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More law firms are launching cadetships for Aboriginal law students, but experts caution such programs must be tailored to First Nations participants, writes Sam McKeith.

An increasing number of law firms are rolling out cadetship programs in a bid to reverse the long-standing underrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the legal industry. 

Firms such as Gilbert + Tobin, Allens, Herbert Smith Freehills, Arnold Bloch Leibler, Colin Biggers & Paisley (CBP) and McCabes Lawyers all have targeted initiatives for First Nations law students devised to provide greater access to justice and employment opportunities. 

Less than 1 per cent of Australian lawyers are Indigenous, despite comprising almost 3 per cent of the population, according to the Law Society of NSW. 

Alarmingly, this low proportion of Indigenous solicitors has remained relatively stable since 2014 when the data began to be collected, raising the stakes for the new crop of cadetships. 

Rachael Britton, HR director at McCabes Lawyers, is spearheading the Sydney-based firm’s inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Internship program, launching this year. 

Keenly aware of the entrenched underrepresentation, Britton says the program – a diversity and inclusion initiative linked to the firm’s reconciliation action plan – will take two cadets in second to fourth year of tertiary study. It offers two days per week paid work experience. The program will see cadets rotate across the firm’s three legal divisions – government commercial and insurance – to provide “that wide exposure to the different areas of law but also the different practitioners”. 

Britton sees the program as a potential stepping stone into a graduate role at the firm but says that’s only part of a broader mission. 

“The outcome I see is to give Indigenous students that opportunity to get the work experience in the legal industry to build their legal skill sets and also to be able to provide referees for them,” Britton explains. 

“If we have an opportunity for them to feed through to our grad program, that’s exactly what I will do with them. But if we can’t offer them that or they don’t want that, then at least they can walk away, and we can be a referee with those skillsets. We want them to land a permanent ongoing role when they finish their degree.” 

For other firms considering launching their own programs, Britton warns there are challenges. One of the biggest, she says, was getting the internship approved by the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW. 

It’s a key block for firms to overcome because an employer wanting to set aside positions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders must first get approval from the board for exemption from state anti-discrimination laws. 

“That was the biggest hurdle, getting through the red tape,” Britton says. 

Tamara Sims, Head of Pro Bono & Responsible Business at CBP, described its revamped Indigenous cadetship program as part of the firm’s work to increase the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the legal profession. 

“The Cadetship offers a unique experience for professional development and puts the Cadets in a position to explore further career opportunities at CBP or in the legal profession at the conclusion of their studies,” says Sims, who currently has two students onboard. 

The initiative includes on-the-job learning, mentoring, and training in a range of legal and non-legal areas relevant to the cadet’s studies. This may involve client intake and issues identification, “triage” and managing a client caseload and diary, skills development like legal research and writing, delivering legal advice, and implementing systems and policies. 

It also comprises structured mentoring and networking opportunities, and access to training and other development opportunities such as attendance at courses and conferences. 

“I see the Cadetship as a real opportunity to embed our Cadets into a range of legal practice groups and also gives our Cadets secondment opportunities with our community partners so we can really give our Cadets a well-rounded experience of what law is,” Sims says. 

“At the moment, I’m trying to place one of the cadets with one of our pro-bono partners, which is a community legal centre, to give her a taste of that kind of law and experience.” 

On providing support, Sims says regular catchups with the cadets are important to check on things like their well-being, university-work balance, and cultural needs.  

She says the firm ensures cadets are mentored and “buddied up” in their practice groups with people who are understanding and supportive of the different cultural requirements of the Indigenous community.  

“We also make sure our people have undertaken cultural awareness training, which we do regularly.” 

“The Cadetship offers a unique experience for professional development and puts the Cadets in a position to explore further career opportunities at CBP or in the legal profession at the conclusion of their studies,”

Evidence shows firms are on the right track with cadetships aimed at Indigenous students.  

Federal government research has previously found that Indigenous-specific training and employment programs can show a positive effect on employment and education and relatively high levels of job satisfaction for participants.  

It concludes that a big benefit of Indigenous participation in work-while-studying programs is the exposure students get to a wide range of employment networks through the employer and others they interact with on the job. 

“For a population sub-group with fewer networks through family, this can be the difference between finding out about a job opportunity or not,” the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research says. 

One of the highlights of the research is the importance it places on mentoring. It finds that mentoring programs in cadetships play a large role in how likely participants are to complete a program, as well as other factors that tend to boost completion, such as having an English-speaking background and “living in a more accessible area”. 

Other research on the topic also provides key insights on how to devise such programs for a better chance of success. For instance, a study by the National Indigenous Australians Agency, stresses that cadetship programs that use targeted recruitment to match participants to roles they are genuinely interested in appear to be more successful. 

It also warns that cadetship programs not linked to meaningful employment opportunities risk negative backlash and “may be perceived by participants as tokenistic and exploitative”. 

However, it concedes that more work needs to be done in the area to firm up best practices for devising First Nations cadetships. “The design and scale of effective cadetship and like programs is hampered by a lack of evidence about what works.”  

Narelle Bedford, an assistant law professor at Bond University, picks up on the mentoring theme, which she agrees is important in cadetships given First Nations’ “relational” culture. 

“It’s very important to put in place a support network for the students that builds relations with those students,” Bedford says.  

“Firms should not just be expecting students to walk in the door and be independent, read workers.” 

She says if firms “put the effort into building that relational culture, the personal relations, then they’ll get a longer-term outcome that benefits everyone”. On strategies to build this into a program, Bedford, a Yuin woman, says a first step may be to make sure the cadet has a “work buddy” – someone of a similar age.   

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Narelle Bedford, Assistant Law Professor at Bond University. Credit: Bond University

Additionally, she suggests an older mentor from the firm, who is not the same person as the cadet’s daily supervisor. She also urges “very good access to human resources”. 

“You want that across firm culture so that they’ve got different contact points at different levels and in different areas so they’re not just talking to the lawyers, they know they’ve got someone in HR that they can talk to,” Bedford says. 

“The idea is multiple contact points, so everyone has a network of support.” 

The purpose of setting things up like this, according to Bedford, is to help the cadet “be able to ask questions and build confidence and familiarity”. 

Another piece of advice for firms is to have good training in cultural awareness skills, which she says can be delivered through community legal centres or First Nations businesses. 

“If a firm has never had a First Nations intern before, it’d be good if key staff could set aside an hour and do some cultural awareness skills courses,” Bedford suggests. 

“If a firm is taking the initiative to do this for the first time, I’d suggest that cultural awareness training would be really helpful. 

Bedford adds: “I also think it’s worth reaching out to the First Nations student support centres in the universities because they’ll often be the ones who are aware of the First Nations law students and who’s done enough subjects to be ready for an internship.” 

Firms also need to focus on long-term outcomes, according to Western Sydney University Senior Coordinator, Indigenous Employment, Gabrielle Talbot-Mundine.  

Talbot-Mundine, a Bundjalung woman, says this means there needs to be a solid plan for the cadet post-program. 

“Cadetships are fabulous, but there is a distinct gap that is not often acknowledged, and that is what happens at the end of the cadetship,” Talbot-Mundine says. 

“Suppose there is a way to establish predetermined criteria for students to meet in order to obtain ongoing employment. In that case, I think that will provide strong initiative, clear career trajectories, and reduce the level of uncertainty for the students. 

Otherwise, she says firms may miss out on securing Indigenous cadets long-term, saying “too often, people complete a cadetship or traineeship and need somewhere to go”. 

“If the organisations can recruit a cadet into a vacant ongoing position and establish some criteria, the student could continue with the organisation, providing criteria are met at the end of their cadetship.” 

Cadetships targeted at First Nations law students can also be let down by a lack of resourcing on recruitment, Talbot-Mundine says, noting there is often little known about cadetship programs within Indigenous communities. 

While most of Australia’s legal industry is based in major cities, that’s not the case for Australia’s Indigenous population. They comprise just 1 per cent of major city residents, 3 per cent in inner regions, and 6 per cent in outer regional areas, with that figure jumping to 15 per cent in remote areas and 49 per cent in very remote areas. 

Talbot-Mundine notes that cadetships often “have short application periods and little involvement or promotion within the Indigenous community”. 

“This can result in minimal if any, application numbers,” Talbot-Mundine says.  

“Adjusting recruitment strategies and sharing these opportunities with Indigenous community-based organisations to encourage word-of-mouth marketing would assist in increasing interest in these roles.” 

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Gabrielle Talbot-Mundine, Indigenous Employment Senior Coordinator at Western Sydney University. Credit: Western Sydney University.

It’s for this reason that she advises law firms to get as much input as possible when devising cadetships from the local Indigenous community. 

She points to Aboriginal Land Councils or the National Indigenous Australians Agency as a starting point.  

It’s not just the private sector seeking to boost the number of Indigenous lawyers via cadetships. Last year, the previous NSW coalition government announced extra funding for a First Nations Cadetship Program that launched as a one-off in 2022.  

The cadetship is open to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in the final two years of a degree in law, social work or communications and enables them to take part in the program through Community Legal Centres NSW. 

Run state-wide, it has a focus on community legal centres in regional NSW, Western Sydney, and South-Western Sydney. Cadets work two days per week at CLCs in NSW, as well as receiving training and mentoring from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. 

It is one of several government-funded cadetships that include programs in nursing and midwifery, allied health, and public service. 

A spokesperson for Attorney General Michael Daley says three cadets took part in the legal program in 2022, with a further 12 students to participate through to mid-2025. 

Currently, three cadets are in the program, and Community Legal Centres NSW is in the process of recruiting for 2024, according to the spokesperson. 

 “The First Nations cadetship program enables promising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island university students gain valuable work experience with Community Legal Centres NSW,” The spokesperson said.