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Legal Aid NSW

  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

Chantelle Porter

If you are considering a career as a lawyer, you will need to study law at university and complete your practical legal training after university.

What's your name and job title?

My name is Chantelle Porter and I am an Aboriginal graduate lawyer at Legal Aid NSW. I am currently employed through the Bob Bellear Career Development Program.

What did you study? When did you graduate?

I studied a combined arts/law degree at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney and graduated in March 2015.

Who are your mob? Do you identify with a particular tribe?

My mob are from Walhallow, a small Aboriginal community in regional north-west NSW. We are proud descendants of the Kamilaroi tribe.

Where did you grow up? Can you tell us about some important stages of your education?

I grew up at Walhallow, also known as Caroona. I attended the local primary school and then attended Quirindi High School.

In my senior years at high school I attended a week long Winter School Program run by Nura Gili, the Centre for Indigenous Programs, at UNSW. Winter school showed me what university life would be like. We lived on campus at a college and attended classes. The Winter School Program ultimately inspired me to study law at UNSW due to the incredible support offered to Aboriginal students by Nura Gili and the UNSW Law Faculty.  

After completing my HSC, and before my results were even released, I returned to UNSW to participate in Nura Gili's Pre-Law Program that went for almost a month. During this time, we attended daily classes and sat exams and assessments. At the end of the program, I accepted an offer to study arts/law at UNSW. At UNSW, I was employed as a legal research assistant through the Indigenous Cadetship Program.  

Following university, I completed my practical legal training at the Public Defenders, which reinforced my passion to work in criminal law and for disadvantaged clients.

Before gaining my current position, I spent three months working at the Aboriginal Legal Service as a policy and law reform officer.

How did you get to your current job position? For how long have you had it?

I have been on the Bob Bellear Program at Legal Aid NSW for almost two years. I spent almost one year working in criminal law at the Children's Legal Service in Parramatta and have spent about nine months working for the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities. The Bob Bellear Program has provided me with invaluable practical experience in two different areas of law.

Did you face obstacles as an Indigenous student?

I faced a number of obstacles as a student, with the main ones being:

  • Relocating from a small country town to the city
  • Moving away from my family and friends to a place where I only knew a handful of people
  • Accommodation issues
  • Financial hardship
  • Struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance

My personal experience and background was very different to most of my peers at university. I believe this allowed me to provide a unique perspective in class discussions and in my employment. I believe it has also enabled me to provide more culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive legal services to my clients.

How did you choose your specialisation?

My main motivation for studying law was to help disadvantaged clients. Growing up in a small Indigenous community, I saw a lot of people feeling disempowered when it came to the criminal justice system. There appeared to be confusion about court processes and where and how to access legal services. I thought by becoming a lawyer I would be able to help people in this situation, even if it just meant referring them to the right people.

What was your interview process like? What kind of questions were you asked?

I was offered a position on the highly sought after Bob Bellear Program after attending an interview. During the interview, I had to do an oral presentation, answer some short questions and complete a written task. I was asked about a recent development in the law, examples of where I had dealt with a challenging client or colleague and questions about the type of work that Legal Aid does.  

Suppose a student was considering your career. What would you advise them to study? Should they pursue any sort of work experience?

If you are considering a career as a lawyer, you will need to study law at university and complete your practical legal training after university.

I would strongly encourage you to make the most of any work experience opportunities that come your way. This will make you more competitive when you apply for jobs after university. You will also learn practical skills on the job that you are not taught at university. You should also work on developing your interpersonal, legal research and problem solving skills.

What does your employer do?

My employer Legal Aid NSW provides legal services to disadvantaged clients.  

What are your areas of responsibility?

As part of the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities (CLSAC) I personally provide civil law advice and assistance to disadvantaged Aboriginal clients in regional communities. For example, I have travelled to Bourke, Brewarrina, Condobolin, Lake Cargelligo, Yamba, Maclean, Toomelah and Boggabilla with my colleagues this year to hold outreach clinics.

In CLSAC, we assist clients with a range of issues, including housing, rented household goods, police complaints, Stolen Generations compensation applications and referrals, as well as debts such as loans and mobile phone bills.

Can you describe a typical work day? What was the last thing you worked on?

It is hard to describe a typical day at work as it varies. The majority of my work includes negotiating settlements with other parties. This includes drafting complaints, letters and emails to obtain refunds, ownership of goods or waivers of debts. I also attend outreach clinics every six weeks or so where I provide face to face legal advice and assistance. In addition to this, I regularly provide over the phone legal advice to new clients in our service areas.

What sort of person succeeds in your career?

In my opinion, a successful lawyer is one that:

  • Knows the limits of his or her experience and is not afraid to ask for help
  • Is committed to providing clients with accurate and timely legal advice and assistance
  • Is reliable, a good problem solver and a good communicator

What are the career prospects with your job? Where could you or others in your position go from here?

After completing my civil law placement, I would like to return to criminal law. After gaining more experience in the Local and Children's Courts, I would like to work in Legal Aid's indictable section, where I would have the opportunity to instruct barristers in serious criminal matters. After that, others in a similar position often decide to become a barrister.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

I believe that anyone, regardless of their background, could do my job if they are committed and willing to put in the work.

How important is it for Indigenous youths to stay connected with their communities?

I believe it is important for Indigenous youths to stay connected with their communities, as it can be a good support network. You may also be considered a role model in your communities. I find that going home to my community is always refreshing and it reminds me of why I wanted to do this job in the first place.

Which three pieces of advice would you give to Indigenous students nearing graduation?

For those Indigenous students nearing graduation, I wish you all the best and would like to remind you:

  • There are alternate entry pathways to get into university. Make the most of them and don't feel embarrassed to use them. There may also be TAFE courses that you can do instead.  
  • All experience is valuable. Do not disregard an opportunity because it is not your dream job. Use it as a stepping stone to get to your dream job.  
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help, whether it's at university, work or in relation to your personal life.