Issue 7, Semester 1, 2019
Elif Sekercioglu shares her experience from the opening night of the 2019 Public Interest Practice Skills Program.
Community Legal Centres perform important social justice functions within the community. Through volunteer programs, these unique community organisations are where many law students get their first exposure to legal practice environments.
When I started volunteering at a community legal centre (‘CLC’) in my first year, it was the printer that filled me with dread. For the first few weeks, the printer and I were engaged in a discreet battle of wills, where I tried photocopying double-sided A4 and it returned my documents in A3 with half the pages missing. Then there were the client interviews. The interviewee might express their anger that they had already answered the questions (they had — but to the Department of Immigration, not me), there were clients who were evasive, and those whose answers stretched far beyond the boundaries of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ into a story about their past. When I was volunteering at Fitzroy Legal Service last year, the criminal lawyer and I were unexpectedly called into the Supreme Court because the jury had a question. I sat off to the side of the courtroom, surrounded by practitioners dressed demurely in black. I was wearing a bright red jumper. I’m sure nobody noticed or cared, but I kept my knitwear to less blaring shades for the rest of the trial.
Volunteering in public interest organisations isn’t just about wrangling fax machines. It’s a huge responsibility. Accidentally giving legal advice without a practicing certificate is a serious matter. Clients are seeking legal advice because they are facing a crisis, and that can be stressful for all involved.
Law school doesn’t teach us how to conduct a client interview in a way that is culturally safe, efficient and empathetic. However these skills are vital. That’s why Jaynaya Dwyer, a fourth-year student, put together the Public Interest Practice Skills (PIPs) evening workshop series last year. The program includes workshops by CLC lawyers on client-facing skills essential to practice. This year it’s back, and commenced last Wednesday evening with an ‘Introduction to the Legal Assistance Sector’. Belinda Lo, the CEO of the Federation of Community Legal Centres, gave a guest lecture on the role of community legal centres within the legal assistance landscape, followed by a panel discussion by CLC lawyers.
Belinda reminded us that people don’t always like lawyers. There might be shame attached to seeing a lawyer, and people rarely have an ongoing relationship of trust with a lawyer, as they may with their doctor. The legal system is a frightening behemoth for people who don’t spend hours in class learning about it. CLCs play a critical role in ‘demystifying’ the law and making it accessible. The CLC philosophy is that ‘we don’t see our clients and communities as others’. Any one of us can be a legal client at any moment, in the same way we might need a doctor. Of course, some groups are more vulnerable to legal problems than others. The key to working effectively in this context is to understand the complex impacts of specific social determinants which inform clients’ experiences.
Being a CLC lawyer is very different to being a private practitioner. Belinda recounted the privilege of teaching mothers aged fifteen to nineteen about family law, with their babies also in attendance. Also, lawyers at CLCs can wear Gorman pantsuits and fun earrings that would be unacceptable in a corporate office. Belinda didn’t tell us this last point, but it’s what I have observed.
After a short break, during which I availed myself of the pink moscato, we filed back in for a panel with Belinda; Adam Willson, the drug outreach lawyer at Fitzroy Legal Service; Jack Slattery, a senior lawyer at Knowmore; and Monique Hurley, Lawyer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights and democratic freedoms at the Human Rights Law Centre. This panel showed the breadth of CLC work, from the Human Rights Law Centre’s strategic advocacy work to the highly specialised casework of Knowmore in providing multidisciplinary services to survivors of institutional abuse. The panellists all agreed that the most rewarding part of their jobs was being able to help people in a tangible way.
At the end, the panel gave advice about getting a volunteer position at a CLC: any experience is good, but longevity and commitment to particular organisations is looked upon more favourably. Be strategic about what you want to learn through volunteering and don’t overcommit yourself. Be respectful, and willing to undertake boring tasks like photocopying. Be nice to the people on the front desk: working at a CLC is about teamwork. Show an awareness of the issues facing clients in your cover letter. Be authentic and show genuine interest in the work.
The Public Interest Practice Skills Series is running Wednesday Nights from 5:30–7:30 in room 108 for the next 5 weeks. Every session is delivered by CLC practitioners, focusing on particular client-interview skill sets for community legal practice. For more information, see the Public Interest Law Network Facebook page.
Elif is a Fourth Year JD Student.
Other articles in this issue: