Perhaps, you’re great in smoothing out conflict. Or, perhaps, you’re interested in a career that gives back to society and those in need. Whatever piques your interest in becoming a community lawyer, getting a real and personal perspective from working in the position is invaluable.
In this article, Kristen talks about her experience working as a Strata and Tenancy lawyer at a community legal centre that provides free legal services
Read on to follow the day of a community lawyer and learn the social importance of their work!
Kristen Tsiamis is a Community Lawyer for the not-for-profit organisation, Marrickville Legal Centre (‘MLC’), where she specialises in Strata and Tenancy Law and provides her legal services to people who experience social and economic disadvantage.
How did you end up in this role?
Kristen started looking for ‘PLT’ (Practical Legal Training) experience. During her training at MLC, she was paired with various mentors, working her way from a paralegal to her current role as a Strata and Tenancy Solicitor.
“I started out looking to get more experience for my PLT. It’s a requirement that a certain number of days are completed at a law firm or practice before you can apply to become a solicitor in NSW.
“I was allocated to a Civil/Strata lawyer and then to an Employment lawyer. They both really mentored me and I learned a lot from seeing them give advice and drafting advice notes,” Kristen first tells us.
She adds, “Practical experience like that really helps you learn how to be a better lawyer and is difficult to come by in the larger commercial firms.”
Studies and Experience
While studying a Juris Doctor at the University of Sydney, Kristen worked shortly as a paralegal at News Corp and, then, as a legal assistant at Garvan Institute of Medical Research before joining MLC.
This was on top of her experience in editorial work, having achieved a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in Journalism.
What made you want to work in this industry?
“Having the opportunity to assist these people is extremely rewarding for me,” Kristen says.
What is a Community Lawyer?
Community lawyers, as the name might suggest, work in community legal centres. These centres are independent and not-for-profit organisations, particularly providing free legal services to people that face economic hardship.
Since the cost of legal services can quickly add up, community legal centres ensure that the financial situations of people are not further deepened by legal problems.
Community lawyers work in one or two areas of law. At MLC, their services include Strata, Tenancy, Youth, Domestic and Family Violence, as well as general legal advice.
Roles and Responsibilities
Most of Kristen’s work day revolves around communicating with her clients or preparing advice for them. Though this advice obviously varies from client to client, their legal issues are all to do with strata and tenancy, which is a part of property law — think housing situations and renting.
“Much of my day revolves around giving advice to clients, so that means being on the phone for much of the day,” she says.
“When I’m not speaking to clients or liaising meetings with them, or their social workers, usually I’m writing up my notes from my conversations with clients or preparing for an advice that might be a little tricky,” she adds.
Which industries can this career be found in?
Community lawyers work in the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services industry. The industry consists of highly skilled workers who typically hold a university degree.
Characteristics and Qualities
There are four knowledge areas of a community lawyer:
- Law and Government
- Critical Thinking
- Personal Service
Community lawyers engage with their Law and Government knowledge as they examine the legislation and case law everyday. This also includes administrative work, where they must research any relevant information and make sure whether various legal principles still apply or have changed.
Working for the client builds their knowledge areas, both in Critical Thinking and Personal Service.
As Kristen explains, “You develop advocacy skills quickly, and the ability to think on your feet. With time and experience, you grow to know the legislation really well, so pivoting to answer what can be a difficult question from a client becomes easier as you get to know the law better.”
Steps to Becoming a Community Lawyer?
What should you study?
To work as a community lawyer, you first must have completed a Bachelor of Laws. You’ll also have to complete a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice (GDLP) by finishing 15 weeks full-time of PLT (or 30 weeks part-time).
Here are some universities offering undergraduate law degrees, which you should check out:
You can start your PLT early once you have completed all your Priestley 11 core subjects with only 2 electives remaining!
How long does it take to become a Community Lawyer?
You can work as a community lawyer as soon as you graduate from a 4-year Bachelor’s degree in Law and complete your PLT.
Of course, you’ll need to have knowledge of Australian Law and how to apply it to the client’s issue. This includes knowing how to source relevant information, interpreting the law and how to properly form your arguments for the client.
Other than that, there are no specific software or programs that are used in the industry. For keeping things in order, Kristen says, “I like Microsoft OneNote for organising my advice and notes on clients.”
What will this career look like in the future?
How in-demand is this career?
As legal support to the community is always in need, there is a high and steady demand for community lawyers.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for tenancy, welfare, domestic and family violence legal advice has been stretched. The aftermath of the pandemic is also expected to sustain the demand for community lawyers.
Are there opportunities to grow or specialise?
“There’s always room to learn and grow, I started at MLC as a Front Desk Supervisor, before being employed as Tenants’ Advocate and then moving into my role as a Strata and Tenancy Solicitor,” Kristen says.
“At MLC, employees often move quickly between roles as demand dictates and the opportunities for gaining experience in areas other young lawyers could only dream of is unparalleled,” she adds.
Estimated Community Lawyer Salary
|Annual Salary||Future Growth||Skill Level Rating|
|$85,000+||Very strong over the next 5 years||Very high skill|
Salaries depend on the type of solicitor you are. Whether you’re working at a corporate law firm or a community legal centre, in a junior or senior position, will vary this.
Influential Trends and the Future of this Industry
With the bulk of legal work being communicating with clients, critical thinking, and legal research, the growing dependence on digital technology hasn’t really affected the job prospects within the legal industry.
It has even streamlined work, as most material can be found online rather than the hefty task of searching through dense case law and legislation books!
Kristen explains, “I believe the legal industry is heading towards a high level of computerisation which will hopefully make access to the law possible for a larger portion of the population.”
Best Thing & Worst Thing
What do you enjoy most about this job?
The most enjoyable part of Kristen’s job is “that I’m able to get justice for people who might not otherwise have the opportunity and ensuring that landlords or other parties that are doing the wrong thing are called to account”.
What do you enjoy least about this job?
The least enjoyable aspect of the job is that “it can be difficult sometimes speaking with people who are frustrated and desperate, but it’s important to know that they aren’t angry at you, but rather their situation”.
Advice for Aspiring Community Lawyers
What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?
Working in law can be, no doubt, stressful. As Kristen tells us, “I wish I had known how emotionally draining some cases can be so that I would have been more prepared to take them on.
“Having said that though, the benefits far outweigh the occasional stress and disappointment at not being able to help someone as much as you would like to.”
It can be hard to listen to the adverse situations of clients, and even harder when you know that they are counting on you for help. However, knowing that, at the end of the day, you’re making a positive difference to real people’s lives is something that is very rewarding.
Why should people consider taking on this career?
“Vulnerable people and those who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford help need that help the most, so I believe it’s important to help those who would otherwise be priced out of the legal system. The job satisfaction is amazing!” shares Kristen.
Kristen says, “Absolutely, it’s a job that allows for flexibility as you can work from anywhere when you have your laptop. It helps particularly now that the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal is remote thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
What is the workplace culture like?
For Kristen, MLC has a supportive and bright work culture.
“The culture at MLC is fantastic. We all get along really well, and we all work collaboratively as a team. My favourite part of going into the office (when we could) was having the opportunity to spend some time with the dogs that staff members would bring to work. It is a great de-stressor,” she says on a final note.
Lynn Chen is a Content Writer at Art of Smart Education and is a Communication student at UTS with a major in Creative Writing. Lynn’s articles have been published in Vertigo, The Comma, and Shut Up and Go. In her spare time, she also writes poetry.