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Home is where the heart is

Home is where the heart is

Chuck Berger took more than a plunge when he changed practice area, organisation and country to begin a role as the Australian Conservation Fund's sole legal counsel. He speaks to Zoe Lyon about…

Chuck Berger took more than a plunge when he changed practice area, organisation and country to begin a role as the Australian Conservation Fund's sole legal counsel. He speaks to Zoe Lyon about his decision to follow his passion

CHANGING JOBS can be challenging at the best of times, and Chuck Berger, the director of strategic ideas at the Australian Conservation Fund (ACF), doesn't do things by halves.

In 2003, as a relatively junior lawyer, US-born Berger left a steady position in corporate and commercial law at a large international law firm, packed his bags for Australia, and joined the environmental non-for-profit organisation as its sole in-house legal counsel.

"I just felt that I wanted to do something where I had more of a sense of contributing something longlasting and valuable - something that's important to society in the long-term sense," he explains.

Admittedly this wasn't Berger's first taste of Australia. Soon after graduating from his Masters of Law he moved to Melbourne to take up a role as a Federal Court researcher and he spent a year as the associate to Federal Court Justice Sue Kenny, before he moved back to the States.

As in-house counsel, a role he held for three years before moving across to his current position, Berger dealt with a diverse range of legal issues. His day-to-day work ranged from standard business contract, intellectual property, legal risk management and internal governance issues, to more specialised areas such as charitable tax, then to broader environmental law reform advocacy work.

"It was incredibly diverse and one of the challenges and delights of the job was the fact that you were dealing with something new and different every week. It was a fascinating mix of responsibilities and I really did become a bit of a jack of all trades and a master of none," he laughs.

This breadth of work, combined with the fact that he was new to the jurisdiction and effectively acting as the ACF's general counsel, meant that Berger had to mentally shift gears from his time spent in a large private practice firm.

"I think the great challenge is being called upon to advise on an issue where you're not intimately familiar with the law in that area, and a decision is needed very quickly - so you're often operating just at the envelope of your comfort zone," he says.

"You have to take much more of a risk management-based approach to the day-to-day legal issues, as opposed to doing a very carefully considered, confident, written legal advice - which is much more the modus operandi of law firms."

Berger says that an "unquestionable highlight" of his job is being able to work for a cause he feels strongly about, and with others who share that passion.

"It is the sense of shared purpose and real passion of not only the ACF staff, but also the volunteers, the people who support the ACF, and all the other community advocates I've come across here," he says. "My jaw literally drops at the capacity of people to be ambitious and to really fight for what they believe in."

He says another benefit of working in the not-for-profit sector is that you're given the opportunity to take on high levels of responsibility at a much earlier stage in your career than you would in government or private practice roles.

"Within a year or two of starting at ACF I was dealing with CEOs, boards and government ministers on crucial policy issues. Not-for-profits tend to be much smaller organisations ... with less capacity and ... they tend to be fairly nimble. When you're effective in what you do, that tends to get noticed and you're given greater responsibility early on," he says.

Berger's advice to young lawyers wanting to get involved in social justice or community law is simply to take the plunge. "You can still make a reasonable living and you can actually work for the cause you believe in," he says.

"I get the sense that a lot of people in law firms want to do more community-orientated work, but feel they're not in a position to do that. At the end of the day I feel that for most of these people the only thing holding them back is themselves."

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