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Volunteering Abroad: Q&A with Jordan Eitler

Survive Law spoke with Jordan Eitler, a Law and Criminology student from Deakin University who worked with the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in South Africa, which you can read more about here. If you have an interest in social justice or international legal systems, we strongly recommend undertaking a voluntary placement abroad.

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

My name is Jordan Eitler and I am originally from Wodonga. I moved to Geelong at the beginning of 2015 to commence a double degree at Deakin University comprising a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Criminology. I decided to pursue a career in the law because I wanted to make a difference to the lives of those who have suffered injustice. I enjoy playing football for the North Geelong Football Club as it provides me with an outlet so that I can remain energised and focused on my study.

What motivated you to work with Project Abroad's Human Rights Office in South Africa?

I was motivated to work with the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in South Africa because it offered an experience like none other. I had a lot of friends and was aware of other students who were going overseas to study as part of their degree, however I wanted an experience that would really shape my future legal career and develop the skills required to succeed in one. South Africa is not a place that is generally visited by people my age, so I really saw it as the perfect opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and try something that nobody else had. The type of work that the Human Rights Office was involved in also excited me, as I wanted to experience working with diverse clients who were involved in legal matters that I had never come across. I also found the prospect of living with a South African host family out in the suburbs as really exciting, as I was keen to get involved in a different culture and way of life.

What was your role and what responsibilities did it involve?

My role was incredibly challenging, yet extremely rewarding. After completing some legal experience in Australia before I left for Cape Town, I was aware to some degree of what was expected of legal volunteers. In Australia, the instructing lawyer would usually give me a file to thoroughly read, and then request that I do a task and hand the file back. South Africa was completely different to this. On my first day I was handed four files and read them closely like I would have in Australia. I then spoke to my instructing lawyer about what he would like me to do on each file. It was at that time that it became known to me that these files were now mine and I was in charge of the way that each of them was to proceed, provided I ran everything by the instructing lawyer first. After developing a relationship with the instructing lawyer and proving that I was capable of making sound legal decisions, my work load of four files increased to 16! The matters varied from asylum seekers applying for refugee status, to divorce proceedings, to personal injury claims and even unfair dismissal. I spent a lot of my time holding meetings with my clients and then researching both the substantive and procedural aspects of the law to figure out what action I needed to take to bring about a successful resolution. Although it was difficult at first to wrap my head around some principles of South African law and the appropriate way to draft court documents, the experience of delivering resolutions to my clients is something that I will never forget.

I was also involved in delivering legal clinics to those who were living in townships that were unable to travel to the Human Rights Office. Most of the clients that I met there were living in shacks made from corrugated iron and tarps, a lot of which had contracted HIV. They were suffering from some of the most unbelievable injustices that I had ever witnessed. After conducting interviews with these clients, I would go back to the Human Rights Office and start working on their legal matters. I would then return to the township and provide updates on how things were going or request further information. The professional relationships that I developed with my clients at these townships is something that will stay with me forever. They were just so happy to have someone who understood their problem and was working to fix it.

What were some of the barriers your clients faced when accessing legal advice?

The main issues my clients faced was being able to afford professional legal representation. The Projects Abroad Human Rights Office provides a free service to those who require assistance, so it felt good that I was able to help those who would never have been able to access justice themselves. Once they did become a client of the Human Rights Office, the problem then became one of language. At times I found it very difficult to get the complete set of facts from my clients regarding their legal issue, which made it difficult for me to represent them. Sometimes I failed to get a response to a vital question that was pivotal to their case so I had to use a translator. This experience was at times frustrating, however the use of a translator was nonetheless a great experience and something I really enjoyed. With the help of a translator, I was more often than not able to discover the pieces of information I needed to make a compelling case.

How have your experiences abroad shaped your career aspirations?

I want to be a lawyer that gives back to the community and alleviate injustice wherever I can. My time in South Africa has made me realise the importance that pro bono work has on those who are unable to afford adequate legal representation, and the duty that we as young graduates have of upholding this civil duty.

What aspects of your law studies were you able to apply to the placement?

Although the majority of laws between Australia and South Africa were vastly different, there were some similarities. All of the units that I have completed at university came in handy at different stages. For example, I had to complete lots of legal research and had to use databases that were foreign to me, however because of my degree I was generally able to find what I was looking for. Civil procedure documents are also very similar, despite some differences in regards to the way those certain documents are to be written and filed in court. In the unfair dismissal cases that I worked on, the fact that I had completed employment law at university meant that I had a rough idea of what kind of claim my client was entitled to, which allowed me to adequately research the South African equivalent.

Are there any skills or insights you developed during your placement that are applicable to your studies?

I developed lots of important legal skills whilst in South Africa. For example, I quickly learnt how to properly conduct a client interview to get the information I required to continue working on a client’s case. This skill in particular is not taught at university so it was great to get the opportunity to do this in a real world experience. I further developed the ability to work to strict deadlines to ensure that documents were filed with the court in the appropriate time frame. This is absolutely paramount to any lawyer in any jurisdiction, so it was very good practice. Finally, my ability to process large amounts of information quickly increased. I had to research the law constantly to know what kind of actions were available to my clients, and I had to do this in an efficient manner. I am now able to quickly filter information into categories of what I deem to be relevant and irrelevant in a prompt manner.

Do you have any tips for students who are contemplating an offshore placement?

Take the plunge! Completing an internship overseas is an experience that will take you completely out of your comfort zone. Although this is daunting at first, the personal and professional growth that you undergo when completing such a placement will develop skills that you never thought you had.

Projects Abroad organises voluntary law & human rights placements in developing countries, such as South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania. To see more of their work, visit their website.

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