Volunteering Without a Practising Certificate? – What you Need to be Aware of Before Putting Your Hand Up.

by Arna Delle-Vergini

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Back in the day – (I can actually write that and get away with it) – if you were interested in social justice you spent your entire law degree volunteering at (usually) the local CLC. This was purely self-enforced  – it was not part of a legal practice subject that we had to take, as it sometimes is now. But, not only did that experience provide you with the most illuminating introduction to professional life around, it also gave you the “competitive edge” when applying for legal jobs post-admission.

These days, I am told, things are very different. There are few jobs going around and graduates are knocking themselves out just getting paralegal roles. Some would say, there is competition even for volunteering roles. I can well understand this. Volunteering is one of the main in-roads to employment. It is also, in my view, a “must-have” for any emerging lawyer for three basic reasons:

  • It provides you with invaluable experience of law in practice. Not only do you learn how law is done but you learn a lot about the people actually ‘doing law’;
  • It connects you with other people in the industry and, more importantly, potential employers;
  • It creates a “no strings attached” opportunity for you to test out if this is actually what you want to be doing in the first place! Not everyone is suited to law and vice versa.

It also goes without saying that volunteering for altruistic reasons is a worthy goal in-and-of itself. There is enough science to suggest that pursuing altruistic goals is the trait most strongly associated with sustained life satisfaction.[1] And yet I have met many graduates who started out volunteering as students for altruistic reasons but now, basically, are just looking for opportunities they hope will lead to employment. And, let’s face it, these voluntary positions often do.

Volunteering in the legal industry, however, has its dangers. This is particularly so for graduate lawyers who are admitted to practice but do not hold current practising certificates. As a lawyer you are bound by the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic) (and associated rules) which includes, of course, not undertaking practice as a lawyer without a current practising certificate.[2] Breaching this rule, incidentally, is a commission of an offence attracting a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

This creates somewhat of a tension around what graduate volunteers can and cannot do to obtain the experience they need to be competitive in this current environment. How do you get great work experience without crossing the line? The answer to that question depends on the answer to the obvious question: what does undertaking “legal practice” actually mean?

There is no real definition of legal practice under the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic). The Legal Services Board (in an unrelated factsheet on supervised practice, but from which inferences can be drawn) view the following three types of work as constituting legal practice:

  • Giving legal advice
  • Interpreting legislation or case law
  • Drafting contracts

The LSB also view ‘paralegal work’ (which is what you should be doing) as not constituting legal practice, though there is no legislative definition of “paralegal” either.

If in doubt, the LSB suggest that you should ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Is the work normally done by a solicitor?
  • Does the work require necessary training or expertise in the law (e.g. to give legal advice)?
  • Do you have a client?

The LSB’s position roughly correlates with the accepted common law authority on what constitutes “legal practice”: Cornall v Nagle [1995] 2 VR 188.[3]  There, Phillips JA outlined three areas of work which would constitute legal practice:

(1)    Work done, though not required to be done exclusively by a solicitor, is usually done by a solicitor and by doing it in such a way as to justify the reasonable inference that the person doing it is a solicitor; (my italics)

(2)    By doing something positively proscribed by the Act or by the Rules of Court unless done by a duly qualified legal practitioner.

(3)    By doing something which, in order that the public may be adequately protected, is required to be done only by those who have the necessary training and expertise in the law.

This, again, is quite broad but provides a useful guideline.

Finally, a helpful factsheet has also been prepared by the Law Institute of Victoria which covers the above considerations. It also confirms that lawyers can delegate legal work to paralegals, however, this does not extend to work that must only be done by a legal practitioner. Back to the same thorny question: exactly when does a person engage in legal practice?

Ultimately, the question as to whether you are engaging in ‘legal practice’ is one of fact. There is no legislative definition of legal practice and the common law authorities’ concept of “legal practice” is not terribly specific. Like so many questions in law, it has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

So what should you do if you are undertaking work as a volunteer that you feel might fall within the ambit of “legal practice”? If you are not in a position to get a practising certificate yourself (and if you are newly minted you are unlikely to be in that position) then you can do one of two things:

a)      Contact the LIV Ethics Department (03 9607 9336) and discuss it with them – keeping in mind that the answer they give you is not “advice” but “guidance”, and/or apply for an Ethics ruling – again, “guidance” rather than a determination of the facts.

b)      Leave and move onto another voluntary placement.

At the end of the day, these rules are designed to protect consumers of legal services in Victoria. If you firmly believe you are undertaking the work of a solicitor and you are neither qualified nor insured, then you are under a professional obligation to cease that work. The odds of that actually happening in a law firm are, in my view, pretty slim. Most firms are aware of their obligations regarding volunteers and, whilst views may vary as to what constitutes legal practice and what does not, let’s face it – this is voluntary work – no-one can force you to stay!


[1] See generally Chapter 2 of Alex Lickerman, MD, “”The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self”, Health Communications Inc. Books (2012)

[2] The LPLC does issue volunteer practising certificates but only for lawyers undertaking voluntary work in CLC’s.
[3] Applied more recently in Law Institute of Victoria Ltd v Maric & Anor [2008] VSCA 46 (19 March 2008)

Are You Ever Too Old to be Brand New?

Q:

Dear newlawyerlanguage

I have a question about starting in the law as an ‘older’ lawyer with no experience.

From your experience, what is th e best way for a person, with no experience in the law to get their first job?

I started law ‘late’ in my late 20’s (yes I know that is not old!). After having a family and moving around the world with my husband for his work I will return to Australia to practise in the next year or so.

I will have completed my PLT and will have studied a Masters of Law (as I stay at home with my young children and love the study).

I am worried about the large ‘gap’ in my CV during which I studied and had a family. Being located overseas means that I can be involved in some aspects of the Law Societies however it is difficult being so far away to make any networks.

I believe that I would be a much better employee now that I am in my mid 30s and have life experiences. I do have past employment but these are in unskilled areas and are now getting dated.

I truly believe that once I get an opportunity at a firm I will be able to prove that I was a worthy choice. My worry though is that it will be difficult to get that initial ‘foot in the door’ given that I know no one. I am not looking for big firms and hope to work in family law or something similar in a smaller firm. I have heard of a friend who is an older lawyer that was forced to move to Alice Springs to get his first law job (not an option for me with a working spouse) and I am scared I have chosen the wrong career (even though I love the law).

Any advice would be appreciated about what I can do to make myself attractive to employers.

Kind regards

CB

 A:

Dear CB

The most difficult barrier to getting a job as mature aged law graduate, I think, is our own unrealistic expectations.  If we think that getting our dream job at our dream firm straight out of law school, is the measure of our worth as a lawyer, then we are hobbled from the start.  If you see the large ‘gap’ in your CV as a problem, then that is what may come across to a potential employer.

You have a family.  You lived overseas.  These things in themselves give you life skills that make you attractive to any employer. Emphasise these abilities.  You are adaptable.  You know all about managing change and working under pressure.  You know, in a real way, the imperativeness of time management. So my first suggestion is to shift gears in your mind about what talents you bring in addition to your formal legal qualifications.

If you sense that any prospective employer has reservations about these parts of your life – ditch them.  You don’t want to work there. Remember that it is illegal for potential employers to ask your age or to enquire about your marital status at an interview.  They can only inquire if you bring these subjects up. Be prepared for shifty ways that potential employers try to get around these, for example “How would you react to being managed by a younger manager?”, or “I see there is a gap in your employment history…..?”.  I’m not suggesting avoiding these questions, but be prepared.  Rehearse these responses. Practise getting across to the person interviewing you that you bring more valuable skills to the position, exactly because you’ve lived and travelled.  Make the link that your life experience is a direct cost benefit for the firm, because you will skill up faster.

Volunteer as a lawyer somewhere, anywhere.  I know of a lawyer in her early 30s that moved down from Queensland and was anxious to find a job.    She volunteered with a local community legal centre.  When the legal centre needed some work on a specific project and she was offered one day a week paid work.  This increased to four days a week.  She excelled at the projects she was given and made some connections along the way.  She has now landed a job in a boutique commercial firm, which is exactly what she wanted.

Have a look at the Law Institute of Victoria practice sections and interests groups and consider going along to the meetings when you return to Australia.  This will bring you up to local legal speed quickly and also provide some peer support and local connections (LIV Practice Sections, Interest Groups and Law Association ).

Spend some time reflecting on the abilities you have because of the choices you’ve made.   The main thing is that YOU have to believe that your personal path complements your legal qualifications.  Value your complete set of skills.   Then let that confidence come through your job applications and in the interview. Reflect also on where you want to work and hold that vision tight. And keep trying.  You may have to take the scenic route to your dream job, but if you are clear in who you are, what talents and skills you have and where you want to be, you’ll get there.

Peggy

The Scenic Route

by Peggy Kerdo

Image credit: wajan / 123RF Stock Photo

How easy is it to get swept away by someone else’s idea of success?

When I started law at the age of 35, I was crystal clear about what I wanted to do:  I saw myself as a lawyer working for people who were disadvantaged in some way.  I wanted to use my hard won knowledge for people who were lost or stuck in the legal system. I didn’t want to work in a corporate law (not that there is anything wrong about working in corporate law – it just isn’t my thing).

And yet in my penultimate year of law school, I found myself, like everyone else, madly sending out letters to all the corporate law firms in Victoria asking for articles.  Something had changed by this stage of my law degree so that my identity and measure of my ability and success was somehow bound up with whether I would be selected to work at a corporate firm.  I knew I would hate it.  I knew they would hate me.  And yet I applied.  And waited, in angst, for replies.

I got many, many, MANY rejections.  Most of them went something like this:

“Dear Ms Kerdo

Thank you for your application.

As you would be aware, we receive many applications at this time of year, far more than the positions we have available.  This year, we received 800 applications for the 2 positions that we have.

Unfortunately, you have been unsuccessful.  However, we wish you well for your career in the law and encourage you to keep us in mind once you have qualified.”

So polite, somewhat exasperated with the inundation of applications, but very encouraging nonetheless.

All except Firm X.

I knew as much about Firm X as I did the other corporate firms:  not much.  I wrote to them because they were on the list given to me by the law students’ society.  The response I got from them really took my breath away.  It went something like this:

“Ms Kerdo

We received your application for Articles with our firm.

From your resume, we note that you are not a Firm X type of person.

Accordingly, we will not be offering you an interview.”

I looked at my CV, full of things like “ Convenor of Women’s Law Collective” and “Indigenous Tutor” and “Law Clerk, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service” etc.  Yep.  That must have been it.

As I write this, I smile:  it is really very funny almost 15 years later.  There is a part of me though, that still feels the drop of my jaw and the chagrin in my body at the arrogance of Firm X.  But they were completely right.  I am not and never have been, and never will be, a Firm X type of person.  (In fact, I reckon I could get a job now by putting on my CV that I am not a Firm X type of person.  Yes, I’m still blowing raspberries at Firm X!).

I did end up getting two interviews with very big corporate law firms.  Most of the time, we eyed each other warily and I answered questions on how I would deal with their client who was a uranium mining company (professionally) , or how I would go taking instructions from ‘young’ people (what the…?). They were puzzled at my lack of enthusiasm for their jarrah staircases and view of Melbourne. “What about your pro bono work?” I asked, a question that was not fashionable back then.

I didn’t get those jobs.  It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.  It really, really doesn’t.

Universities get lots of money from corporate law firms.   Law schools trumpet how many of ‘their’ law graduates got into Firm X, or Y or Z, as if this is a measure of the value of their teaching.  It isn’t.   Whether or not you get a job with the “Big” firms says nothing about your value, whether you are or will be a success (whatever that is), or whether you are cut out to practise law. It just says ‘Not now’.

If you really want to get into these firms, try the scenic route.

Someone I know really wanted to practice in the corporate sector.  Her marks were OK, but she didn’t get articles with a big firm.  She got articles in a boutique firm.  She worked very hard.  She loved her job.  She moved to a bigger firm, worked hard, loved her job.  She got into her favourite big (BIG) firm, worked hard, loved her job. She applied for partnership: No, they said.  No women partners here.  OK, she said.  She moved to another State where she knew the same firm had a less Neolithic approach and – became a partner.  Another person that is close to me was devastated from the continual traineeship rejections.  He finally decided to finish his last year of law part time and got a full time job as a senior policy officer in a Government department that had knocked him back for a legal traineeship.  He stated on the same day as the legal Trainee started.  The Trainee did the photocopying.  My friend, on his first day, wrote memos to Ministers.

All the way through, these two people did what they loved and kept focused on what they wanted.  They didn’t give up or see it as an irrevocable character failing when they received knockbacks.  They just picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, nursed their bruises, took a deep breath and away they went again.

So if you don’t get the traineeship, or the job, it will be OK.  It says nothing about your worth or your capacity in this profession. Just make sure you are doing what you really love and doors will open. You may have to take the scenic route, but you’ll get there.

Peggy Kerdo is a solicitor and lecturer at La Trobe Law School. Peggy is also currently a PhD candidate. Prior to her work at La Trobe Law School, Peggy was employed by Victoria Legal Aid in the field of human rights law, specifically in the areas of refugee and immigration law and mental health law. Peggy has also advocated on behalf of marginalised and disadvantaged members of the community and is passionate about access to justice. Her teaching focuses on clinical legal education, emotional intelligence and law reform issues that arise at the limits of the law.

Waking the (Real) Lawyer Within

by Arna Delle-Vergini

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This may surprise you but, in the main, people tend to be ambivalent about lawyers. That is, when they are not being downright negative. Certainly, if lawyer jokes are anything to go by, lawyers are greedy; unethical; out for themselves; could sell ice to an Eskimo; are conservative and elitist; and couldn’t lie straight in bed if their lives depended on it. And yet, the minute a person finds themselves in trouble or mired in a dispute, who do they call? A lawyer!

This ambivalence is not restricted to Australia either. Recent research in the US lists lawyers as one of the most despised groups in society. And yet, at the same time, 64% of US parents apparently want their children to be lawyers, or at least to marry a lawyer.

Oh dear oh dear, oh dear! Which is it? Do we hate lawyers? Or do we love them? Or, perhaps, do we have a love-hate relationship with lawyers that we barely understand ourselves?

Where our poor reputation comes from is also anyone’s guess. In reality, lawyers are at the coalface of social justice and law reform. Nor are they fiscal bloodsuckers.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, in the 2007-2008 financial year Australian lawyers spent 955,400 hours undertaking pro bono work. That amounts to $238.2m worth in free legal services. FREE legal services! I’d challenge any other profession to match that!

And yet, despite this reality, the Law Institute of Victoria recently felt moved to launch the “Reputation Project”. Designed to inform members of the public about the true nature of lawyering and to remind them of the positive contribution lawyers actually make to the community, the project is an obvious attempt to improve the public perception of lawyers in our community. This is laudable. But I wonder if it is a little misguided. Is the public really ignorant of the good lawyers do, or are they just happily recalcitrant in their ambivalence?

Is it possible that people are ambivalent about lawyers because when the proverbial hits the fan, they are largely (painfully) dependent on them? This is somewhat reminiscent of adolescents’ dependency on their parents. You know… “Get out of my life but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the Mall” type of dependency.  Or maybe people just love to hate lawyers (followed, no doubt quite closely, by politicians and journalists) because people must have ‘enemies’ or life gets rather too boring.

As fascinating a topic of public ambivalence about lawyers is, I have a much keener interest in how emerging lawyers develop resilience when the public perception of them is so different from their lived experience. I can well recall, as an emerging lawyer, feeling very confused at the simultaneous mixture of hostility and admiration I experienced from non-lawyers. At dinner-parties everyone had a lawyer joke and yet, privately it was very clear that these same people accorded me a higher status than my peers because of my occupation. This simply didn’t make sense.

I never worked out what lies beneath this ambivalence but I did come to understand that it could actually act as a strong catalyst to promoting resilience in new lawyers. The stark incongruity between a new lawyer’s lived experience of lawyering and what they come to understand is the public’s perception of them, can actually promote deeper reflection about who they are and what the precise worth of their work is. Am I what they say I am? And if not, what am I? When this reflection is supported by dialogue with colleagues and mentors, it certainly has the potential to develop and enrich a lawyer’s perception of themselves.

The process of ultimately rejecting an external definition of the Self in preference for your “discovered self” lies at the heart of any journey of self-discovery, whether personal or professional. And this is a journey. It is a process that takes time.  Don’t allow it to become unnecessarily thwarted by adopting a defensive attitude and refusing to engage with it at all. Rather, embrace the caricature – prop it up in the corner of your house somewhere and look at it regularly. Compare and contrast everything you learn about being a lawyer with it, and you will quickly discover little resemblance between the two. When you stare at it full in the face like this, you will come to see it for what it is – a chimera, a largely inaccurate daydream, from which you too must eventually wake.

Vocation

by Peggy Kerdo

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“Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.

When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” Joseph Campbell

There are lots of reasons why people become lawyers.

Some people do it for the money and power.  Some people do it because their parents want them to be a lawyer. Some do it because they got the marks, and medicine was out because they suck at maths. And some see law as their vocation.

The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin noun ‘vocatio’ or ‘vocare’, which means ‘to call’.  So a vocation is a call to a particular type of work.  The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “…a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication.”

When I was about 15, I felt a ‘call’ for the first time.  It was a summer’s night and my father had closed the Milk Bar, piled us all into the Holden and taken us for a drive to the back beach at Williamstown. I was an angry teenager, desperately unhappy, bursting for some freedom, some experience of the world. I stood at the water’s edge and it seemed to me that out there, on the black horizon, was something – something calling.  I felt the pull of the call in the middle of my belly and strained to understand what it was, and how to get to it.  What I knew for sure was that there was something ‘more’ than my tiny restricted life, and I resolved to find that and live it.

When I finished high school, I got into university and left 4 years later with a science degree (I had wanted to be doctor – but that’s another story). Then, over the next 14 years I did the following:

  • Diet kitchen supervisor at the Children’s Hospital;
  • Nursing (didn’t finish);
  • Accounting (didn’t finish);
  • Marketing (didn’t finish);
  • Child Psychology (didn’t finish);
  • Women’s Trade and Technical Course (finished it!);
  • Pre-apprenticeship in Carpentry (finished the pre-apprenticeship only.  But I can use a nail-gun!).

In amongst all this, I got married, had 2 children and got a divorce.

Nothing stopped the yearning I felt in my belly, not even having my kids.  There was something more… something more… something.

I went back to university and did some subjects in marine biology, which were a joy and inspiration.  I loved the work; the scholarship.  But after a year or so, I realised that my interest was leading me to be one of only three people in the world focusing on a particular type of unicellular red algae.

While I am all for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I realised that this was not enough.  But what was? So I made a pact with myself to just stop for six months.  I thought that perhaps, if I stayed still for a while, something would come to point the way to ‘the call’.

And it did.

During my six month hiatus, I read ‘A Secret Country’ by John Pilger and was shocked to my core.  The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been released for a few years, and I read that too.  At the end of my self-imposed mini-exile, I turned up at the offices of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, first as a volunteer, then as a clerk.  Eighteen months after that, seeing what the lawyers did, I applied for and got into law at the age of 35. I was admitted to the profession when I was 40.

The discipline of law school honed my mind into a discerning, focussed tool. My training gave me knowledge and skills that I could use to advocate for disadvantaged people. The power and status of the profession gave me instant authority in the eyes of the community. I had a weapon that I knew how to wield.  I had a voice that would be heard.

And the yearning stopped and I have never experienced it since.

The law gave me back my power.  It is a gift that I dedicate to improving the world, perhaps just a little bit, by advocacy or through teaching. It is more than a job, more than money or kudos.  It is part of my bliss, the vehicle of my vocation:  a call that I answer.

Peggy Kerdo is a solicitor and lecturer at La Trobe Law School. Peggy is also currently a PhD candidate. Prior to her work at La Trobe Law School, Peggy was employed by Victoria Legal Aid in the field of human rights law, specifically in the areas of refugee and immigration law and mental health law. Peggy has also advocated on behalf of marginalised and disadvantaged members of the community and is passionate about access to justice. Her teaching focuses on clinical legal education, emotional intelligence and law reform issues that arise at the limits of the law.