During my time as a community legal centre volunteer, I have been fortunate enough to work with an inspiring young lawyer from Wyndham Legal Service. Juliet Akello completed her Juris Doctor at the University of New South Wales in 2011 and is now in her second year of lawyering in the community sector. I interviewed Juliet about life as a young lawyer in the community legal sector…
What are the differences you’ve found between studying law and working in the legal profession?
In university as a student you’re studying and learning is centred mainly on the theoretical components of law, such as learning to read cases and dissecting judge’s decisions, applying them to hypothetical scenarios. However in reality, since practising law, I found that it is the practical component that takes up my attention. You are dealing with real life problems. They become real because when you interview clients and take instructions, you realise that this problem affects their life and their livelihood. In university you have time to prepare and think about your answers, whilst in reality there are deadlines and you are actually required to apply principles to real life facts, which makes it altogether different.
Was lawyering in the community sector an option you considered during law school?
I knew for fact when I made the decision to study law that I wanted to help people, but like a lot of students I didn’t know what area of law I wanted to pursue. Like everybody in my cohort, I thought about the “traditional” pathways of working in a corporate firm; however I was very fortunate to be able to complete an internship at a community legal centre. It was this internship that opened my perspective and intrigued my interest to pursue a pathway in social justice. After this internship, I volunteered at another legal centre and I was lucky to be offered a position with the legal centre after admission, which is where I currently work.
What is the most rewarding thing about working as a lawyer in the community sector?
I love my job and the rewards are endless. Working in social justice is not a job, it’s a passion. I love the variety of work that comes through the doors. There is a huge learning curve due to limited resources. As a young lawyer you are thrown in the deep end and you are able to, unlike may private firms, you have the ability to not only solve people’s legal issues but you can also work in partnership with other community organisations to work on underlying issues and make systemic changes. For example, law reform and advocacy and identifying systemic issues in the law.
Clients who walk through our doors are individuals from lower, socio-economic or refugee backgrounds. These clients cannot afford legal representation due to their low financial and economic status. To be able to help them and make a difference to these clients’ lives is what I have found most rewarding.
Working in the community sector must also have its challenges…
Yes, there are challenges working in the community sector but at the same time there are challenges in any job. The lack of resources in the sector means you will be exposed to a lot more interesting work.
The biggest challenge for me has been learning the practical element of law at the pace that I have had to learn it. I have been thrown in the deep end so many times, but I have also had the support to allow me to overcome these challenges, and I have learnt so much from them.
An example was my first appearance in court for a divorce hearing. I was given the file, which I had to read, then write the submission and appear for the client. Needless to say, I was scared but it was great at the same time.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new law graduates after leaving law school?
I say it would probably have to be gaining employment. But again, this is a challenge that all graduates have, not just law students. You can overcome this by gaining as much experience as possible while still at law school. Also, try innovative ways to apply for work. You can network, make contact with others in the legal profession, and contact firms directly if you know that there is a practice area that you’re keen or passionate about. Get out there and volunteer as volunteering can lead to landing a position…
On a final note, when you do eventually complete your PLT or SWT, keep the materials from the course… because those materials on drafting and correspondence will come in handy everyday while you are on the job.
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