Volunteering is important to ensure that those less fortunate than us are given access to justice. It has become increasingly easy to put your hand up and get involved. For example, at UQ, any law student can place their name on the Pro Bono Roster to be notified of new volunteering opportunities (visit https://law.uq.edu.au/pro-bono/uq-pro-bono-centre/pro-bono-roster).
If you think you would like to volunteer, but you are not sure what to expect, it can be daunting. You might be thinking… How do I even get involved? What kind of work will I have to do? Is it difficult to volunteer and keep up with your study? Is it worth it?
The following student testimonials answer these questions. We spoke to a number of students from UQ and QUT about their volunteering experiences at the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, the Mental Health Law Clinic, the Prisoners’ Legal Service, the Women’s Legal Service, the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service, the LGBTI Legal Service, and the Environmental Defenders Office.
If after reading you still have questions, please come along to our Community Legal Centre forum, which will be held on 13 March from 6 - 7pm, in the Law Library. At the forum you can chat to volunteers and CLC lawyers about their experiences in person.
Women’s Legal Service - Caitlyn Duke
The Women’s Legal Service (WLS) is a community legal centre which offers free legal advice to women in the areas of family law and domestic violence (DV). I had seen the position advertised on the organisation’s Facebook page, and after a written application and a round of interviews I was offered a volunteer role.
I have had the opportunity to work both as an Administration Volunteer at the WLS’ office and at the Ipswich Magistrates Court as a Duty Lawyer Paralegal. My role as an “Admin Vollie” began as a one day a week commitment (which became one day a fortnight once I commenced at the Ipswich court) and involves undertaking general administrative tasks such as filing, collecting mail and confirming appointments. Admin Vollies also answer the administration phone line, which is a challenging task that often involves answering calls directly from vulnerable women seeking to access the service.
The WLS runs Duty Lawyer programs at multiple Magistrates Courts to provide free legal advice, and sometimes representation, to women who are due to appear in DV matters. My role as a Paralegal to these lawyers requires me to organise the day’s list of clients, balancing who the parties most in need of assistance are and directly engaging with clients before they get advice to fill in forms and explain any conflict issues.
Volunteering for the WLS has been an amazing learning experience which I have really enjoyed. Admittedly, the subject matter of DV can sometimes be really challenging to face and I have had a few clients whose stories I will never forget. In spite of this, I know I have benefitted from being exposed to the amazing work of the WLS and there is a really tangible feeling of women’s empowerment amongst everyone there. My role has been equally rewarding and challenging and I encourage all law students to volunteer at Community Legal Centres - especially the WLS.
Nundah Community Legal Centre - Catalina Birch
Volunteering at the Nundah Community Legal Centre has truly been a wonderful experience. It has broadened my understanding of the law and opened up pathways to connect with lawyers, clients and like minded students. Ultimately it has provided me with a practical insight as to what it means to be a lawyer, all whilst being part of a supporting and challenging environment.
During my time volunteering I’ve dealt with issues involving family law, corporate law, employment law and even criminal law. Specialist solicitors are there to guide you every step of the way. That is what makes community legal centres so special: you have the opportunity to learn and gain an insight into various types of law and learn from different solicitors each session. It definitely is a perfect way to help determine whether you are the right fit for a particular type of law.
In terms of the workload, whilst all centres are different, I found it to be extremely flexible. I would volunteer once a month in the evening for a few hours. The team have always been very understanding, particularly in terms of assessment and would often give me tips for exam and study leave. I love being able to help those in need in our community, and support the lawyers who give up their time to also do so. I highly recommend volunteering. Be proactive throughout your degree and make the most of every opportunity that presents itself!
Environmental Defenders Office - Alex Ladd
All students are forced to come to grips with the daunting prospect of gaining valuable practical experience while studying at university. We each come to this realisation at various points of our degrees, with varying levels of success. Fortunately, early in my degree, I discovered the academic, professional and, importantly, personal value of volunteering in its various forms. Some of the volunteering I have undertaken has involved conducting research as a group for both the Environmental Defender’s Office and the PNG Supreme Court through the UQ Pro Bono Centre. I was provided these opportunities by signing up to the Centre’s roster and applying for the opportunities that interested me and suited my schedule at the time. The great thing about many types of volunteering is the flexibility in terms of schedule (often running over break periods or accommodating exam periods), as well as low hourly commitments (often siloed off to a few hours a week, generally over a single day).
Beyond the tasks I have been fortunate to be a part of, identifying specific organisations that interest me for potential future opportunities has also been an important source of career planning. Further, many of the tasks are short-term and have allowed me to engage with a number of organisations, widening my practical understanding of the expectations and applicability of the legal profession in a variety of different arenas. I would encourage as many law students as possible to engage with volunteering while studying at university. It’s the perfect time to see how the law can be applied in ways you may have failed to realize, provides vital support to organisations and individuals in need of such assistance and allows you to start building the foundations of your potential future legal career.
Mental Health Legal Clinic - Jasmine Drummond
My experience at Queensland Advocacy Incorporated (QAI) began through the Mental Health Legal Clinic, volunteering as a student one day a week for 6 hours. I found QAI accommodated all the students in regards to what they wanted to achieve from their time volunteering. I was fortunate to gain exposure to individual advocacy through the Mental Health Legal Service, the Justice Support Program, and the NDIS Appeals Support. Tasks that I undertook were conducting intakes, opening client files, writing correspondence and completing research tasks for the lawyers. Additionally in the background to my volunteering I witnessed systems advocacy at play. I found the mental health legal clinic to be a wonderful opportunity that pushes students out of their comfort zone, encouraging skill sets rarely required in university. The University of Queensland and QAI have worked together to provide students an invaluable opportunity to interact with vulnerable individuals who require advocacy in student’s own communities. My advice to future volunteers is to follow tasks through to completion, show initiative, compassion and be understanding of the difficulties that face those most vulnerable in our community.
Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic - Rachel Tomassen
When I applied for a research position with LawRight’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, I was only looking for some work experience. After six months, however, I’d learned a lot more. You don’t have to be particularly interested in homelessness issues to find the pro bono work at LawRight interesting: it’s the heart and soul of the community legal sector in Brisbane. The people there are incredibly committed and they’re always working to solve one of the many inequalities and injustices of our legal system.
Every week I would come in to the West End office for one day. My supervisors were very understanding about my university schedule. For about half the semester I had a class at 4 and had to leave early and if I had exams or needed to work on assignments, they’d allow me the week off.
I mostly did policy work at a desk when I was there, researching particular issues and preparing briefings to assist the lawyers with everything from meetings with SPER to their approach to technological outreach. I always felt like I was doing something useful, or learning something new. All along, I seemed to be making a valuable contribution. At the same time, I met interesting people and learnt how the pro bono system really works, which gave me bother perspective and experience in the legal system.
Even if you aren’t sure which particular social justice area you are most interest in, experience i the pro bono sector is invaluable. In particular, I’d recommend applying for LawRight - after my short time as a research assistant I felt much more well informed, connected and capable of solving problems in the legal world
Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic - Amanda Lamb
I became involved volunteering at LawRight in the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, through the Pro Bono Centre. As I had heard positive feedback from previous students who had volunteered there, as well as other students that completed their Clinical Legal Education Program there too, I was eager to gain some work experience. The position was a research support role, where I was mentored by the coordinator and managing lawyer. My work primarily consisted of large research tasks, which would take several weeks to complete. They varied in their content, which kept things fresh, and were all in support of the clinics’ policy work. This type of research was different to other types I had experienced, so I felt it took me a little while to become accustomed to it. However, my mentor was very helpful and aided me in this process.
At first, the prospect of volunteering one day per week for 6 months, whilst studying full time and working part time and just balancing life in general, did seem daunting. However, I am so glad I did. The team at HPLC was very flexible and accommodating of my university and work timetable. I was able to take time off during exams, to which I then made-up later, or sometimes work differing days per week depending on my schedule. I was also able to start a month later than was advertised, in order to complete another work experience program.
I found this work not only rewarding, but it also opened my eyes to various social and legal issues that I had not encountered during my degree. My advice would be to step out of your comfort zone early in your degree and volunteer. Not only may you find a passion for an area of law, but you may also make some friends and contacts along the way!
LGBTI Legal Service - Alastair Page
I became involved in the LGBTI Legal Services after asking my social circles about any legal volunteering opportunities. Several older students were excited to tell me about a program that they were working on and invited me to be a part of it. After writing an application and completing the introductory seminar, I immediately began assisting with their ongoing projects. Taking part in the organization's goals has led me to some amazing experiences, from meeting fellow ally The Honorable Kirby J and at the time or writing this, helping compile submissions to the Commonwealth Review of Religious Freedoms. The submissions will have my name included among those that worked on the document when they are eventually entered into the federal registry, providing me with an immense amount of pride for the work that I complete with the organisation. As the majority of volunteers either study or work full time, organisers provide plenty of time to plan the hours that you will be spend on their projects. I would encourage anyone who is currently thinking about any form of volunteering to put your name forward as regularly as possible for whatever positions you can; gaining experience for your future profession may as well be a part of your reinvestment back into your community.
Prisoners’ Legal Service - Ben Wilson
A friend of mine sent me a screen grab of the PLS website which was advertising for volunteers to help them with their SafeWay program which helps to find homes for prisoners who are trying to re-integrate into the community, usually on parole. I sent a cover letter along with my resume and I was called in for an interview after which they brought me on. Prisoner’s Legal Service were extremely flexible. They asked for one day a week with at least a six month commitment because of the time they take to train you. I have been able to work whiever day I wanted and they have been more than willing to let me take a week off here and there for exams and occasional holidays.
PLS have let me do pretty much any work I’ve expressed an interest in. I have: provided legal advice via helpline to prisoners, helped draft parole application, done in-person interviews at a variety of prisons near Brisbane and drafted submissions to a variety of legal bodies including the Queensland Parole Board, the Courts, a coronial inquest and the Human Rights Commission. The work is as varied as you want it to be and consistently interesting. Some of the submissions require the view of information which can contain quite graphic descriptions of violent or sexual crimes, in addition to working with those who have perpetrated those crimes. It happens often enough that I would not recommend PLS to anyone who thinks they would be particularly disturbed by such descriptions or who would be unable to remain impartial with the clients who committed those crimes.
If what you want out of a Community Legal Centre is a flexible schedule with friendly full-time staff and legal work that is as varied as you want it to be, my experience with Prisoners’ Legal Service is such that I would happily recommend it to anyone.