Public Interest | Law

Public Interest

Public interest law aims to assist those groups in our society who are vulnerable and are unable to represent themselves; for example, people who are socially disadvantaged, women, children and the elderly, people with physical disabilities and mental health issues, Indigenous people, refugees, asylum seekers, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people in detention and prisoners. Public interest law also aims to represent those parts of our society that cannot speak for themselves, such as animals and the environment.

Public interest lawyers work in a range of organisations, both national and international. A non-exhaustive list of these organisations includes community legal centres, non-legal community organisations, government (at all levels, including the United Nations), the Bar and the judiciary (including both national and international courts and tribunals), non-government organisations (NGOs), not-for-profits, universities, the diplomatic service, the military and emergency services, security organisations, the media, international trade organisations and monetary funds.

Lawyers in private practice can also work in the public interest space, particularly if they are providing their services pro bono (ie for free, or at a significantly reduced fee).

The breadth of legal experience gained in public interest law is wide-ranging and may include criminal, human rights and humanitarian, environmental, indigenous, immigration/refugee, employment, health, tenancy, administrative, property and commercial law.

It may also include advocacy in a more general sense, such as policy, politics, lobbying, making submissions to government, education, journalism and social media, research, community and aid work, negotiation, security, and diplomacy.

Lawyers who work in rural, regional and remote areas may also find themselves practising in the public interest sphere due to the smaller community size and relatively larger proportion of Indigenous people.

Gaining as much experience as possible in public interest law, for example as a volunteer or intern, is key to starting a career in the field. Due to the nature of public interest law, many roles in this area are initially unpaid, however there are some (often highly contested) opportunities that are paid or provide a travel or meal allowance.

Internships

UNSW Law students can intern at a range of public interest organisations and gain course credit.

More information about Internships at external organisations and on site at UNSW is available here.

The list of Summer 2017/2018 and Semester 1 2018 internships for external organisations and on site at UNSW is available here (although students may propose different organisations, including ones that are overseas).

Careers Guides

The UNSW Law Society’s Public Interest Careers Guide 2017 can be viewed here.

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre and Australian Law Student’s Association publication Social Justice Opportunities: A Career Guide for Law Students and New Lawyers can be viewed here.

A video entitled Getting Started in International Law: what I wish I had known from the start can be viewed here.

Job Websites

Australia

USA

International

Alumni Story

Public InterestAmrita Kapur BSc (Psych) (Hons)/LLB ’04 (UNSW) LLM '09 (NYU)

I am a Senior Associate in the Gender Justice Program at the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York. I started this role in January 2014.

What does a typical day in the job involve for you? I provide technical assistance to policymakers, government agencies and civil society to build momentum and expertise to ensure that transitional justice measures including prosecutions, truth-seeking initiatives, reparations and institutional reform effectively reveal gendered patterns of abuse and are gender-sensitive.  This generally involves providing training to staff of transitional justice measures (such as truth commissions or police vetting panels, for example), and civil society especially women’s victims’ organisations. I also write submissions, policy proposals, and detailed research reports; present at workshops and conferences; and provide critical feedback on transitional justice initiatives with respect to specific legal and gender issues. I work closely with country offices in Kenya, DRC, Uganda and Colombia to ensure ICTJ's work both mainstreams gender and is gender-progressive in providing support across a range of transitional justice measures and building capacity to advocate for reform.

What route did you undertake to get this role? Prior to joining ICTJ, I was a lecturer at the UNSW Law School, where I am completing a field research-based PhD on the ICC’s complementarity regime.  Previously, I was the international legal adviser for the Women’s Justice Unit with the Judicial System Monitoring Programme in Timor-Leste, and managed a field research project in Mozambique and Tanzania on women’s access to justice. I also practised domestic criminal law in Australian courts as a legal aid criminal defence lawyer and prosecution officer, before working with the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, the International Justice Program at the Human Rights Watch, and the Criminal Justice Program at ICTJ. I also completed an LLM in International Legal Studies at NYU.

What advice would you give to UNSW Law students who are hoping to pursue your chosen career path? It is important to gain field experience if you would like to work in national and/or international social justice organisations, both to demonstrate resilience and adaptability, but also to determine for yourself if fieldwork is appealing for you.  Second, the highly competitive field of international social justice means that you will most likely need to intern or otherwise work without a salary to gain the necessary experience.  Relatedly, particularly in the early stages of your career, there will be a high level of job insecurity and uncertainty, characterised by serial short-term contracts that may not be renewed.  While the work experience itself is both rewarding and challenging, it is also important to know whether you have a tolerance for job insecurity during this time.