Public Interest Law Careers Guide - Denis Nelthorpe Testimonial
Public Interest lawyer: Denis Nelthorpe
Organisations: Taxi Driver Legal Service, Victoria Legal Aid, Footscray Legal Centre, Wyndham Legal Centre
Short biography: Denis Nelthorpe is a special projects lawyer with Victoria Legal Aid and Manager of Footscray and Wyndham Legal Centres. He is a consumer Board member of the Financial Ombudsman Service and was recently appointed an Adjunct Professor of Law for the Victoria University Law School.
Denis has been involved in the work of community legal centres for more than 30 years and remains passionate about the need for justice for low income and disadvantaged members of the community.
Law: where did you start?
Monash University. I wanted to assist people find justice
What was your pathway into Public Interest Law?
My intention was to work as a lawyer for the disadvantaged. Within a short time of finishing articles I was employed to work on “Practising Poverty Law”, a project at Fitzroy Legal Service examining the possibility of a non-profit private practice which specialised in poverty law. That lead to the establishment of Footscray Community Legal Centre. I assisted soon after with the establishment of the Consumer Credit Legal Service.
Do you practise a mixture of commercial and Public Interest Law, and if so, how do you juggle the two?
No. I practice poverty law at a local level through Footscray and Wyndham CLC’S and at a national level through the National Bulk Debt project and the national insurance disaster response.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?
Funding in CLC’S is always challenging – CLC’S work with little administrative assistance in HR, finance and IT. I also had to appear without counsel against large teams of lawyers headed silk in several high profile public interest cases –I was out of my comfort zone and at times out of my depth.
How did you deal with these challenges?
I always concentrate on the possibilities for change and victories which will enhance the public interest and view a lack of resources as an inconvenience. I struggled in the large cases but was sustained by my belief in the need to pursue public interest litigation. I also drew on the strength of the community networks that were supporting our cause. Finally I always looked for “outside the box” strategies in our advocacy that would reduce the advantages of our opponents.
What advice do you have for Law students and lawyers wanting to pursue a career path focusing on positive social change?
There are amazing possibilities in public interest law and social change movements. It is far better to be employed in a position where you feel a genuine commitment than one that is about take home pay. The joy of working for clients that matter should not be underestimated.
What do you find most rewarding in your work?
Working with people committed to justice and social justice. Fighting the good fight for clients that cannot undertake or pay for their own advocacy, and forcing industry and governments to change for the better.