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Porteous, Polly --- "Cadetships for Indigenous Law Students in Community Legal Centres" [2003] IndigLawB 62; (2003) 5(28) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4

Cadetships for Indigenous Law Students in Community Legal Centres

by Polly Porteous

In a report due to be released early 2004, five Sydney community legal centres put forward a proposal for a cadetship scheme for Indigenous law students within the community legal sector. The proposal arose after community legal centres asked Indigenous communities in Sydney what they could improve in the provision of services to Indigenous people. Indigenous cadetships are a practical way for legal centres to provide short-term employment, to improve awareness of legal centres amongst Indigenous people, and to increase long-term employment opportunities. However because legal centres are so cash-strapped, the question is who will fund these cadetships? The answer lies in building creative partnerships between community legal centres, universities, private companies and government employment schemes.


In April 2001, four Sydney community legal centres - Inner City, Kingsford, Marrickville and Redfern legal centres - held a one-day forum “Indigenous access to community legal centres – Let’s make it happen!” The forum was attended by workers from community legal centres, Indigenous community organisations and other key agencies including the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, the Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council, Aboriginal Legal Service and Ngalaya (the NSW Aboriginal Lawyers Association).

The participants brainstormed a number of ideas to promote Indigenous access to community legal centres. One of the final ideals put forward by the end of the day was that community legal centres have an Indigenous presence in all aspects of the organisation. After this forum, the four Sydney community legal centres began investigating the promotion of employment opportunities within the sector.

By late 2001 Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women's Legal Centre had come on board and the legal centres had developed a draft cadetship proposal. After extensive feedback on the proposal, the legal centres were provided with a small grant from the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW to further develop an “appropriate and sustainable model for an Indigenous cadetship scheme for the community and not-for-profit legal sector”.

In the first half of 2003, the research project examined existing cadetship and employment schemes, held stakeholder consultations, developed guidelines for a good practice cadetship scheme, and made a number of recommendations for an ideal Indigenous legal cadetship scheme in NSW.

Why would community legal centres want to offer cadetships to Indigenous law students?

The Report found that cadetships within legal centres had the potential to fulfil a number of aims. Each of these three aims is discussed in detail below.

Provide greater opportunities for Indigenous law students to complete their studies

Various research studies have shown that Indigenous law students face immense barriers in studying law. Most studies focus on the alienating nature of the tertiary environment and the law curriculum, described by Fiona Hussin at Northern Territory University as the “Captain Cook exclusionary factor”.[1] Universities are now however improving support for Indigenous law students, for example through Indigenous support centres and specialised academic support.

While the provision of support on campus is certainly crucial to assisting Indigenous law students, many studies also point to a lack of financial support as a cause of the high attrition rate of Indigenous law students.[2] It is in this sense that cadetships can provide real benefit. Cadetships are not only financially more generous than ABSTUDY, they also allow students to side-step the complex bureaucracy involved in receiving a government allowance.[3] In the words of one student:

The benefit of getting a cadetship would be firstly ... you get money, which is a very important thing, because I’ve known some of the students have just given up and been just flat broke... and if you’re struggling to try and make ends meet, just eat and pay the bus fare to get out here, let alone the rent... some of that’s just too much, and I’ve known some of the students that have dropped out...[4]

Several Indigenous ex-cadets spoken to during the course of this Project spoke of other ways that their cadetships kept them enrolled in their law degree. One cadet said:

Just turning up once a week to a real job, and putting in practice the things that I was learning at law school, it gave me a real buzz, you know? It also helped me get ahead a bit from the other students doing law, they might have had a daddy in a big law firm, but I was actually working in one. That felt good.[5]

Clearly cadetships are attractive to Indigenous law students, but would cadetships at community legal centres be attractive compared to cadetships at private law firms or government departments?

The mission statement for the Combined Community Legal Centres Group says that “NSW community legal centres work for the public interest, particularly for disadvantaged and marginalised people and communities. We promote human rights, social justice, and a better environment ...” Several studies have found that many first year Indigenous law students are drawn to study law from an interest in working for social justice.[6] Community legal centres can therefore provide opportunities for cadets to gain skills in working for social justice through casework, advice clinics, law reform, policy development, community education, and test case litigation.

Increase the number of Indigenous people working in community legal centres

Given the ideals of social justice and working with marginalised communities which underpin the philosophy of community legal centres, it is somewhat sobering to find that of the three hundred people working in community legal centres in NSW, only fifteen are Indigenous. Of these, four are solicitors; six are employed by one legal centre through an identified Indigenous women’s project; and two are pilot programs with no long-term funding.[7]

Although cadetships do increase the presence of Indigenous people in legal centres in the short-term, their real value is in assisting law students to gain long-term employment – ideally as solicitors, but also possibly legal educators, coordinators, administrative workers, Legal Access Workers and so on.

Provide a basis for longer-term relationships between Indigenous people and community legal centres

One of the points made at the 2001 forum was that community legal centres needed to increase the number of Indigenous people involved with legal centres at all levels – in employment, among the students and on management committees. Providing an Indigenous presence in legal centres may be one way to make the centres more accessible to Indigenous people. It is hoped that this would be a two-way process: non-Indigenous staff will also learn from Indigenous cadets, which may improve legal centres’ understanding of cultural issues. However the Report also recognised that community legal centres need to work with local Indigenous people to develop Indigenous Access Strategies to improve service provision to local communities. One legal centre which has developed an Indigenous Access Project is the Hawkesbury Nepean Community Legal Centre.[8]

What are cadetships? What schemes currently exist?

The general theme of cadetships, as compared to other employment schemes including traineeships, internships, or work placements, is that the cadet is usually a full-time tertiary student who is provided with paid work over the long university vacation period from December to February.

The most relevant cadetship for Indigenous students is the National Indigenous Cadetship Program (‘NICP’) run under the auspice of the Commonwealth Department of Workplace Relations. NICP provides $15,400pa to employers to subsidise cadetships, of which $1000 may be retained by the employer to cover administrative costs. However under NICP rules, the minimum cost of the cadetship is around $24,000. This takes into account

Thus the cost to the employer may be as low as $7000 per year, though many employers pay higher allowances and rates of pay.

Employers which utilise NICP to provide cadetships for law students are predominantly government departments or public authorities.[9] A few law firms, such as Kells Lawyers in Wollongong, also provide cadetships through this scheme.

In addition to NICP, there have been several other cadetship-like schemes providing opportunities to Indigenous law students in NSW.

The University of New South Wales (‘UNSW’) Aboriginal Education Program (‘AEP’) ran a Legal Cadetship Program from 1995 to 2002. The NSW Law Society assisted by encouraging private law firms to offer cadetships. Students generally worked one day a week in addition to the summer vacation period.

In 2001 the NSW Bar Association launched their Indigenous Lawyer’s Strategy with UNSW and the University of Technology Sydney. The Strategy encourages barristers to invite Indigenous law students to visit their chambers; to act as mentors, to offer regular work to Indigenous students when it is available and to hold informal social functions to which Indigenous law students are invited. In addition, Indigenous graduates are assisted with going to the Bar through the Bar Association’s Indigenous Trust, the Mum Shirl Fund.[10]

In 2004 the NSW Legal Aid Commission will be offering eight law graduates sixteen-week work placements to allow graduates to fulfil their Practical Legal Training requirements for qualification as a solicitor. After completing their placements, graduates will be assisted to locate ongoing employment within the Legal Aid Commission or in other legal sectors.[11]

Good Practice Guidelines for a Cadetship Scheme

The five centres recommended that the ideal cadetship model, from the perspective of Indigenous students and participating employers, was a properly funded and centrally-coordinated Indigenous cadetship program which made use of NICP funds to offer long-term cadetships to students. The Report developed nineteen Indigenous Legal Cadetship Scheme Guidelines.


1. Should employ a Coordinator

2. The auspice organisation should be independent from funders

3. Should have an Indigenous Advisory Committee

4. Must be adequately resourced

5. Should contain a marketing component

6. Should include training for employers

7. Should be regularly reviewed and evaluated

8. Must be sustainable


9. Should be available to students early in their degree

10. Should provide real financial benefit to the cadet

11. Should include payment of all or part HECS debt

12. Should balance flexibility with certainty

13. Should include a variety of interesting work

14. Every cadet has a right to supervision and support in the workplace

15. Cadets should have regular contact with their employer throughout the year

16. Each cadet should have a mentor

17. Two cadets should be placed together or a 'buddy' system set up between organisations

18. Cadets should have access to a broader network of fellow Indigenous cadets

19. Cadets should be assisted to gain access to future employment opportunities.

How can a cadetship scheme be funded?

The major cost of the scheme is the payment of a full-time coordinator. A coordinator was seen by all stakeholders (particularly former cadets interviewed during the project) as being absolutely crucial to the success of a scheme. The coordinator would be responsible for seeking funds for individual cadetships and would provide ongoing support and training to both cadets and employers. The cost of a coordinator would be around $80,000 per year; ideally $240,000 for a three-year funding cycle.

The Report suggests that the NSW Community Legal Centre sector seek funding for the scheme through state or federal government sources or from major grants bodies. It is important that funding be ongoing rather than a pilot program, but the scheme should be evaluated toward the end of the 3-year cycle.

The individual cadetships themselves, even utilising NICP funds, would cost community legal centres up to $10,000 per year. Given centres’ financial constraints, the Report identifies a variety of innovative ways to fund the cadetships:

Partnerships between legal centres and universities

The University could administer the student’s cadetship, provide the top-up funding required by NICP and provide HECS scholarships, while a community legal centre would provide the on-site work experience and direct supervision. At the conclusion of the cadetship, the University would be obliged to offer a job to the student within its administration or as a law lecturer or tutor, possibly part-time if the student chose to enrol in a Masters of Laws. This would also act as a means to increase the number of Indigenous legal academics and Indigenous post-graduate students.[12]

Partnerships between law firms and community legal centres

Another possibility is that private law firms provide the cadetships – so providing the financial support – but part of the cadetship would take place in community legal centres. Some examples of placements could be:

Providing adequate supervision structures were in place, such arrangements may be attractive to cadets as it would give them a much greater diversity of work. There are already several models for partnerships between law firms and community legal centres which could be built on in establishing such cadetships.[13]

Flexible arrangements such as these could also allow students to do some of their cadetship at a community legal centre closer to home. Many Indigenous students come from regional NSW to study in Sydney. They may be able to negotiate to do half of their summer work placement through the local community legal centre. Of course such arrangements would need to be negotiated with the law firm and the legal centre. This comes back to the need for a scheme coordinator.

Sponsorship by local companies or organisations

Law firms may not be the only companies or organisations interested in supporting Indigenous lawyers. The Report recommends that legal centres approach local companies, organisations, or even local governments seeking sponsorship of cadetship positions at legal centres.

Conclusion: other work to be done

The Report into this project made recommendations beyond a cadetship scheme. It also recommended that the NSW community legal sector adopt a state-wide Indigenous Employment Strategy. Individual legal centres should also be supported in developing Indigenous Access Strategies. Clearly there is much work to be done if community legal centres are to be truly open to Indigenous people. It is hoped that this Report actually provides opportunities for Indigenous people within the community legal sector and more broadly, to justice in NSW.

Polly Porteous was employed as Project Officer by the Marrickville Legal Centre, on behalf of Marrickville, Redfern, Inner City, Kingsford and Wirringa Baiya Legal Centres. Further details about this project are available from Janet Loughman, Marrickville Legal Centre, on 02 9559 2899.

[1] Fiona Hussin, “Killing Off Captain Cook – Indigenous law students at Northern Territory University”, Cameron, Shaw & Arnott (Eds), Tertiary Teaching: Doing It Differently, Doing It Better, NTU Press & Centre for Teaching & Learning in Diverse Educational Contexts, Darwin, pp 118 – 127.

[2] Carolyn Penfold, “Indigenous Students’ Perception of Factors Contributing to Successful Law Studies” (1997) 7 Legal Education Review, pp 184-185.

[3] ABSTUDY currently provides a maximum payment of $224.56 per week (for students aged over 21, living away from home and receiving full rental assistance) whereas cadets usually get around $300 per week while studying. Under ABSTUDY students can earn up to $6000 without reducing their ABSTUDY payments, but this is of course provided they can locate a job. Cadetships provide certainty of employment over the summer vacation, with the cadet earning between $7,000 and $8,000 for the period, and they don’t have the risk of being pursued for overpayments by the Commonwealth.

[4] Penfold (1997) at p 184.

[5] Former cadet (requested anonymity), conversation 11 March 2003.

[6] Kevin Dolman, “Indigenous lawyers: Success or Sacrifice?” (1997) Indigenous Law Bulletin, 4 (4) July, pp. 4-8; Heather Douglas, “This is not just about me: Indigenous Students’ Insights About Law School Studies”, (1998) 20 Adelaide Law Review, pp. 315-348.

[7] These two positions are the the Aboriginal Legal Access Worker at Hawkesbury Nepean Community Legal Centre, and the Mirrung Ngu Wanjarri Family Violence Education Project at Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre.

[8] At the National Conference of Community Legal Centres in September 2003, participants in a workshop on Indigenous Access praised the Hawkesbury Nepean project as an ideal model for Indigenous Access Projects within community legal centres. Given the project's success, it is surprising that governments have yet to commit ongoing funding to the project.

[9] The report provides details of just five agencies which use NICP: Australian National University, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Northern Territory Public Sector, NSW Public Sector, University of Wollongong.

[10] Information provided by Chris Ronalds, Chair, Indigenous Barristers’ Sub-Committee, NSW Bar Association. Also see NSW Bar Association, “Bar Association assist Indigenous Australians to become barristers”, Press release 21/03/2001 and “Award for Indigenous Lawyers Strategy”, Bar Brief 22/05/03 both available at

[11] For further information, contact Louise Blazejowska at the NSW Legal Aid Commission on 02 9219 5000.

[12] Council of Post Graduate Associations (CAPA), “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Post Graduate Student Policies for CAPA 2002”,, accessed 18/07/03

[13] The National Pro Bono Resource Centre has further information on these and other CLC/law firm partnerships: Working Together: Multi-Tiered Pro Bono Relationships Between Law Firms and Community Legal Organisations, June 2003,

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