I am from a long line of bankers, but when I left school and was considering university, combining a finance and law degree seemed the appropriate thing to do. I found the fact there is a lot of good you can do with the law very attractive. I found it engaging then, and I still do.
The Inner City Legal Centre came along at a time when I was looking to add a charity to what I was doing. I was working at the Commonwealth Bank and the job I was doing was basically kicking people out of their homes when they failed to pay their mortgage. While you can see the point of the shareholders, it was not particularly soul-enhancing work and the Legal Centre was and remains the complete other end of the spectrum. It was a good balance at the time.
I was in second year university and my work with the Centre was very basic in those days -“ taking care of the front desk and taking calls from the various clients. When I became a lawyer, the role was as a legal volunteer, giving one-off advice. I would sit down with people, try to understand the problems and then come up with the solution. Just by having someone give a bit of advice and perspective, a lot of our clients find they can solve problems they have characterised as legal and therefore insoluble. Then they find they can deal with the problems themselves if they are empowered to do so with a bit of a helping hand. A lot of the law is a mystery, and a lot of that mystery can be easily dispelled.
For me, coming from a relatively sheltered and privileged background, getting to know our transgender, homeless and sex industry clients who have a completely different perspective was very grounding -“ and rewarding as well.
The work we do is across the spectrum -“ discrimination, victim compensation, employment etc. It really is everything, from people rocking up reliably as clockwork after Mardi Gras with someone whose visa has just run out and trying to find a way to keep the new love of their life in the country through to much tougher stuff.
Transgender issues are across the range, including victim compensation when they have been bashed, discrimination in the workplace and access to gender reassignment surgery. With sex workers, if they need to make a workers compensation claim, have not been paid or been sacked, they sometimes have a narrower range of remedies. The difficulty can be how to bring a claim on behalf of someone who does not want to give their real name. Or what remedy do you have against a person who doesn’t exist or a business which doesn’t exist?
One of the things I think our volunteers find attractive is it is completely different from what they usually do. There are a lot of people like me who do corporate law during the day and then come out at night and do a bit of criminal or victim compensation law. But we also value the lawyers who spend their lives in employment or criminal law, and then do more employment and criminal law with us for people who can’t afford to pay for it. I think that is one of the nice things about the law -“ whatever the reason, lawyers have a stronger sense of that obligation to the community than is necessarily the case in other professions.
Working with the Legal Centre helped me satisfy my own sense of obligation to the community, and everyone contributes in their own way. It is not a heroic contribution as it really is a minimal amount of time -“ a couple of hours a week -“ but you can make a difference. I think it is important for people to leverage their skills and abilities, as well as their sympathies, as there is a lot to be gained in terms of general satisfaction and a happiness perspective.
The 25th anniversary of the Legal Centre is a fantastic achievement for a little organisation, particularly if you think about the changes in the political environment, as well as the physical environment of Oxford Street and Darlinghurst, in that time. We are in a community which faces a lot of discrimination and there is an enormous contrast between its richest and poorest members, and these are some of the challenges the Legal Centre was set up to address.
I feel fully invested here now as I am on the board and do the treasury function, and I take a lot of personal interest in the survival of the Legal Centre. It has done well to operate as well as it has, and it has a really bright future ahead.
Interview by John Burfitt