Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in pro bono legal work. How has your career path reflected this? Have there been any “defining” or particularly memorable cases/moments?
What initially drew me to the idea of working in pro bono was being able to help vulnerable people navigate the legal system. When I started law school and began to gain an understanding of the legal system, and how complicated it is, I realised that there are so many people out there that come into contact with the law and don’t know anything about how it works or affects them. I wanted to use the skills that I was learning to help people that really needed it.
My first experience with pro bono legal work was as a front desk volunteer at Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) in my first year of law school. I then moved to two different roles at RLC, as front desk supervisor and tenancy advisor. I loved doing the tenancy advisor work in particular, because housing is a fundamental right and I found it really satisfying to be able to help people living in poor housing conditions and preventing homelessness.
While working part time at RLC, I also worked as a paralegal at the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. I worked on appeals for refused land claims and on a project aimed at getting pro bono legal advice for the more than 100 Local Aboriginal Land Councils that operate across regional NSW.
I also did an internship at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which increased my understanding of the importance of public interest litigation and gave me the opportunity to work on cases that made a real impact on the way that the legal system affects vulnerable people’s lives.
Towards the end of law school, with the assistance of some amazing mentors that I had met working in the pro bono sector, I decided to apply for a clerkship and graduate job at a commercial law firm. I wanted to get the best learning and development opportunities as a young lawyer so that I could provide excellent legal skills throughout my career to people in need. I did a lot of research when applying for clerkships because I knew that I wanted to work somewhere that valued pro bono work highly. I knew Lander & Rogers quite well because of the work that they do with RLC, so when I was lucky enough to be offered a clerkship there I knew it was the right place for me.
Now that I have completed my clerkship and my graduate program at Lander & Rogers, I have settled in the Workplace Relations and Safety team. I enjoy employment law because work is an important element of people’s lives.
I am also very involved in Lander & Rogers’ pro bono program. My pro bono role includes a variety of exciting and rewarding things, like coordinating our RLC clinic, assisting with pro bono cases that are referred to us by Justice Connect, working with the Justice Connect’s Mosaic program giving legal advice to refugees, asylum seekers and recently arrived migrants, and assisting CLCs with drafting submissions for government inquiries.
Can you tell us a bit about the pro bono practice at Lander & Rogers? What do you think are some of the key factors in fostering a strong pro bono culture within a legal team?
Lander & Rogers’ Pro Bono and Community Support Practice has been in place for over 10 years. At the heart of our pro bono legal work is the question of how we can use our legal expertise to address unmet legal need and contribute to access to justice for vulnerable Australians.
Our practice focuses on providing vulnerable Australians with access to justice through the strategic delivery of pro bono legal services and enhancing social inclusion through community engagement. Our community work is about creating opportunities to empower vulnerable Australians, as well as their communities.
We aim to contribute to positive social change, so our Pro Bono and Community Support Practice encompasses a mix of legal case work, policy submissions to help drive systemic change and legal advisory work to strengthen not-for-profit and community organisations’ capacity to deliver vital services.
In terms of fostering a strong pro bono culture within a legal team, it is important that firms have a strategic pro bono plan aligned with their values and culture, to give a clear idea of what they want to achieve and why. Visibility within the firm is also important to highlight results, achievements and to help encourage participation. A big part of the success of pro bono at Landers is due to pro bono champions who encourage involvement and raise awareness.
What are you working on now? Are there any experiences/cases that have been particularly interesting during your time at Lander & Rogers?
At the moment my role is mainly coordinating a number of different pro bono programs that Lander & Rogers is running.
I recently worked on a pro bono unfair dismissal matter where an employee had been dismissed because she was absent from work due to illness, though her employer claimed that she was dismissed for disciplinary reasons. The case settled in favour of our client, which was a great outcome.
Another pro bono case I recently assisted with involved drafting submissions for a client’s claim under the NSW Victims’ Rights and Support Act 2013 that had been refused. The client had been sexually abused by a family member as a child but her claim for a compensation payment had been refused because there was no medical evidence of the abuse.
I really love having the opportunity to go back to RLC and provide advice to their clients. Lander & Rogers provides two lawyers to RLC every fortnight to provide advice to three clients who have complex needs and legal problems. Mental health issues often contribute to the legal problems that we see in these appointments, so it’s always challenging, but it is great to be able to assist people who really need it.
I have also been volunteering with RLC’s international students clinic, which is sadly being shut down due to lack of funding. The reduction in funding for community legal centres highlights for me the really important role that commercial law firms play in providing support for the pro bono and community sector.
What are some of the benefits/challenges of a pro bono practice in a mid-tier firm?
Undertaking larger pro bono matters or community support projects can be challenging at times, including managing capacity levels and getting buy-in from all levels. We have a dedicated pro bono partner who leads our practice and helps ensure that we have clear strategic direction. This approach means we are better able to work effectively and target our efforts where they are needed (in line with our strategy), as well as helping to drive engagement across all areas and levels of the firm.
Our size means we are good at focusing on where our support can best be used to make a real impact – we are able to run a sophisticated program and achieve positive results for vulnerable Australians and their communities.
What advice would you give to other young lawyers interested in getting involved in public interest/ pro bono legal work?
Participating in pro bono work is both personally rewarding and beneficial to the community, and there are plenty of ways to get involved. Lots of firms take on pro bono cases, but if your firm doesn’t have a formal pro bono program you can volunteer at a community legal centre in the evenings, or get involved with an organisation like Justice Connect or Salvos Legal.