From Community Legal Centre Clinic to Commercial Law Firm

By Stephanie Rizk

In 2016, the La Trobe Law School and Neighbourhood Justice Centre teamed up to deliver the Wills and Wishes Clinic (“the Clinic”). Driven by a multidisciplinary model requiring the collaboration of law students and social work students, the main emphasis of the clinic is to provide a simple service to disadvantaged communities within the City of Yarra – the drafting of wills and powers of attorney.

For me, my involvement in the Clinic’s pilot program marked the first time I had ever stepped out of the lecture hall and into the real world, dealing with real clients and real instructions in a community setting. After spending the past few years at university learning legal concepts at an abstract level and developing legal research and writing skills, this was an invaluable opportunity to put into practice what I had learned.

Every week, six pairs of students comprising one law student and one social work student would attend client appointments either at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre or at an external outreach site to obtain instructions regarding a will and/or power of attorney. Once the instructions were obtained, they would then be transformed into legally binding documents. Obtaining instructions from clients required careful attention to detail, an ability to explain legal concepts in plain English, teamwork, collaboration and empathy. In particular, my interaction with clients really emphasised the importance of gaining a deep understanding of what the client seeks to achieve by making a will and/or power of attorney. I found this understanding to be absolutely critical in providing the appropriate level of explanation and legal advice through our supervisor.

My experience at the Clinic provided a great foundation to develop and strengthen transferable skills highly sought after by graduate employers. From the client’s perspective, they were able to see the legal system as a means of empowerment. The law can often be intimidating and confusing to those who don’t understand it. However, providing our clients an opportunity to make a will allowed them to see that the law is there to help facilitate individual freedom and choices.

Whilst I was aware that this experience would be valuable for my future legal career, I only fully realised how important it would be for my professional development until I undertook a clerkship at a top-tier commercial law firm. During my clerkship, I was able to draw on the communication and interpersonal skills I had developed at the Clinic and through other extra-curricular activities to navigate another professional environment quite distinct from university.

The clerkship program I was involved in provided me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of the law and the commercial realities of legal practice through meaningful hands-on work and structured training. Contrary to popular belief, there was no ‘typical’ clerkship day – each day brought with it different types of tasks and interactions. For example, on one day, I went from reviewing trust deed documents to working on a research memorandum in relation to a high-scale litigation matter. It was rewarding to see how one piece of my work fit into the larger puzzle.

The greatest highlight of my clerkship experience was the support and mentoring I received along the way. Each lawyer, no matter what level of seniority, displayed a sincere interest in providing meaningful work to complete each day and providing feedback as you progressed.

Both of these experiences have really consolidated my interest in legal practice as I have now seen the law beyond the textbook and how it actually operates to create a framework in which we can achieve successful outcomes. This is true whether it be at the community level or within a dynamic law firm in the ‘big city’.

Stephanie Rizk is currently in her final year of a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Accounting. Stephanie is also a Law Honours candidate.

La Trobe