By Melanie Megale
Imagine yourself, a fresh law school graduate, ready to take on the world of Practical Legal Training and the dream graduate role at a big firm. Where do you even begin? You might stay in private practice, become a public lawyer or even a barrister, hoping that the statutory interpretation rules in Foundations of Australian Law from your first semester are still somewhere in your memory. There is nothing wrong with this pathway of course, but I am afraid you may have let one of the most rewarding aspects of your degree pass you by. Being able to assist those who need your help the most, and as an added bonus, gaining practical experience before you even finish your studies.
ANU offers six clinic programs, each varying in subject-matter and placement, in which you can get class credit for undertaking clinical placements. In my time this semester with Canberra Community Law as part of the Community Law Clinic, I have realised three fundamental features about the law that I would have never come face-to-face with in my degree otherwise.
1. Law is hard to understand. Like, really hard.
I think we have gotten so used to complex problem questions and AGLC that we may have forgotten that a majority of people out there have no idea how to even find a piece of legislation, let alone understand it. Everyday people, particularly those with vulnerable circumstances, may not even be aware of their legal issues, or how to go about resolving them. When you are meeting with particularly vulnerable clients, you need to be ready to step out of the HIRAC mindset and just speak to people about their problems, sticking to the bare basics. This is an invaluable skill for a law student to have from now, as you start to learn how to translate legal jargon into actually palatable advice. Any of the law clinics offered by ANU will bring you into a variety of workplaces that deal with multifaceted issues, but all of them will give you the opportunity to engage with clients in a way that your standard classes could never replicate.
2. Clients have needs you would have never even thought about.
Clients you will be assisting, particularly those that are vulnerable, are ultimately just people. They will have a spectrum of emotions, endless questions and most of all just real-life concerns that might impact them. You will need to build trusted relationships just to get the information you need, and often, you still will not get everything you wanted from them. You will need to navigate barriers such as how to reach a homeless client, or how to advise someone with mental health concerns, or perhaps just giving advice to someone who does not want to hear it. Law is a profession of people, and you cannot escape that. While our problem questions may have prepared us for how to write advice, they certainly cannot teach us the nuances of how to deliver it. A clinic placement in any of the areas will prepare you for dealing with people, and navigating the complicated issues which they face that may affect your work with them. Taking a clinic course has brought me into contact with such a range of clients with a unique set of problems but has left me more well-equipped in managing relationships with them.
3. Law is so. Much. Admin.
For the majority of us, as young lawyers or solicitors, most of the work will be preparing advice for clients. What they have not yet told you is the sheer number of administrative tasks that are simply just a part of the job. Did you call a client, and did they not pick up? Write a file note. Did you start working on advice but only have a draft? Write a file note. Did your client send you a random email chain at 3am last night? Write a file note. These administrative skills may seem simple enough but require a high level of organisation and effort. These skills are honed with time, and a clinical placement is an ideal starting point to practice. You will likely need to write notes during client interviews, or perhaps even tribunal hearings, and keep a thorough record of all your research along the way. Nothing prepares you better for legal practice than throwing yourself in the deep end as soon as you can, and at least with a clinic placement, you have the structure and guidance of your peers and teachers. It is a space where you can engage in an area of law which you may never get the chance to undertake again, such as environmental practice or community law, whilst gaining the relevant skillset for whichever pathway you do choose to take.
So, while our time spent in Torts and Contracts is useful in its own right, there is no class other than a clinic that allows you the space to gain practical skills in a learning environment. It is designed for you to make mistakes and develop your practical training whilst having the rewarding experience of assisting vulnerable local groups in our region. And all of that with class credit, what is there to lose? Apply next year and you just might learn something you never knew before.