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A matter of (public) interest: Legal Aid NSW

A matter of (public) interest: Legal Aid NSW

When weighing up your career options, consider throwing public interest law into the mix. Zoe Lyon speaks to three lawyers from Legal Aid NSW who have discovered the appeal


Working in a commercial law firm won't suit all lawyers, but organisations focusing on public interest law, such as Legal Aid NSW, can offer a ful­filling alterative. Though some students will know from the get-go that their future lies in public interest law, others will want test the waters of the private sector before deciding to make the switch.

Monique Hitter is the director of civil law at Legal Aid, a role which involves managing the civil law division's 93 staff members. However, she dipped her toes in a few ponds before deciding on Legal Aid. She's previously worked as a social worker, as a lawyer at the Marrickville Legal Centre and she also did a brief stint as a pro bono lawyer for a large law firm.

But the attraction of Legal Aid for Hitter was the scope of public interest legal work available, which includes specialist legal services for older persons, homeless people and those with mental health issues.

"The primary reason Legal Aid exists is to provide legal services for socially and economically disadvantaged people and that's where my passion lies - to do work that promotes access to legal services and ensures that particularly disadvantaged people can protect and enforce their rights," she said.

Nicole Dwyer began her career working as a solicitor at a number of rural law firms before stopping work for family reasons. She took up a job at Legal Aid when she returned to the workforce, and became the solicitor in charge of the Wagga Wagga office earlier this year.

As with Hitter, the highlight of Dwyer's job is being able to help those who wouldn't otherwise have access to legal services, but she also relishes not having to worry about marketing, attracting clients and profit levels.

Dwyer and Hitter, who both have young children, also cited flexible working conditions as a drawcard of working in the public service. Legal Aid's core hours are 9.30am to 3.30pm and time worked over 35 hours per week can be accumulated as flexi-time.

"You're not always able to take [flexi-time] because you've got big work commitments, but there is this sense that they do really want to encourage work-life balance as much as they can," said Hitter.

David Coorey, now a senior lawyer in civil litigation at Legal Aid, has a resume which boasts experience at both a top-tier Australian firm and a UK magic circle firm.

After launching his career at the Crown Solicitor's Office, Coorey moved to London to take up a position at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. He later returned to Sydney and was snapped up by Freehills where he worked in commercial litigation and employment law.

It was at Freehills that he got a taste for public interest law, when he was given the chance to go on secondment to the Kingsford Legal Centre.

"I absolutely loved it. As soon as I got out to Kingsford I thought 'This it what I really have to be doing'," Coorey said. "It was supposed to be three months, then it was [extended to] six months, but I was there for a year, which I think is the record."

Following the secondment he returned to Freehills, but his time at Kingsford still played on his mind and he eventually jumped ship in 2002, joining Legal Aid's consumer law section.

Coorey's current position is varied and incorporates litigation, policy work and community legal education. "It's a really interesting mix that you probably wouldn't get anywhere else - it's an interesting, challenging place to work," he said.

One of the highlights is the opportunity he's had to head up major litigation. "I've run a couple of matters, and you'd probably describe them as multimillion-dollar claims, and I've got the responsibility which a partner might have at a [private sector law firm]," Coorey explained. "In one sense, it can be a bit scary, but ultimately it's very rewarding."

Coorey and Hitter believe one of the biggest misconceptions about Legal Aid concerns the quality of the lawyers that it attracts, many of whom come from a community sector background.

"Opponents do underestimate us," Coorey said. "I think we actually have a strategic advantage just because of the fact that people don't realise that Legal Aid actually has lawyers that mix it with the

best of them."

Hitter concurred: "The lawyers that come from the community sector are, in my experience, very skilled. And Legal Aid does as much as it can to encourage training and

we provide a lot of training in-house. You don't necessarily have to come from the private sector in order to become a highly skilled litigator or lawyer."

Another misconception of Legal Aid con­cerns remuneration, which Coorey believes some people in the private sector underestimate.

"I think it's better than a lot of people expect. Certainly it's better than the community sector generally," he said.

Hitter offered another perspective: "You've got to look at it from a more holis­tic point of view - when you think about the benefits of flexi-time, leave entitlements, maternity leave entitlements - put all that together and you get a very, very favourable comparison."

- Zoe Lyon

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