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Snagging Six Figures: From earning $54,500 in Human Rights Law into…

The concept  ‘Snagging six figures’ was created after we had readers writing in asking for advice about how to use their degree and current job skills to launch into a different industry or career. We know that no one career story is the same, but telling the stories of others can challenge, inspire and shape your own. We are asking every interview the same five questions:

  • Why they picked their course
  • Their course experience
  • Their first job
  • What they learnt
  • Their next step
  • And their advice

Name: Emily

Age: 30

From human rights law into criminal law

Salary: From $54,500 at 23 to $88,000 at 29

Why I picked my course

I had an interest in health, women’s rights and international development so I initially thought about doing an arts degree that focused on International Public Health. My parents had different ideas, they thought that a law degree would be better… Coincidentally, once I started looking into it all I kind of figured that my skills would be better suited to helping women through the legal and policy sphere rather than in health programs, and so I started a law degree.

Course experience: Bachelor of Laws, University of Sydney

The culture: Law is just so, so competitive. Law cohorts are filled with overachievers. I went to the University of Sydney and I found the culture really intimidating at the beginning. In my opinion, there were only two ways to make friends; you went to college or you joined the law society. I wasn’t in either of those groups…  I really just tried to stay in my own lane and not let the ‘law lifestyle’ impact me.

The course: The course content itself is so great. I was really, really challenged in every subject and the lecturers are genuinely so passionate and engaged in your learning. I did my clerkship in a private practice that focused on criminal defence and family court work. I really loved this too.

My work experience: I wanted to do some volunteer work overseas that would utilise my legal skills, so in my final year of university I went to Tanzania for a month (in the break) and was part of a small team (between 2 and 5 people while I was there) providing legal and human rights advice to women’s groups and to boys held in a retention centre. We worked under the supervision, of a local legally trained Tanzanian woman. Basically, we met with the women’s groups in churches, homes – sometimes even under a tree in a field; and we’d take turns providing presentations on an issue like inheritance law or the rights of children born out of wedlock and discussing the law and answering questions. We would often also meet with individual women seeking advice on their personal situation. All statutes are in English but everyone spoke Swahili, so the woman who ran the programme translated for us.

I could not recommend this experience more. I learnt so much in the month. For example, you can have the best laws in the world but without equality of access to them that’s meaningless. I mean, Tanzania is a member of the Commonwealth and has a common law legal system, right? So the rights of children in the criminal system is similar to what we have in Australia; but it seems to be routinely ignored by the local police.

For most of the questions we’d get there would be a customary, Islamic and statutory law answer – and which law applied depended on the religion of the person we were talking to. Again, really interesting… Some of the laws are very archaic. For example, children born out of wedlock generally have the same rights as other children, but that didn’t seem to be widely known.

My first job

After my experience in Africa I was set on working in human rights – I remember downloading the 65 page UN Careers guide to read on the plane coming home. But I knew it was a competitive ‘pipe dream’. I started at a practice (which I won’t name in this) that was known to have excellent pro bono practice and a health law practice. I loved the pro bono stuff and worked on a variety of matters from human rights, to discrimination law, stolen generations cases and general pro bono management.

What I learnt

I think there were 3 key ‘take aways’ for me.

As a new graduate do not bother the senior staff with lots of questions intermittently. I think you should try and ask your questions at the time of being assigned a task. Sadly, law firms have a culture of ‘learn fast’ or ‘sink’. If I had a question during the day I’d write it down, and then once I had a few on the list I would ask my boss in one hit; and only do this once a day.

I also think that it’s important to manage expectations. When you are assigned a task, ask what the expected turnaround time is and communicate whether you can meet the deadline. I had multiple partners, lawyers and graduates allocating tasks to me without full awareness of my workload. Managing expectations is key to doing well in your first job.

And third, have an opinion. Partners will often ask you what you think, so be ready to contribute, but don’t overdo it. Nobody expects you to provide huge lightbulb moments to career lawyers, but an ability to hear the question, digest your thoughts and compose an articulate reply is almost as valuable as the answer itself. But in saying that, just because someone in the room has mentioned negligence, spouting the first thing you remember from Torts isn’t a skill… so work on taking your time, and being considered in your opinions.

My next step

After three years at the firm I had realised that the actual day to day work I was doing on these human rights cases wasn’t that different from the work that other lawyers (say in commercial) were doing. I’m a lawyer, which means my job is to understand, interpret and advise on the law, it’s just that my area of law is human rights. Like all lawyers, I have clients for whom I provide advice or represent before various forums. I take instructions and advise accordingly. It can be long days sitting in front of a computer reading reports and case law.

In Australia we don’t have a Commonwealth Human Rights Act, so protecting people’s human rights either means finding other laws which can achieve the same ends, such as discrimination laws, administrative law and so forth; or it means utilising UN Human Rights treaties and the treaty bodies. It also means that the job market here is small. This means the money isn’t as competitive… I was coming up to my mid twenties and I decided I wanted to move for money.

I knew I didn’t have much variation of my resume and so family and criminal seemed like the easiest stepping stone. I worked out the % of my work so that I could say that I’d done about 30% Family, 30% Crime and 40% other things for example… I found a mid level job in a criminal law firm and worked my way up to where I am today. I absolutely love criminal law. My salary has moved more in the last two years of my career than in the first 5.

My advice

What I have learnt in my career is that all roads lead to Rome – what I mean is that there are so many ways that you can change the world and not all of them are as a human rights lawyer. Legal Aid and Community Legal Centres are on the front lines every day helping thousands upon thousands of individuals in desperate need of assistance. NGOs, charities and peak bodies are often involved in law reform and legal analysis. For the vast majority of people who really need help, a lawyer with knowledge of credit and debt issues, criminal law, family law and housing will be able to help them far more than an intricate knowledge of UN treaties. Both are important in their own way. This was probably the biggest piece of advice I can give.

The concept  ‘Snagging six figures’ was created after we had readers writing in asking for advice. Do you want to submit your story, or have a suggestion of someone you want featured? Email us:

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