Secondments involve placing one or more pro bono lawyers within a community legal organisation or not-for profit organisation (host organisation) for a specific period of time or purpose, thereby increasing the host organisation’s capacity to undertake its legal work and address unmet legal need.
Although the secondee’s wages (and often certain employee entitlements such as leave) are the responsibility of the firm, they otherwise work under the direction and supervision of the host organisation, as its representative, and importantly, with the host organisation responsible for professional indemnity insurance. Usually the secondee will work at the host organisation’s premises, although ‘virtual secondment’ models are emerging whereby the secondee is physically located elsewhere and working via remote access.
The principal solicitor at Women’s Legal Service NSW, Janet Loughman, has also suggested the possibility of having secondments in two directions to provide professional development opportunities for CLC staff. ‘While this would not directly contribute to the CLC’s service delivery, it would do so indirectly by increasing the skills/capacity of the staff member seconded.’
Secondments may be:
- full-time or part-time and for a fixed period (eg for three, six or 12 months). A fixed period secondment may be part of a single- or multi-firm rotation that ensures a secondee is always available to the community legal organisation
- sessional (eg a firm solicitor attends a community legal organisation to operate an advice clinic one afternoon each week)
- short-term (eg locums to cover staff shortages)
- specific secondments (eg for the period of a particular project or initiative of a community organisation).
The secondment model overlaps with the clinic model because lawyers who are considered to be on a ‘sessional secondment’ are often used to staff clinics. Some of the case studies in this chapter could also be considered case studies of clinics: for example, see the case studies at 22.5.3 and 22.5.5.
- 22.1 Secondments: at a glance
- 22.2 Secondments: benefits
- 22.3 Secondments: challenges/limitations
- 22.4 Features of effective secondments
- 22.5 Case studies
- 22.5.1 Case study: North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and Ashurst
- 22.5.2 Case study: Kingsford Legal Centre and Herbert Smith Freehills
- 22.5.3 Case study: Employment Law Advocacy Scheme (Redfern Legal Centre, Marrickville Legal Centre, Caxton Legal Centre, Darwin Community Legal Service and Clayton Utz)
- 22.5.4 Case study: Street Law, Australian Government Solicitor and Clayton Utz (sessional secondments)
- 22.5.5 Case study: The Aged-care Rights Service (now Seniors Rights Service) and Sparke Helmore (sessional secondments)
- 22.5.6 Case study: Law Access and the Australian Government Solicitor
22.1 SECONDMENTS: AT A GLANCE
Features of effective secondments
22.2 SECONDMENTS: BENEFITS
Secondees contribute skills that boost the capacity of the host organisation to respond to client need. (PBRO manager)
As with other partnerships with community legal organisations, the benefits to firms that second staff to a community legal organisation include that the work of establishing the unmet legal need has already been done by the host organisation.
Secondments contribute significantly to the professional development of the staff members who are seconded,1 especially when the secondees are junior lawyers. Seconded solicitors develop, and bring back to the firm, enhanced legal, communication and managerial skills, in addition to specific legal knowledge in areas in which they, or the firm, may not normally be involved.
Secondees develop skills and maturity while on secondment, and often turn out to be pro bono leaders when they return to the firm. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
These skills may include policy and law reform skills. For example manager of Pro Bono Relationships at Justice Connect, Rebecca Mc Mahon, said that there are a range of opportunities available for secondees to contribute to policy and law reform work. ‘Secondees have made invaluable contributions to Justice Connect law reform work by drafting compelling evidence-based submissions to parliamentary inquiries and royal commissions, driving stakeholder engagement with courts and government departments on key areas of reform, and analysing case work data for key trends to inform law reform campaigns. These opportunities give the secondees a real sense of purpose by contributing to systemic change?
While it is often junior lawyers who are seconded, one large law firm pro bono coordinator made the point that secondments can also work well with more senior lawyers because, while they may have less available time, they also have the expertise to contribute a lot within the time available.
Secondments can also work well for experienced lawyers. Having senior associates doing project work can be less disruptive to the firms work than casework. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Secondments can be effective at any level of experience. We have a graduate rotation program with one firm (lawyers that have completed 12 months in the firm). We also currently have a secondee with 10 years experience, to be followed by another 2/3 year lawyer. (PBRO manager)
Secondments can also lead to improved employee morale, with secondees experiencing an increased sense of professional satisfaction from being involved in social justice work that has a direct impact on the lives of people who are very vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Staff build their skills and staff retention is boosted. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Supporting CLCs and other community organisations with secondees allow firms to become involved in lobbying work that they could not otherwise undertake due to conflicts of interest, for example, where a matter involves a complaint against government and the government is a client of the firm. An example provided by Heidi Roberts, in her role as National Pro Bono Manager at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, involved a secondee to PILCH (now Justice Connect) who appeared before the Law Reform Commission as a PILCH lawyer rather than a Corrs lawyer, following work he had done as a secondee developing a submission on the rights of people conceived with donor gametes.
Some of those consulted said that secondments were an easy way for the firm to provide support.
Some firms consider that secondments are an easy way to make up pro bono hours. This is not necessarily a negative. (PBRO manager)
Secondments can help to strengthen the relationships between the seconded lawyers, their firms, and the host organisations in a way that increases the level of support that the host organisation receives, even when the secondment is over.
The secondee brings an entire network of phone a friend resources with them. (CLC manager)
Secondees often maintain their contact with the host organisation and other contacts that they have established during the course of their secondment and are in a good position to bring in appropriate pro bono matters when they return to the firm. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Secondments generally contribute to the development of pro bono culture within firms as they raise awareness of social issues within the pro bono lawyer’s firm and improve the sense of community within the firm. They also increase the visibility of the law firm’s pro bono program and thereby encourage continuing commitment to pro bono work. Rebecca McMahon, manager of Pro Bono Relationships at Justice Connect, access to explained that secondments also help to develop the relationships between the partner organisations. ‘Once they return to their firm, the secondee has a deeper understanding of justice and pro bono principles, and they become an internal champion of pro bono and a supporter of Justice Connect. A secondee expressed her experience at Justice Connect in this way: ‘It has provided me with the understanding of why access to justice is so important, and makes me remember why I wanted to be a lawyer’.
22.3 SECONDMENTS: CHALLENGES/LIMITATIONS
For a secondment to be successful, the resources required of a pro bono provider in providing a secondee usually go beyond the individual lawyer and may extend to additional support for the secondee and the host organisation. Many of those consulted said it is increasingly difficult to obtain secondees as firms are reluctant to release staff to undertake secondments, especially smaller firms with fewer lawyers and resources to spare.
For example, the Partner, Pro Bono Community Support at Lander and Rogers, Joanna Renkin, explained that for a mid-size firm, capacity (and sometimes budget) can create more limitations than for a larger firm, and that secondments might therefore be shorter than she would wish. ‘Secondments at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) are three months full time, with an extension for a further month in some circumstances when the firm is not too busy. Secondments to North Melbourne Legal Service (NMLS) [now Inner Melbourne Community Legal] are two days a week for three months. It would be better if secondments could run for longer and this is something that I would like to change.’
The Partner for Pro Bono Services and Corporate Responsibility at Gilbert + Tobin (G+T), Michelle Hannon, also explained that due to its size, G+T has less capacity to have staff on secondment as they are leanly staffed. ‘If secondments are in addition to an in-house pro bono practice, a firm needs to be of a certain size to have the capacity to provide a constant secondment and have the number of lawyers interested in doing the secondment, especially secondments in remote communities.’
The Director of Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH), Tony Woodyatt, said that he has been trying to broker secondees for other CLCs, but that it is difficult to obtain a secondee in Queensland as the firms are smaller and have less capacity than the bigger offices in Sydney and Melbourne, especially when firms are busy. ‘It is more likely that firms will provide a short term secondee, for example, to fill in for a staff member on leave for a month, although Corrs provides a permanent full-time secondee to QPILCH on six-month rotation and other firms have provided long-term and short-term secondments over the last 12 years.’
Firms increasingly prefer to do discrete tasks that they can work on autonomously rather than providing staff to work within a legal service, which can be difficult for the lawyer who has to work without the benefit of fully understanding the context that they would gain if they worked within the CLC. It is difficult to obtain assistance in the form of secondee lawyers, however, that is the optimal form of assistance that firms can provide. (CLC solicitor)
Some secondees have been told by partners in firms that are not supportive of pro bono that doing a secondment will be a black mark in their career. We recently lost a secondee this way. (PBRO manager)
Some of those consulted thought that pro bono providers were also fearful that staff who go on secondment may never return. The principal solicitor at Eastern Community Legal Centre, Belinda Lo, said she had heard of three such resignations of lawyers following a six month secondment. However, others consulted thought that it was possible these staff might have been thinking about leaving the firm in any case and putting their hand up for a secondment might have been symptomatic of that.
Some of those consulted said that it can be difficult to find lawyers who want to go on secondment.
Many host organisations (that do legal rather than policy work) tend to want litigators, which limits the pool of lawyers that the firm has to draw from. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Secondees may worry that being away from the firm for a significant period of time will have a negative impact on their career advancement because they might be forgotten while they are away. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Finding secondees who are willing to work in an area out of Sydney can be a challenge. (CLC principal solicitor)
However, some also suggested that the reluctance to release staff and lack of interest in volunteering for secondments could also be due to myths about secondments that could be challenged by circulating more information about secondments.
There are many myths circulating within firms about secondments: that it is an opportunity to slack off, that no legal skills are involved, that it is used as a transitioning role for people who have already decided to leave the firm. (PBRO manager)
Relying on the firm to do the recruitment of secondees is challenging because the host organisation has little control over how the secondment is promoted internally. Its therefore hard to judge whether there is a genuine lack of interest on the part of lawyers when firms are unable to secure a candidate or whether other factors are in play such as: lack of detailed information about the secondment; partners in individual practice groups not supporting their lawyers doing a pro bono secondment; or broader capacity issues. (PBRO manager)
While pro bono providers increasingly seem to prefer short-term or sessional secondments that represent less of a resource commitment for them, many of the community organisations that host secondments warned that a secondment will not work unless the period and frequency of the time of the secondment match the training and learning requirements for the secondee’s work to be of benefit to the host organisation.
A three month secondment is too short (unless for a specific project), not enough to be absorbed in the culture of the host organisation. Some partners find that six months is a long time to be without that lawyer in their team, and four months may be better (but finding three secondees a year is logistically more difficult than two). Six months is optimal (not too long away from the office, but enough to be up and running and contribute to the host organisation). (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Sessional secondments often don’t work as well because the secondee does not feel like they are part of the life of the CLC and it is not enjoyable for them. (CLC principal solicitor)
While pro bono providers may be reluctant to release their high performing lawyers on secondments, the impact on both the firm and the host organisation of a having an under-performing staff member sent on secondment can be disastrous for the host organisation, the reputation of the firm, and the pro bono program. The Director of Community Engagement at Allens, Nicky Friedman, explained that Allens does not send graduates on secondments; their secondees are at least ‘first years’. ‘Graduates are more likely to be a training burden for the host organisation rather than providing resources to boost their capacity. Pro bono should first and foremost be about meeting unmet legal need, and business benefits should be a secondary consideration.’
While it is difficult to convince partners to release their best people to go on secondment, it is detrimental to the secondment program to send under-performers on secondment because the secondment gains the reputation within the firm of being the place where poor performers are sent and the program loses momentum. It is also disastrous from the host organisation’s perspective as they end up expending resources on a difficult secondee rather than boosting capacity. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Problems are likely to occur when staff members are conscripted to secondments, especially where they have political/philosophical views that are inconsistent with the host organisation for example a firm (not ours) that sent a staff member on pro bono secondment when the firm did not find a suitable rotation group for them, so they felt like the secondment was a punishment rather than an opportunity. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Some firms have attempted to send very junior lawyers that are not yet admitted. This can be a burden on our resources and is not encouraged. (PBRO manager)
It can take a while for a secondee to adapt to the mindset of being a secondee, especially if they are asked to do a secondment rather than actively volunteering. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Unfortunately the community organisations that have the greatest needs for a boost in their capacity may also be the organisations least likely to have the resources to appropriately train, find suitable tasks, adequately supervise, administer and physically seat secondees. For example, the Executive Director at Western CLC, Denis Nelthorpe, said that the CLC had declined an offer of a secondee for lack of space. He suggested firms can provide additional administrative assistance to CLCs by, for example, storing files off site, which can create space and improve the appearance of CLC offices. One CLC manager found it difficult physically finding space for a secondee as this required giving up some office space for interview rooms.
Bad experiences with CLCs discourage firms from partnering with CLCs in the future for example firms that second staff to poorly run or resourced CLCs are unlikely to repeat the arrangement as their staff do not enjoy it or gain enough from the experience. (CLC manager)
Initially our secondees were well organised by the host organisation, had plenty to do and felt that they made an impact. In the end however, we ceased attending as the service was unsure as to how to use us after an organisational restructure and secondees felt they were in the way and not well utilised. We have since continued discussions as to how we might again provide assistance. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
22.4 FEATURES OF EFFECTIVE SECONDMENTS
To dispel the myths about secondments, which can contribute to a reluctance in pro bono providers to support secondments and release their best people, there needs to be strong communication about what secondments actually involve and about the benefits of secondments. For example, Justice Connect has developed an information portal on secondments that provides information, videos and testimonials.2 Given the preference of many firms for pro bono work with a broader strategic purpose beyond helping individual clients, it may also be helpful to structure the secondment around a particular law reform goal. (See Chapter 5 Where pro bono resources should be directed).
It is often easier to sell a secondment within a firm if the secondment is linked to a specific project rather than general legal referral work, especially a law reform goal, for example a secondment aimed at producing a report on women and homelessness. (PBRO manager)
For many of those consulted, one of the most important features is the selection of the best person for the secondment — a lawyer who wants to do the secondment, who is skilled, motivated, and senior or smart enough to need little training, and whose interests, skills and experience match the needs of the host organisation. For example Herbert Smith Freehills, spends significant time and resources ensuring that lawyers chosen to go on highly sought after secondments are those lawyers who are performing at a very high level at the firm both in terms of their professional skills and their client relationship skills.
Secondment positions should be staffed with lawyers who volunteer to be seconded and see the secondment as an opportunity. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Our firm’s best people are given the opportunity to be seconded, as a reward. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
The secondee should have the general skills to contribute to the work of the host organisation with minimal training. Secondees should not require training from the host organisation in general legal skills, only the specific knowledge about what is going on in the host organisation. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Select a secondee that can hit the ground running so that they build the capacity of the host organisation rather than being a burden. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
In the selection process, it is not only legal skills that need to be taken into account. Equally important are the secondee’s interest in social justice and, where they may be involved in direct client work, the ability to deal with people experiencing social and economic disadvantage.
Ensure that the secondee is a fit for the host organisation (both in terms of technical legal skills, but also interpersonal skills and cultural sensitivity). (Government pro bono manager)
We ask that applicants for secondments have an interest in social justice, that they are self-directed, confident in interacting with a wide variety of stakeholders and keen to learn about different areas of the law. (PBRO manager)
It is important that the period and frequency of the secondment matches the needs of the host organisation. A short-term or sessional secondment can be very successful if the appropriate staff are seconded to the right project. For example, all solicitors at Herbert Smith Freehills’ Perth office undertake a two-week full-time secondment at Sussex Street Community Law Service in their post-admission year. Herbert Smith Freehills and Sussex Street find that the secondments work well, despite the fact that they are for a short period of time, because there is appropriate legal work available for the secondees, and the CLCs coordinator spends one hour per fortnight supervising the handover between secondees.
However, the secondee can also end up being a drain on the CLC’s resources. For example, before a recent review of their secondment arrangements, the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) previously provided secondees to Street Law who were graduate solicitors on one of their three-month rotations. They attended Street Law once a week, with each secondee attending on alternate weeks. Once a fortnight was not often enough for each solicitor to learn effectively and Street Law was finding that it took the whole three months for each solicitor to reach the stage where they could independently manage a file. Street Law was essentially providing training to AGS graduate solicitors. In her former role as Project Officer at Street Law, Katie Fraser explained that ‘Clayton Utz also provided secondees on an alternating fortnightly basis, however, given that the secondees were second and third year they had developed legal skills and experience that allowed them to work with much less supervision.’ (For more details see case study at 22.5.4.)
The consulted community organisations unanimously preferred having full-time secondments for at least six months but realised that due to the resource constraints of pro bono providers, this would not always be possible. The Partner, Pro Bono Community Support at Lander and Rogers, Jo Renkin, agreed saying that ‘it is obviously better for the host organisation, but also better for the secondee if the secondment is full-time as they don’t miss out on work that requires a consistent, long term presence.’ She said that secondees at North Melbourne Legal Service (now Inner Melbourne Community Legal) who attended two days a week found it more difficult to establish relationships and needed time to relearn what they were doing, in contrast with Human Rights Law Centre secondees who were seconded full-time. ‘They may also come under pressure from the firm to continue doing a full-time work load at the firm within the few part-time days they are at the firm. If they are seconded full-time they can ‘switch off’ from the work of the firm and fully focus on the work of the host organisation.’
It is usually best to have a secondee working full-time at the host organisation because it is difficult to manage work back at the firm (and the firm’s expectations of their availability) if they are part time. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Having the more senior or high-performing lawyers selected for secondments certainly can address some of the challenges associated with sessional or short-period secondments. For example, the Executive Director of JusticeNet, Tim Graham, said that even with a frequent turnover of AGS secondees, the arrangement has worked for JusticeNet because AGS have sent relatively senior staff who require very little training or supervision, so they could be left to review a few difficult files. ‘Even the junior lawyers that AGS sends have high level skills.’
Finding work of a suitable nature for a short term or sessional secondee can also help to make it work. For example, Tim Graham said that not giving secondees direct client work has created less pressure than in a clinic situation.
The Director of Community Engagement at Allens, Nicky Friedman, explained that a secondment for one day a week for a year to Bush Heritage Australia (BHA) worked well because the secondee acted more like in-house counsel to the organisation than a CLC lawyer doing casework. ‘A staffing cutback meant that BHA did not have anyone providing in-house legal advice and since they had a pre-existing relationship with the firm, they asked if the firm could assist. The firm provided a secondee who was a senior associate from the precedents team with good drafting skills one day a week for a year. The work involved small, contained pieces of work that could be completed in a day, or ongoing issues that could be worked on bit by bit, so the one day a week arrangement worked well (especially since the secondee was a fairly experienced lawyer).’
It is generally more useful for a CLC to have a secondee full-time (especially if it is for a short period of time), however, having sessional secondees for a long period of time also works. (CLC manager)
Pre-planning is necessary to achieve the best match of the right person for the secondment with the appropriate tasks and needs of the host organisation. For example, the Partner, Pro Bono Community Support at Landers & Rogers, Jo Renkin, said that she discussed the firm’s capacity limitations with North Melbourne Legal Service (now Inner Melbourne Community Legal) early on (that they could only second someone for two days a week) to ensure that the secondment would be useful to the host organisation and they would have appropriate work and supervision for the secondment.
Pre-planning may also include preparation by the host organisation for:
- training — preparation of training materials on topics such as induction information, substantive legal issues, casework-related issues, etc;
- supervision — allocation of significant time for mentoring and checking the work of secondees;
- administration — arrangements made for insurance, employment conditions; and
- space in host organisation office for seating secondees.
It is ideal when the host organisation can prepare work for the secondee which is well structured, properly supervised, diverse and challenging. (PBRO manager)
An important part of pre-planning involves developing the relationship between the pro bono provider, the host organisation and the secondee. This ensures both the pro bono provider and the host organisation understand the capabilities of the secondee, and the objectives of the secondment for both the host organisation and the secondee. Understanding the capabilities of the secondee allows the host organisation to allocate appropriate tasks accordingly. In her role as Pro Bono Manager at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Heidi Roberts explained that before a Corrs secondee began at PILCH Victoria (now Justice Connect), Corrs would explain what the secondee’s performance objectives so that their activities and performance feedback could easily plug back into the firm’s performance review structure.
The firm needs to understand the politics of the host organisation, and the host organisation needs to understand the way the firm works. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Development of a relationship between the secondee and host organisation before the secondment begins builds an understanding of what can be achieved and what the needs are. Our secondees have a coffee with the host organisation before starting so they can explain the areas of law they are interested in and what their capabilities are. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
We try to be responsive to secondees skills and interests in allocating work. For example, some secondees are better tasked working on client files rather than writing submissions. Not all secondees are suited to law reform work. (A PBRO manager)
It is helpful to have a handover between secondees at changeover, so that the incoming secondee has some understanding of the work that the previous secondee has been doing and there is some continuity. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Effective supervision and support for secondees during the secondment period is essential to the success of the secondment and may involve regular feedback, opportunities to extend their skills and recognition for their work. A good example was provided by the Partner, Pro Bono Community Support at Lander & Rogers, Jo Renkin, who said that the Human Rights Law Centre’s excellent secondee program really supports their secondees. A Landers secondment to HRLC of three months was extended for a further two months, which enabled the lawyer and the HRLC to benefit from the increased confidence and knowledge that the secondee had developed. ‘Our secondee attended parliamentary enquiries, briefing sessions and even represented Australian non-government organisations in a peer review in Geneva.’
Support for secondees could include access to counselling via an Employee Assistance Program, especially for those who are not used to, for example, dealing with people in distress. (Government PBRO manager)
Some of those consulted also suggested that linking the development plan for the secondment with the secondee’s regular performance review system is a good way of ensuring that the work they do at the host organisation is recognised back at their firm, and that any performance issues are addressed to minimise the impact on the host organisation.
For example, the work of secondees at Justice Connect is linked to their firm’s performance review/development plan. Secondees are asked to identify performance goals within the first month of their secondment (once they have some idea of what they are doing), so that Justice Connect feedback on these goals can be plugged into their firm performance review system. Rebecca Mc Mahon, Manager of Pro Bono Relationship: at Justice Connect, explained that ‘goal setting (and reviewing against those goals) would help secondees to reflect on how their secondment work relates to their professional development as lawyers and ensure that they are given credit within their firm for their achievements while off-site.’3
We encourage secondees to meet regularly with their practice group, attend relevant training back at their firm and generally maintain a strong connection with their employer while working off-site. (PBRO manager)
Firms have indicated to us that they want to be involved in performance management early on if there is an issue of under-performance. (PBRO manager)
22.5 CASE STUDIES
- 22.5.1 Case study: North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and Ashurst
- 22.5.2 Case study: Kingsford Legal Centre and Herbert Smith Freehills
- 22.5.3 Case study: Employment Law Advocacy Scheme (Redfern Legal Centre, Marrickville Legal Centre, Caxton Legal Centre, Darwin Community Legal Service and Clayton Utz)
- 22.5.4 Case study: Street Law, Australian Government Solicitor and Clayton Utz (sessional secondments)
- 22.5.5 Case study: The Aged-care Rights Service (now Seniors Rights Service) and Sparke Helmore (sessional secondments)
- 22.5.6 Case study: Law Access and the Australian Government Solicitor
22.5.1 Case study: North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and Ashurst
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) delivers innovative high quality and culturally proficient Aboriginal legal services to the Top End of the Northern Territory.
Its role is to:
- ensure that clients are appropriately represented when they come into contact with the justice system;
- assist and inform Aboriginal people and enhance their understanding of the justice system;
- ensure that clients and families receive quality legal advice and representation; and
- influence a positive change within the justice system that reflects better understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultural backgrounds, problems and challenges that impact upon Aboriginal people.
Ashurst seconds a civil lawyer for six months full-time to the NAAJA Katherine Office on a rotating basis. The arrangement has been in place since 2003.
The secondees travel to very remote areas (outside of Katherine) for periods of one to four days at a time, once or twice a month. During these ‘bush trips’ they undertake traditional clinic work, providing one-off legal advice, as well as taking the opportunity to take instructions from clients with ongoing matters.
During their secondment the solicitors deal with matters that arise within NAAJA’s general civil practice, including compensation work (eg motor accidents and victims compensation), coronial inquests, discrimination and employment law matters. Many of the matters relate to complaints about service providers such as hospitals, schools and police.
- The secondment increases the capacity of NAAJA to provide services in a remote location. A former Ashurst secondee, explained that ‘while Katherine itself is a remote location, the clinic work undertaken by secondees involves communities that are remote even for Katherine.’ Jonathan Hunyor, former NAAJA Principal Legal officer, commented that ‘the scale of unmet legal need for Aboriginal people in the Top End is vast and the extra capacity we get through a secondee in our civil team makes a big difference to the help we can offer clients’.
- Issues identified during the secondment can lead to law reform or improvements to services. Many of the problems identified in complaints about service providers (eg hospitals, schools, and police) and coronial inquests can help the local services to argue for more resources or a change in policy, which leads to better service delivery. ‘Our work in relation to several complaints about how the morgues were operating led to parliamentary recommendations to better regulate the morgues in the Northern Territory.’
- The professional skills and knowledge of the secondee are transferred to NAAJA. Jonathon Hunyor, commented that ‘the skills and professional knowledge of the secondee ‘rubs off’ on the staff at NAAJA, especially on the support staff who learn from someone who is used to sophisticated office systems.’
- The secondee brings an entire network of ‘phone a friend’ resources with them. A former secondee commented: ‘When I am not sure about something I can call someone at the firm with a lot of expertise in the area, which allows me to tell the client early on whether their case has merit and assists in the conduct of the matter.’
- The secondee develops useful professional and life skills.
I learned about negotiating from a position of exposure or weakness. At Ashurst, a lawyer is very unlikely to be in a situation where the other side doesn’t care what your client thinks. But at NAAJA, the other side, for example, a health service provider, frequently does not care whether your vulnerable client is happy with the standard of the health service they are providing. I learned how to convince the other side that my client had the law on their side and that they should do the right thing.
In addition to legal skills, I developed other important skills, for example, in cross cultural communication and how to use interpreters. However, some of the most important lessons I learned were about life. Living in a remote community with complex social issues gave me life experience that made me realise that I had a narrow big city perspective. Whatever I thought I knew before was wrong. Issues in remote areas are more complicated, so any solutions will also need to be more complicated. (Former secondee)
Professionally, it exposes us to a different type of practice, and helps to improve a vast range of our ‘soft skills’ like clarity of communication, advocacy, file management and navigating difficult situations. Personally, it is a fabulous opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals, learn a lot about Aboriginal culture and history, and see some incredible parts of the country. My time here has been an experience that I will never forget. (Former secondee)
- Ensuring that the secondee is actually boosting the capacity of the host organisation.
I was conscious of avoiding a situation where I was getting more from the secondment than I was giving to NAAJA, and spending the whole time learning. This is a big risk with shorter secondments and clinics where the lawyers can go away feeling good about what they’ve done, but don’t actually make a big contribution. (Former secondee)
- Many of the skills required for the secondment need to be learned on the job. Ashurst secondees do as much preparation as possible, but the nature of the work is so different from their ordinary practice, that they have no choice but to learn on the job.
The communication and problem solving skills required of me were so different. I needed to ask questions in the right way to fully understand the situation. If you don’t speak Aboriginal English you are probably misunderstanding the concepts, even if you know the language. (Former secondee)
- Secondees often face confronting issues for away from their normal support networks in a different social and cultural context. Being aware of this issue, Ashurst ensures that secondees are prepared for dealing with difficult situations through its induction procedures and by providing regular debriefing sessions for secondees with members of the pro bono team and access to free counselling through the firm’s Employment Assistance Program.
Features that make it effective
- Having a long-term secondment with consistency at both the firm and the host organisation. It is important to select the right people for secondments who can build on the experience of the previous secondee, minimising disruption for the host organisation. When Ashurst sends its lawyers on secondment it encourages them to contact people who previously did the same secondment so they can pick up practical tips. A former secondee explained that ‘unfortunately many community organisations that are funded on a year to year basis are ‘stunted’ in what they can do as they don’t know whether their programs will continue.’
- Having a full-time secondment of six months.
Even though I was there for six months, it felt like a short time to learn everything I needed to be effective. Three months would have been a lot less effective. It’s not because secondees don’t know the law, but because they need the time to develop the communication skills and relationships, as clients will not tell you what’s on their mind until they trust you. (Former secondee)
- The secondees are enthusicestics professional and generally have at least two years of legal experience. Jonathon Hunyor explained that ‘having a senior associate who can work independently is very helpful for an organisation with limited capacity for supervision.’
- Indigenous cultural training and other practical preparation of the secondees. While the secondees do receive legal induction, which provides them with information on the relevant areas of law so they can learn about them on their own, practical tips about how to communicate and deal with clients are the most important preparation. A former secondee explained that ‘lawyers can easily learn the law, but most have not been trained in cross cultural communication skills. These skills cannot be learned in an academic way.’
- Those coordinating the project at the firm have previous experience of the secondment, and can help to prepare and provide support to the secondees.
22.5.2 Case study: Kingsford Legal Centre and Herbert Smith Freehills
Kingsford Legal Centre (KLC) is a community legal centre and part of the UNSW Faculty of Law. The Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) and KLC secondment program has been in place for over 20 years. Since its commencement in 1992, HSF has provided KLC with a full-time secondee solicitor on a rolling six-month basis. The solicitor participates in all areas of KLC service including advice and casework, community legal education, law reform and policy work, as well as educating and mentoring students participating in KLC’s clinical legal education program. The success of the partnership received recognition as the winner of the 2012 Pro Bono Partnership Award at the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW’s annual Justice Awards.
- The provision of an additional staff member increases the capacity of KLC to provide legal assistance and improves the accessibility of these services to the community. Seconded solicitors at KLC have given over 2,000 advices to members of the community since the program began and have increased the Centre’s access to its community by around 20%. The partnership has allowed KLC to do outreach that it would not have otherwise been able to do. Secondees have staffed outreach services at South Eastern Community Connect and the Junction Neighbourhood Centre as well as delivery community education on topics such as powers of attorney, debts and fines.
- New and innovative methods of delivering legal services have been developed and organised by secondee solicitors. For example, a ‘pop up’ clinic on the South Coogee housing estate was a successful arrangement established in response to the concerns of clients who were unable to access public transport. Secondees also developed a community legal education program on Powers of Attorney and Guardianship, along with a kit of materials, which has proved very popular with older members of the community, and increases their access to KLC.
- Secondee solicitors bring a different perspective to the Centre, which comes from their experience in private practice.
- The secondment greatly contributes to the secondee’s professional development, as they have responsibility for files, learn about areas of law where they previously have no experience, and have direct client contact in relation to a wide variety of day-to-day matters. The Director of KLC, Anna Cody, explained that secondee solicitors, which include intermedia level lawyers through to senior associates, are exposed to ‘a breadth of experience through the opportunity to work with the community which is not ordinarily available to them’.
- Secondee solicitors act as role models and mentors to the students at KLC by demonstrating a personal commitment to pro bono work, which helps to build a pro bono culture in the lawyers of the future.
The partnership becomes a self-perpetuation [promotion] for pro bono — it inspires students and helps them to see you can have a mixed model practice of commercial and pro bono work which assists the community and disadvantaged people. (Anna Cody, Director, Kingsford Legal Centre)
- Secondee solicitors often continue their support of the Centre after completion of their rotation by joining the KLC volunteer roster.
- The firm assists KLC with additional non-legal assistance such as hosting events, publications and planning. It has lobbied against a funding cut that would have severely reduced KLC’s capacity to continue its programs.
- Early on in the relationship the firm felt that it was receiving fewer referrals from KLC than from other organisations. When the issue was raised with KLC, it emerged that KLC had mistakenly believed it would have been an imposition to expect HSF to do more pro bono work on top of the secondment. This demonstrates the importance of communication and understanding the perspective of your partner organisation.
- The level of interest from solicitors in the secondment has fluctuated over the years. However, both KLC and HSF are very committed to the relationship and to continuing the secondment, and HSF obtained the support of its partners and previous KLC secondees to raise the profile of the secondment. Anna Cody, the Director of KLC, said that ‘it was encouraging to see that in 2012 there were nine applications for the two secondment positions’.
- It can be difficult to find the time to maintain contact, although the relationship is now at a stage where it largely looks after itself. Face-to-face meetings occur at around 18-month intervals.
Features that make it effective
- Having two extremely committed organisations that are centres of excellence and regard each other with mutual respect.
- good, strong relationships between the centre and key stakeholders at HSF which enable any difficulties to be discussed and resolved speedily.
- KLC has had consistent, high-quality staff running the practice, with its current Director having worked at the Centre for over 12 years.
- The long-term nature of the partnership, which has been consistent, regular and reliable for over 20 years, has allowed the program to be innovative and continually evolve and adapt to any changes that are necessary.
- Secondee solicitors are entrenched in the running of the Centre’s operation, including casework, the supervision of students, involvement in CLE sessions and participation in projects and ideas about the strategic direction to the Centre’s practice.
- The provision of secondees who have a personal commitment to access to justice.
- The partners at the firm are supportive of the program. Three HSF partners were KLC secondees and lawyers are encouraged to be involved in the secondment.
22.5.3 Case study: Employment Law Advocacy Scheme (Redfern Legal Centre, Marrickville Legal Centre, Caxton Legal Centre, Darwin Community Legal Service and Clayton Utz)
In 2011 Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) and Clayton Utz developed the Unfair Dismissal Advocacy Scheme (later renamed the Employment Law Advocacy Scheme) to provide representation to clients in unfair dismissal claims before the Fair Work Commission (FWC). In 2014, the partnership extended to assist clients with general protections and unpaid wages claims with the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO). Marrickville Legal Centre (MLC) joined the Scheme at the start of 2015 to address an identified gap in employment legal assistance to vulnerable clients across its large catchment area. The Scheme has also been replicated in Queensland with Caxton Legal Centre and in the Northern Territory with Darwin Community Legal Service.
The Scheme combines the resources of a corporate law firm with the expertise and client base of) CLC partners to expand the capacity of the community legal sector to deliver employment law advice and representation. It is an example of collaboration that goes beyond a traditional referral arrangement between CLCs and pro bono firms. Under the training, supervision and guidance of the CLC lawyers, the Clayton Utz lawyers provide advice and representation to clients in unfair dismissal and general protections conciliations before the FWC, and unpaid wages claims before the FWO. The CLC is on the record for all matters, and Clayton Utz solicitors represent clients as secondees to the CLC partners.
Clients come into the Scheme through CLC advice clinics, and are vetted for pro bono assistance by the CLC partners. Volunteer lawyers from Clayton Utz then attend a follow-up appointment with the client on their rostered day. The secondee Clayton Utz lawyer appears for the client at the conciliation and assists to prepare a deed of release when the matter settles.
The Scheme is administered and supervised by a dedicated lawyer from the CLC, who has employment law expertise. The Clayton Utz pro bono team provides additional supervision where appropriate. Importantly, the client remains a client of the CLC and the CLC is on the record for FWC documents. All documents generated for the Scheme matters are the property of the CLC and are filed on the CLC’s client file.
Since its commencement, the Employment Law Advocacy Scheme has assisted hundreds of people who had lost their employment and were unable to obtain legal aid. Clients are typically low-income earners who face significant financial strain. Without the Scheme, these clients would have been unable to afford legal representation, and may have either represented themselves or not pursued a claim at all. The Scheme also boosts the capacity of the CLCs involved to represent the volume of clients in these employment matters.
Most matters under the Scheme settle at conciliation, with a small number of matters settling either before or after conciliation. Outcomes can go beyond monetary compensation for the client, to include statements of service, references, reinstatement and even having the termination re-characterised as a resignation.
- The Scheme provides representation to clients who would otherwise not receive representation. Through ongoing legal assistance, clients are better informed of their rights and entitlements, and ultimately achieve better outcomes.
- Increased capacity for the CLC to assist clients with employment matters, while also freeing up their resources to focus on other casework.
- Early legal assistance leads to faster, appropriate outcomes for applicants, as well as resulting in substantial public funds saved by matters not being taken up by hearing time before the FWC. Not one of the applicants under the Scheme has had to proceed to a hearing before the FWC.
- The CLC partner assesses matters for merit before they are referred to the Scheme, to ensure resources are suitably allocated. In some instances, Scheme lawyers also play a key role in providing frank advice where it is clear a matter is lacking in merit.
- The volume of cases enables certain trends to be identified. For example, many clients have underpayments in addition to their unfair dismissal or general protections claim.
- Participating law firm lawyers do not need an employment law background to be involved, as they are trained in the relevant legal issues before joining the Scheme, and are supervised throughout. Matters are allocated on a rostered basis and each matter generally involves a maximum of 10 hours work. This makes it easier for the law firms to resource the Scheme, and gives the lawyers a manageable and predictable workload.
- Participating lawyers receive immense satisfaction from being able to achieve an outcome for the client within a short time frame. The scheme also provides them with an opportunity to learn and develop various transferable skills, such as negotiation, advocacy and drafting skills.
- It is not always possible to make a clear assessment on the merits of a matter at the initial client interview. This means that, at times, matters are referred into the Scheme which have little prospect of success.
- Client numbers can fluctuate, which can create lack of certainty for the participating lawyers.
Features that make it effective
- The unmet legal need was identified by the CLC partner, rather than coming from the pro bono practice. As a result, the Scheme enabled the CLC partner to increase its capacity to address the area of legal need.
- The participating lawyers are able to combine their commercial law skills, with targeted training from the CLC partner to provide high quality representation to the clients.
- Having a dedicated employment lawyer at the CLC to coordinate and supervise the scheme enables the scheme to be run more efficiently, and makes for a better ongoing relationship between the CLC partner and the pro bono firm.
- Both the CLC and the pro bono firm were open and clear about what their interests in the project were. The partnership was governed by an agreement which clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of each party.
22.5.4 Case study: Street Law, Australian Government Solicitor and Clayton Utz (sessional secondments)
Street Law in Canberra assists people who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless by providing a free legal service and by connecting clients with other services.
Lawyers from Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) and Clayton Utz were seconded to Street Law on a sessional basis, although adjustments to the arrangements have subsequently been made to ensure it works well for both Street Law and the pro bono providers.
Initially the AGS secondees were graduate solicitors on one of their three-month rotations. They attended Street Law once a week, with each secondee attending on alternate weeks. It was found that attending once a fortnight did not allow each solicitor to learn effectively, and Street Law found that it took the whole three months for each solicitor to reach the stage where they could independently manage a file. Street Law was essentially providing training to AGS graduate solicitors.4
Clayton Utz also provided secondees to Street law on an alternating fortnightly basis. These secondees, who were second-year and third-year lawyers, had already developed legal skills and experience that allowed them to work with much less supervision than graduate lawyers.
AGS and Street Law also tried a different arrangement where two secondees were provided every week on different days for 12 weeks. While it was better to have the same secondees attending every week, it was still difficult for Street Law to supervise them on different days.
Street Law has since moved to an arrangement where they only have one secondee at a time: one day a week for three months with AGS, then two days a week for six weeks with Clayton Utz. They have also explored other options for volunteers, including College of Law students who might be able to commit to providing more hours in a week for a longer period. In the last couple of years, Street Law has entered into an arrangement where they have secondees either full-time or four days a week for three months with Minter Ellison. On one occasion, this secondment was job-shared by two solicitors. Street Law also received a full-time secondee from Sparke Helmore for four months.
The nature of Street Law’s work makes it difficult to have secondees that only attend once a week. Many of Street Law’s clients are in crisis and need their matter acted on quickly. This may sometimes require intensive work (research or follow up enquiries) in a relatively short period of time. Street Law does not take on many protracted matters that can be ‘chipped away at’ over an extended period of time. Having a secondee in the office only once a week means that there is no possibility for them to take ownership of a matter and do a substantial amount of work on any one matter. This means that by necessity the supervising solicitors at Street Law must carve off smaller/discrete tasks out of a larger case, which is both more work for Street Law staff and less satisfying for the secondee. Sessional secondments may work better for Centres that have matters which are less time-sensitive or ‘project work’ such as law reform or CLE materials that can be worked on over an extended period of time. However, in Street Law’s experience, secondees express more interest in ‘coal face’ client work, rather than project work as it provides a greater contrast to their normal working environment.
We have law students who volunteer, and we feel no compunction about giving them administrative and filing work when we have nothing more exciting for them to do, because they are there as volunteers. But we feel an obligation to not give this kind of administrative work to secondees (even though lawyers often do it themselves), because they are there in a professional capacity. Sometimes this creates an odd situation where we are giving them the exciting work, for example legal research or writing submissions, while we catch up on data entry and filing. (Katie Fraser, former Project Officer, Street Law)
- Secondees contribute to the capacity of Street Law by undertaking tasks such as initial follow-up phone calls, small/discrete research tasks, and writing up file notes (especially when they accompany outreach officers to offsite locations).
- Secondees can also contribute towards the centre’s larger research projects by working on research tasks over an extended period of time.
- Strengthens the pro bono relationship between referral partners.
We feel more comfortable referring our clients to a firm we know and can trust to do a good job.
(Katie Fraser, former Project Officer, Street Law)
- Creates a greater awareness in the general legal community about some of the challenges that Street Law’s client group face in gaining access to justice.
- Raises the profile of Street Law in the general legal community.
- Preparing suitable work and finding the resources to provide adequate supervision and feedback for secondees, especially if they are very inexperienced. Correcting the work of secondees and providing supervision and feedback can end up using up more of the CLC’s time than if they had done the work themselves.
- Conflict issues relating to the use of government lawyers need to be carefully managed. Street Law’s intake of clients is by the type of client, not by legal subject area. Being a generalist/holistic service means there is greater potential for conflict issues with any government lawyers. ‘DFAT and AusAID lawyers are less likely to have conflict issues given they don’t really deal with domestic law or individuals. The perception of conflict is as problematic as actual conflict, so/outreach may not be suitable for some government lawyers. Street Law does not want to give the impression that its service is anything but completely independent of government. There are already some conflict issues with AGS solicitors seconded to Street Law who are also representing Centrelink and DIAC. Even if the conflict is not direct, there is a risk with having those solicitors on the premises with access to files/information.’
Features that make it effective
- Secondees who can be committed for at least a three month period full-time, or close to full-time.
- If firms cannot contribute full-time secondments, it is preferable to have experienced lawyers who can quickly learn what to do with little supervision.
- Sessional secondments might also work where experienced lawyers are providing advice in a discrete area. Katie Fraser explained that this was the case in her previous experience at Western Community Legal Centre with lawyers seconded to Homeless Persons Legal Service to provide advice on fines.
Street Law has no shortage of secondees, but the secondees who are most helpful are those who need little supervision, or are committed for a useful period of time. It would be better from Street Laws point of view to have a secondee for three to six months full-time. (Katie Fraser, former Project Officer, Street Law)
22.5.5 Case study: The Aged-care Rights Service (now Seniors Rights Service) and Sparke Helmore (sessional secondments)
Sparke Helmore is a mid-sized firm that is a signatory to the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target. In 2011 the firm had undertaken pro bono cases referred from various sources, but was open to the possibility of expanding its pro bono contribution beyond the traditional case referral model.
Between 2011 and 2013 Sparke Helmore secondees attended The Aged Care Rights Service (TARS),5 a community legal centre assisting people over 60 years of age who lack the means to pay for legal assistance, and provided assistance with their intake list. A pilot project was run from September to October 2011 with two secondees — Susan Hunt (lawyer and Knowledge Manager) and a fee-earning lawyer — attending TARS half a day per week. They provided telephone advice, minor assistance (which includes extra steps such as sending a factsheet or drafting simple correspondence), and referrals to other agencies or private solicitors where it was more appropriate to do so. Some more complex matters were able to be referred in-house for pro bono assistance via the pro bono director (eg property, trusts, wills and estates).
During the pilot, the secondees found that once a week was too much for them to fit in on top of their usual work at the firm. The project itself operated for almost two years with a permanent team of four volunteer lawyers. The lawyers attended TARS in pairs. Each pair attended once a fortnight for four hours, so there was an alternating pair attending TARS each week. They found that once a fortnight was more manageable for the volunteers but still frequent enough for them to remember what they learned during the previous session.
The project was a success given that pro bono, at the time, had a relatively modest profile in the firm, particularly in relation to secondments and clinics. Sparke Helmore has since reviewed its pro bono strategy and has developed a thriving pro bono practice.
- Secondees found it rewarding and inspiring to work alongside lawyers at TARS who were highly skilled and dedicated to assisting people in need. It provided an opportunity to experience a different work environment as a lawyer.
- It also provided an opportunity for the firm to apply existing areas of expertise to assist people in need, in the context of a service that aims to provide holistic support (legal and non-legal) to a vulnerable group.
- Lawyers from the firm were able to expand their legal and general knowledge, and enjoyed the challenge of researching new areas of law.
- The secondees were also able to assist with other needs in addition to the intake list casework, including developing precedents and drafting letter templates.
- The arrangement was an opportunity to present the firm in a broader community context.
- Some lawyers found that weekly attendance at TARS was unsustainable given their other work commitments.
- There was a learning curve for the secondees who were initially unfamiliar with many of the areas of law (powers of attorney, wills, trusts, estates) and occasionall dealing with challenging people (eg the hostile family members of clients). Secondees needed to be ‘happy to venture outside their comfort zone’ and continuously learning.
- Managing the project so that there was consistency in the staff attending the service. Susan had to resist the temptation to personally fill in for lawyers who had had to pull out at short notice due to work commitments at the firm, as it could be difficult to find last-minute replacements.
- The way the project was structured meant that the legal work was largely reactive, leaving little scope for policy or law reform work.
- Organising physical space for secondees, swipe passes etc in a small CLC environment.
- Choosing a convenient day/time for secondees to attend TARS that matched the need for assistance. For example, Friday afternoon may have been be a convenient time for fee-earning lawyers to attend, but not necessarily a time when clients would be at home to answer the phone.
Features that made the project effective
- The lawyers from Sparke Helmore had great respect for the outstanding legal skills of the CLC lawyers. Susan found TARS lawyers to be highly expert in their field, but observed that sometimes law firm lawyers could misinterpret the CLC lawyers’ ability to explain complex legal concepts in simple language as a lack of competence.
- The secondees who volunteered were mature, dedicated and competent. This may partly be because those who were interested in pro bono were highly motivated to seek it out.
- The nature of the work, being on-the-spot advice or minor assistance, was discrete and it was not too difficult for Sparke Helmore lawyers to gain the necessary expertise to provide competent advice.
- The client base was within the comfort zone of the secondees (which is not always the case with profoundly disadvantaged clients). The work was of personal interest to lawyers with ageing parents.
- TARS and Sparke Helmore agreed to a one-month trial period for secondees, where the secondee or TARS could decide after a month that they do not wish to continue with that secondee.
- Training of secondees. After a short induction program, lawyers would receive on-the-spot training and mentoring as required; however following feedback that more formal training would be well-received, they worked on an induction pack that included processes on, for example, conflict checking and researching unfamiliar areas of law.
- The TARS culture encouraged the secondees to ask questions. Lawyers can be reluctant to say that they do not know the answer.
- The secondees worked in pairs so they could support each other and cover for unexpected absences.
- The secondees were also supported by the firm’s library and research resources. Susan organised a laptop and remote access for secondees so they could access the firm’s library resources. The secondees could also call the librarians at Sparke Helmore about particular research questions. This made the secondees feel more supported and comfortable with working in an unfamiliar area of law.
- The secondees were supervised by the principal solicitor at TARS who checked the advice they had given, by reviewing a summary of their advice which they’d typed into the TARS case management system. He provided feedback to the secondees, or gave further direction, by email.
- An email group was set up on Sparke Helmore’s email system so that the secondees could readily communicate with each other and TARS, even if they were not seconded in any particular week.
22.5.6 Case study: Law Access and the Australian Government Solicitor
The Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) is a for-profit government entity established under the Judiciary Act 1903, which provides legal services to the Commonwealth of Australia. As a government-owned business and statutory authority, AGS can only act for a person or body (including acting pro bono) in accordance with its functions and powers as provided for the Judiciary Act 1903. AGS also does not undertake pro bono work in any matter against a Commonwealth agency or where there is an unacceptable potential for conflict of interest for government clients.
One of AGS’s main pro bono initiatives is seconding lawyers to pro bono referral organisations and CLCs. These secondments can be undertaken within the limitations placed on AGS as outlined above, while still providing an added ‘hands-on’ resource to these organisations which operate with a limited number of lawyers and resource constraints.
AGS has a pro bono partnership with Law Access Ltd who operate the Law Access Pro Bono Scheme (previously administered by the Law Society of Western Australia). The Law Access Pro Bono Scheme is a PBRO of ‘last resort’ matching pro bono lawyers to applicants with meritorious cases. The service is for those in the community who are unable to obtain assistance through other avenues (such as Legal Aid and CLCs) and it also provides advice and assistance to eligible not-for-profit organisations.
In 2012, AGS’s National Manager of Pro Bono Services, Geetha Nair approached the Law Society of Western Australia to discuss possible pro bono assistance. Geetha had researched possible avenues for extending AGS’s pro bono support in WA and noted that no other law firm had, at that time, secondees assisting with the Scheme. As a result of that initial discussion secondment arrangements were entered into and have continued for the last 3 years with a number of AGS lawyers in Perth undertaking the secondment.
Law Access performs triage and merits assessment before referring matters, which ensures that pro bono services are directed to those most in need and provide the greatest impact. The AGS secondees provide an added ‘hands on’ resource in the merits assessment and referral process. AGS secondees also help to respond to queries from members of the public that are not appropriate for Law Access but require referral to specialist legal centres, Legal Aid or other avenues.
- The partnership with AGS has resulted in a substantial increase in successful pro bono referrals, which has meant that some of those most disadvantaged members of the community, including those with disability, now have access to free legal assistance. For example, in 2012-13 (when the pro bono partnership began), the Law Access Pro Bono Referral Scheme received 130 new applications for assistance — 56 more than in the previous financial year. Fifty-four referrals were made, which was double the number made in the previous financial year. In addition, Law Access arranged for Legal Aid WA or a private solicitor to provide minor assistance in a number of matters.
- Having the AGS secondees has ‘freed up’ the resources of Law Access and allowed them to focus on undertaking work to harness and develop the pro bono culture in the legal profession in WA. For example, it has allowed Law Access to focus on working on the Feasibility Study into improving Pro Bono Coordination in WA, which was critical to enhancing future pro bono service delivery in WA, and on running seminars for members of the profession.
- AGS secondees have helped expand the number of firms that receive pro bono referrals from Law Access. The secondees, particularly those at a senior level, have tapped into their networks and this, together with the added efforts Law Access has been able to devote to promoting a pro bono culture in WA, has significantly increased the number of firms on the panel who take on referrals.
- Undertaking the secondment has also reaped very tangible benefits for the professional development and satisfaction of AGS secondees. Lawyers have ranged from junior lawyers to senior executive lawyers (partner level). Law Access has been able to adapt to tasks/needs according to the level of experience so using junior lawyers has not been a barrier to cultivating a very productive relationship. Secondees are exposed to areas of work and clients that are outside of their normal practice. In an interview published in the May 2015 edition of the Law Society of Western Australia’s Brief magazine an AGS secondee, Teresa Ling, shared the following thoughts:
The feeling of satisfaction in seeing justice being done for people who, otherwise, would not have had the opportunity to get legal representation or quality legal representation….can be a truly uplifting feeling to see a deserving matter being able to be placed or a great outcome being achieved for someone who is clearly disadvantaged and deserving.
Working at Law Access has opened my eyes up to how many disadvantaged people there are in the community who have little understanding of their legal rights and legal process and who do not have access to legal representation and assistance simply because of their poor financial standing and/or other disabilities. As a result, I am now far more aware of the difficulties faced by many in the community, and of the need that exists for pro bono legal services. It has also given me an insight into the diversity of problems and legal issues that are encountered in the lives of ordinary people, and given me another perspective on the law. I have received an enormous amount of satisfaction in being able to hopefully make some difference in some peoples lives. For the bulk of my law practice, I have worked principally for large to medium legal firms, and involved in large matters and for large corporations, and subsequently for government departments. Working at Law Access with its limited resources, in many respects, has taught me to be more resourceful, and that has been truly worthwhile for me.
- The collaboration between AGS and Law Access is an example of tangible success in responding to the needs of the community by expanding the reach of access to justice via the increased number of applications referred and also by the increase in the level of participation in pro bono work by the legal profession in Western Australia.
‘[T]he support of AGS since 2012 has been a life-line for Law Access and has assisted us to significantly enhance our service. For example, in the first 5 months of this financial year, from July to November 2015 Law Access received 197 applications for assistance and placed 76 matters with pro bono lawyers. This represents a 90% increase in referrals made compared to the same period in the previous year and would not have been possible without the support of our secondee lawyers.’ (Dominique Hansen, Law Access Manager)
- A challenge faced by AGS has been ensuring continuity of secondees where AGS staff have high workloads. An innovative solution devised by AGS has been to send alternative secondees on a fortnightly basis. This has worked well for Law Access as well as for AGS.
- AGS and Law Access were also initially concerned that possible conflicts of interest would mean there may not be enough work to delegate to AGS. This has proven not to be a problem at all with more than enough applications for pro bono assistance falling within the scope of work able to be undertaken by AGS secondees.
Features that make it effective
- AGS has provided stability by demonstrating long-term commitment in providing a secondee lawyer 1 day a week. The fact that only 5 lawyers have undertaken secondments over a 3 year period (4 of whom undertook overlapping secondments) has provided a significant benefit to Law Access in terms of continuity of experience and skills, with very little disruption associated with the need to re-convey corporate knowledge. This stability was of particular value during a relocation of the service to new premises and during the establishment of Law Access Limited.
- The placement of a number senior lawyers on secondment has assisted Law Access, as these lawyers have tapped into their professional networks to make referrals, and have also undertaken the more complex merit assessments.
- The strong and collaborative relationship between AGS and Law Access has also allowed for other avenues of legal assistance in other ways. For example, the AGS National Manager of Pro Bono Services drafted guidelines in relation to pro bono work for law practitioners in Western Australia which will soon be added to a new Resources for Practitioners section on the Law Access website.
Australian Pro Bono Centre, Australian Pro Bono Manual, LexisNexis, Sydney, 2016, Chapter 2.3 Secondments and Appendix 1 Precedents.
1 Justice Connect sets out the benefits to secondees of doing a pro bono secondment on its portal. See Justice Connect, What Skills Can I Learn?, https://www.justiceconnect.org.au/get-involved/lawyers-and-barristers/secondments/what-skills-can-i-learn.
3 Justice Connect sets out the benefit of professional development of doing a pro bono secondment on its portal. See Justice Connect, What about Professional Development?, https://www.justiceconnect.org.au/get-involved/lawyers-and-barristers/secondments/what-about-professional-development.
4 Note that this arrangement is different from the clinical legal education that Street Law is resourced and paid to do, where it is understood that the expected outcomes are primarily focused on training of students rather than boosting the capacity of the CLC.
5 Now Seniors Rights Service.