Reception is the first point on contact for visitors and clients. Volunteers assist with client intake, data entry, call management and general administrative duties.
The student volunteers assist our lawyers with casework, research, duty lawyer work at the Ballarat Magistrates’ Court and general administration duties.
Volunteer Solicitors bring specialist expertise in areas of the law in which they practice to support the generalist legal service provided by CHCLC.
REASONS FOR VOLUNTEERING
I started volunteering at the CHCLC as a second-year law student in February 2018. Despite being restricted by the typical commitments of a law student, there were various reasons that served as the impetus for my decision to volunteer, and also motivated me to continue for the past 8 months. At the forefront was the exigency to find out what I wanted to do post-university. Given the widespread, and somewhat unhealthy, obsession with commercial law careers in law schools generally, I was keen to discover other ways a law degree could be used in meaningful ways. Secondly, I wanted to experience the work flow of professional legal practice, and to start acclimatising to this environment while as a student. I was particularly interested in understanding how lawyers perceived ideals, such as justice and the role of the law in society, as well as how these inherently subjective concepts influenced their work.
Upon proper reflection, the past 8 months of volunteering at the CHCLC can be reduced to few key moments. These were instances of exciting legal intellectualism and many cringey experiences, but all valuable experiences, the highlights of which I wish to share.
THE STUDENT MENTALITY
The moment of realisation of the woeful inadequacies of my legal knowledge is one of the first memories that come to mind. This moment hit me hard because it was not the usual slow process of repeated premonitions, but a single epiphany during the first month on the job. At the time, I had only completed only 8 subjects of my law degree and approached every task like a typical law student. For example, when asked to research into the pertinent areas of law for a particular case, I instinctively launched into the cases. 1800s English case law for a 2018 motor vehicle incident in Ballarat? Probably useful, I thought at the time, before proceeding to write long-winded exam-type conclusions and presenting them proudly to my supervising lawyer. This cringey student mentality prevailed for the first 4 days of volunteering, resulting in the provision of information that was, in hindsight, mildly interesting at best and completely useless at worst for the seasoned lawyers of the CHCLC, who must have also winced from the second-hand embarrassment.
TURNING PEOPLE AWAY
One afternoon of working at the front desk, I answered a call from a woman in distress requesting immediate assistance on an urgent family law matter. Upon conducting the requisite conflict check, I discovered that we had acted for the other party, and therefore, created a conflict that necessitated turning her away. This was standard procedure, but it also meant refusing the very legal services that such community legal centres were established to provide, to someone of a social group that it was designed to serve. In this case, given the time constraints, it was likely that she would have had to contend with the situation in an adversarial courtroom environment, against an abusive ex-partner; completely alone. I found these situations to be one of the greatest challenges that I have encountered as a volunteer, but it is probably one of those many issues that lawyers regularly contend with. It is well-established that the fiduciary relationship between client and lawyer is sacrosanct and unquestionable, but it seems that fulfilling to its resultant obligations may mean refusing assistance to even the most vulnerable members of the community. Being a lawyer to me is still a meaningful career that enables one to help others; clearly from these moments, however, this sometimes means being unable to help many more.
My experiences over the past 8 months of volunteering have enabled me to learn valuable lessons that I would never have even considered in a classroom. If I further condense the highlights of my experiences, I would get the following 3 main lessons. Firstly, the student mentality must be disposed of. Aside from the need to avoid cringey moments like the one described above, it is important that the outcome of my work is actually useful for solving problem at hand. The importance of having a problem-solving mentality, rather than one that seeks to impress a non-existent examiner, is something that can only be fully appreciated by stepping outside the comfort zone of university. This leads to the second lesson that a lawyer is ultimately a problem solver. A corollary is that the main task of a lawyer is to find solutions to problems that may not be answerable with legal concepts; in some cases, commercial acumen combined with common sense is a more effective problem-solving instrument than the most extensive legal knowledge. Thirdly, accomplishing the tasks of a lawyer may require ignoring the very real consequences for real people in order to approach the situation with the desired objective professionalism. Over time, this could mean becoming desensitised to the human stories behind each case, but this seems to be the price that all good lawyers must pay.
As for the questions that I sought to answer 8 months ago – what makes a good lawyer, and their role in society – my experience at the CHCLC has provided me with a unique insight into these profound issues. Overall, the past 8 months of volunteering has been an invaluable opportunity to gaze over the threshold beyond university life and has enabled me to grow both as a budding lawyer, and generally as a person. I owe my thanks to my mentors at the CHCLC who have guided me on this incredible journey.