacy groups – a great way to gain valuable experience while working on a range of social justice initiatives.

What’s involved?

The specifics of your role will depend on the focus of your community engagement. For example, a lawyer working for an asylum seeker support service will likely spend more time overseeing casework than a lawyer who offers pro bono tax advice to a small business.

There are, however, some common tasks that most lawyers in the community sector can expect to undertake. These include providing legal advice and ongoing casework to clients, representing clients, designing community legal education projects, participating in law reform projects, and engaging in other activities that support the core mission of the organisation for which they work.

Best and worst

The community sector is often perceived as offering lower average pay than other legal sectors, and there is some truth to this, with graduate salaries in the community sector generally lower than those offered by private or commercial firms.

The good news is that community legal jobs often offer increased flexibility, as well as tax benefits through competitive salary packaging. They also offer other rewards including a sense that one’s work is making a meaningful and positive difference to the lives of socio-economically or otherwise disadvantaged clients.

Career progression

Here we will focus on possible career progressions as a lawyer working full-time within a community legal centre or not-for-profit organisation.

Community legal centres provide practicing lawyers with an opportunity to dedicate their skills to addressing important issues of social justice. Many community legal centres allow new graduates to complete their practical legal training by volunteering for at least sixty days. While this isn’t a permanent position, it can be a good way to develop your reputation and see what it’s like to work for a community organisation.

The shape of your career will be determined by the nature of the organisation for which you work. Many lawyers stay in not-for-profits, using their experience and skills to pursue more senior positions. Others may decide to take their community sector skills and apply in a role where career advancement is more predictable. The average salary for lawyers in community legal centres varies from state to state.

Employer examples:

  • community Legal Centres**
  • non-governmental organisations
  • Public Interest Advocacy Centre Service
  • Aboriginal legal services
  • human rights law centres
  • National Pro Bono Resource Centre
  • Voiceless.

Job title examples:

  • human rights and social justice advocacy officer
  • migration agent
  • legal clearance officer         
  • Native Title lawyer
  • pro bono consultant
  • volunteer solicitor.

**The National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) maintains a list of available positions at: www.clc.net.au/JobAds/

Choose this if you:

  • Feel strongly about the role of the law in addressing socio-economic disadvantage.
  • Are open to the idea of working in remote and rural areas of Australia.
  • Wish to contribute to your community.