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Pro Bono : Travelling in a different direction

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(4) LIJ, p.86

A secondment to the outer suburbs has proved a success for both lawyer and legal centre.

Peninsula Community Legal Centre (PCLC) is one of a number of community legal centres participating in the state Attorney-General’s Pro Bono Secondment Scheme. Claire Mahon, a solicitor from Corrs Chambers Westgarth, was placed at PCLC on a six-month pro bono secondment in November 2002.

The CLC’s Perspective

Community legal centres are, of course, always a little short-staffed. The announcement by state Attorney-General Rob Hulls that we might be one of the beneficiaries of a new pro bono secondee scheme was greeted with a sigh of relief. But as the idea of a pro bono secondee had been tossed around for some time, we were more than a little cautious about whether it would actually happen.

Then the fears set in. Would a solicitor accustomed to the rarefied air of the mergers and acquisitions department find working in Frankston on motor vehicle accidents and neighbourhood disputes a little dull? Would anyone from the city even be persuaded to come to Frankston at all? Scarcely a decent foccacia to be had, let alone a lunch of goat’s cheese pizza or whatever the “city folk” are eating these days.

In all seriousness, a major concern for PCLC was the idea that the secondee might be a reluctant one, under pressure from an employer and not at all keen on the interruption to their career path.

CLC work requires a person with a practical approach to the law and a real empathy with clients. The work can be emotionally draining at times and the enthusiasm not easily faked. An unwilling participant in a smallish office for six months was not a pleasant thought.

The reality was more than a pleasant surprise. Claire has been an excellent placement, a delight to work with, and with skills in areas such as drafting and research that we can certainly put to good use. Not only that, she has a genuine interest in many areas that are consistent with CLC philosophy.

Casework has also benefited, with extra appointments and an increase in our “drop-in” capacity. We were able to reinstate our duty lawyer service on the intervention order day at Frankston Magistrates’ Court after a hiatus due to lack of staff, and Claire has made a number of appearances in matters where legal aid was unavailable.

Our centre is both enthusiastic that the secondee program has so far been a resounding success, and relieved that our worst fears have not been realised. A word of caution, however.

The success of the program depends greatly on careful choice of secondee. There must be insistence that all placements are voluntary and that the person is prepared to contribute fully to CLC life. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

Now the only problem for PCLC is that after Claire’s secondment finishes in May her work will need to be continued. We need to find funding for a new staff member to fill the gap.

The Secondee’s Perspective

I seemed to spend my first few weeks of my secondment at PCLC trying to convince all the new people I was meeting that yes, I was there voluntarily. Sure, I would miss big city law firm life, particularly sushi for lunch and drinks after work, but I was certain that the challenges of working in Frankston with “real people” would be worth it.

Since day one it’s been nothing but an entertaining rollercoaster ride of learning. The challenge of learning whole new areas of law was made easy by the interesting clients that CLCs service, and the knowledge that as you are usually their only opportunity for legal advice you’ve got a responsibility to help them as much as possible. Now I really enjoy what my clients teach me, and I benefit from them as much as they do from me. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you have actually made a positive difference to someone’s life, even if it is just helping them arrange $20 instalment payments on judgment debts.

The concept of pro bono secondments is certainly not a new one, but it was for PCLC. I am privileged to be the second secondee that Corrs has contributed to the Pro Bono Secondment Scheme, and the first secondee that PCLC has hosted.

The scheme has been a fantastic opportunity for me to develop skills in new areas, and expand my general experience. I would recommend it to anyone. I’ve even found a good sushi place, and since I finish work at 5pm I can get to the city for drinks before most of my corporate friends have logged off.

Contributed for Voluntas by VICTORIA MULLINGS, principal solicitor, Peninsula Community Legal Centre and Claire Mahon, secondeed solicitor from Corrs Chambers Westgarth.


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