Allens Confidential podcast

The power of pro bono

Our pro bono work is one of the topics we get the most questions about from prospective clerks and grads. In this episode of Allens Confidential, Geneva and Caitlin catch up with Nicky Friedman, our Director of Community Engagement, and James Daniel, Associate and Sydney Pro Bono Coordinator, to talk all things pro bono.

What sort of pro bono legal work does Allens do? How does it happen? How do junior lawyers get involved? How did Caitlin score a pro bono secondment so soon after starting as a grad (and from the comfort of home)?

What did we talk about?

  • What's unique about Allens' approach to pro bono work?
  • Memorable first hand experiences 
  • The importance of putting your hand up for opportunities

This episode is part of our 2020 series. 

Listen to the episode

Read the transcript

Geneva Sekula Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of Allens Confidential. We've got a great episode lined up today that I know everyone's going to be really interested in. We're joined by Nicky Friedman and James Daniel to talk about Allens' pro bono work, which is something we're really proud of and excited to talk about here at Allens. As always, I'm joined by Caitlin Burke my fabulous co‑host. And without any further ado, let's get started. Welcome Nicky and James.

Nicky Friedman Good morning, thanks very much.

James Daniel Hi, thanks for having us.

Geneva Sekula So as always the first question we like to ask our guests on our podcasts is what are your favourite podcasts and/or what are you listening to at the moment?

James Daniel A few of my favourite ones are Freakonomics. They do some interesting podcasts. I also like some of the Sam Harris interviews that he does, and also some of the Planet Money podcasts are interesting as well.

Geneva Sekula And how about you Nicky?

Nicky Friedman I'm a big fan of a couple of Slate podcasts. I really like the Political Gabfest and the Culture Gabfest. And I listen to The Daily, when we've got time. I also like the Deep Background with Noah Feldman podcast.

Geneva Sekula I'm always so impressed by people's podcast choices because I feel like I have my little pool of podcasts I listen to and it's not about self‑improvement or expanding my knowledge. It's just shallow indulging. So well done everyone for your intellectual choices. And I guess today we're talking about pro bono which is something that we love to do here and I know for students when I speak to them who are applying to the firm they're really interested in the kinds of things that we do. And one thing that we didn't talk about at the top is what you two actually do. So it would be great to hear about what your role is at Allens and how that relates to our pro bono spheres. Nicky, did you want to go first on that one?

Nicky Friedman Sure. So my title is Director of Community Engagement. So that reflects the fact that I head up not just the pro bono practice for the firm but also the spheres in our community-based activities, so the work we do towards reconciliation, the sustainability program that we run and also our philanthropy program. But probably what takes up the most of my time and what's certainly most pertinent to today's discussion is heading up the pro bono program.

Geneva Sekula Great. And what does that involve from your perspective in terms of day-to-day work running a pro bono practice – what does that actually look like?

Nicky Friedman So it's partly strategy. So deciding and forming a view on what types of pro bono work we should be focusing on in any given period, checking in with our strategic objectives and making sure that those remain current, liaising with management at the firm, so with the board and leadership team to let them know what we're doing and make sure that we've got a high level buy‑in to the objectives of the program. And then on a day-to-day level more operational activity. So checking in, having all sorts of measures in place to ensure that we can regularly audit what's going on with an existing pro bono matter, liaising with all of our stakeholders for different organisations we do pro bono work for. But also, so the clearing houses and the community legal centre, the ones that we have partnerships with, to make sure that our relationships are strong, that we understand what the needs are in the community and the emerging needs that they're seeing so that we can ensure that we're appropriately placed to respond to those. A whole range of other activities that are all geared towards making sure they are practice run smoothly, that we consider any risks that are posed by any work that we might be looking at doing, that I've got a good sense at any time of how busy the firm is, what practice groups are busy, where the capacity is, where the capacity isn't. That sort of thing.

Geneva Sekula That sort of simple thing. That's amazing. It's like there's a lot to factor in. And James you obviously work a fair bit with Nicky. What does your involvement in pro bono look like?

James Daniel Yeah, so as Nicky described we have our overarching approach to pro bono within the community engagement program, so to assist Nicky with that we have pro bono coordinators in each of our different offices. So I'm the pro bono coordinator for the Sydney office. So the main work that I do in that space is assisting Nicky with bringing in new pro bono clients that we think we can help to make an impact together. Also helping to find people who'd like to do pro bono work and especially finding people who'd like to do the particular types of pro bono work that we have coming in to the firm and keeping everyone connected on that page. So I'm also a lawyer in our TMT team so I think something we'll probably speak about later is the fact that at Allens we have a slightly different structure to some other firms where we have all different people getting involved with the pro bono program and we don’t have people working as full‑time pro bono lawyers.

Geneva Sekula I mean, maybe this is a good and natural point to talk about that. I mean how then does Allens' approach pro bono and what is unique to Allens in how you see how we run our programs?

James Daniel Yeah, it's a really good question. I think that aspect that we have of having everyone encouraged to get involved with the pro bono program I think is a really important element. Because I think what that allows us to do is to get experts in all different fields applying their expertise and knowledge and experience to particular problems that are faced by pro bono organisations. So I think that is one difference perhaps of how we approach pro bono work. And I really have the honour of seeing firsthand what that means for clients and the skills and experience that we get to bring to bear on particular problems I think makes a huge contribution.

Geneva Sekula So how might a grad or a clerk say get involved in pro bono? What does that usually look like?

James Daniel I think it usually comes to them through a couple of different mechanisms. So some people will have particular areas that they're interested in and they'll contact Nicky or they'll contact me and say that they'd like to get involved with pro bono work for First Australians, or for clients that are assisting to protect the natural environment, or services to assist homeless people. They might register a particular interest area and then we'll if there's a pro bono matter that we can start them on that suits their interest area. Other times we'll have a more general matter where we might email all the grads for example because we think it kind of needs a junior lawyer but it might not be very expertise‑specific. Other times we'll go specifically to people in particular practice groups because we think it requires particular expertise from particular teams. So there's kind of a couple of ways that pro bono work can find itself coming to junior lawyers.

Geneva Sekula In fact Caitlin you've probably got a good story too seeing as you were at the firm for about 15 minutes before you started your pro bono secondments. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Caitlin Burke Yeah, that's right. I made swift work of diversifying my practice once I arrived. Yeah, I was always really interested in pro bono and Jed and Nicky gave us some great info in our kind of first couple of weeks of induction. So I really had the contacts and an understanding of how to make, I guess get the ball rolling. So myself and a couple of other grads reached out, COVID happened and we were like well, are there (a) you know, ordinary lines of work or work sources for pro bono that are no longer there, and (b) are there new needs I guess, in the community that, is there a way that we can get involved in these circumstances. And pretty quickly Jed and Nicky had lined up a great opportunity. Myself and another grad are on a part‑time secondment with PIAC. So that means we get to do a whole lot of different matters each weeks. It's probably about a day or a day and a half a week I spend doing those matters, and they get briefed directly to me. So a whole range of things for pro bono clients which has been fantastic and very easy to do - a lot easier than I thought it would be to do a secondment online. We spend a lot of time on the phone to PIAC's solicitors and working through those matters, so I was surprised at how quickly we could set something up and yeah, it's been great.

Nicky Friedman Probably a good opportunity to talk about relationships and projects that we have on an ongoing basis with organisations like PIAC. So James talked about how people get involved in pro bono matters either because they put their hand up to do a particular type of work and we're able to match their interests with work that comes in or that we recruit people to particular matters because of their expertise. What we also have at any time, is a number of ongoing projects that have been established and that people can do the training for and get involved with at any time during their work at the firm. So we run homeless clinics in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, where we provide legal services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. And those are ongoing long-term clinic projects where lawyers attend the clinic each week and see clients and then take the work back and work on those files for as long as the matter lasts through the firm. We also do work for asylum seekers through refugee legal centres  actually in all our Australian offices, in Perth as well. So people can sign up and do the relevant training to provide assistance with those projects. And they're also ongoing projects and there's a range of other opportunities like that in different offices.

Geneva Sekula Yeah I mean those kinds of things I think are great, especially for people doing clerkships or grad rotations, they're great things to be involved in, those long running things. So you've got a sense of, you know, things are established as a process. It's a great way to sort of get new experience and exposure. I guess an interesting thing from my perspective is, you know, how do we figure out who we're going to work with or how we're going to build those relationships? I mean, does that sort of come up on a rolling basis? Do we have a clear structure in place? Like how do we build those connections in the community?

Nicky Friedman We've got a sense of our priority areas for legal assistance and they're our sense of what the most important justice needs are but also where the best fit is with our expertise at the firm. So we focus on human rights work, assisting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness as I've already talked about sustaining the natural environment, protecting the natural environment as James said before, work related to reconciliation. And those are really our main areas of focus. So we work closely with organisations that have a strength in working in those areas. So refugee legal centres, the human rights law centre, PIAC or Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the various homelessness legal services, environmental NGOs, charities, the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society, WWF, Bush Heritage Australia, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and other organisations that protect the natural environment. Those are organisations that we've work with for a long time, because they're doing the work that's relevant to the priority areas that we see.

Geneva Sekula That's so many different areas. It's amazing and I think I couldn't even imagine when you're just coming in, how to pick which sort of area you want to get involved in. But I mean Nicky, you must have seen lots of different very interesting matters come through the firm. Are there any pro bono matters that Allens has done that you're particularly proud of that affected you in a particular way?

Nicky Friedman Sure, so much, like I did so much time, but there's a few things that do stand out particularly. We represented an Aboriginal man from Victoria called Neville Austin some years ago. So Mr Austin was separated from his mother when he was a baby. He was a part of the stolen generation and he came to us to assist him to make a claim for compensation from the Victorian Government for being taken from his family. And, more than compensation, he was really focused on having Government acknowledge the harm that was done to him and apologise to him. And we acted for Neville for many years while we researched exactly what happened to him, piecing together all of the documents to understand when he was taken and how he was taken, and also what the long term impact had been on his life and his mental health, his wellbeing. And we instituted proceedings and ultimately that matter settled. So you can't read a case about what happened to Mr Austin but different from many, many other matters that settle, in that case the Government apologised. There was a written apology acknowledging that Neville was wrongly taken from his family and that that caused him harm and that the Government was sorry for that. And that was not a confidential settlement, it was a public apology that he was able to talk about and there was a press conference held and that letter was read. And just being there that day and seeing how much that meant to Neville and to his family and his friends, many of whom themselves are members of the stolen generation, and saw that as almost the only official acknowledgement of harm done by a Government to members of the stolen generation. It was a powerful day and it was really something to be very proud of that the firm invested a huge amount of time and a huge amount of effort in running that matter for many years and really was very proud to have stood by Neville who was so incredibly brave to take that action.

Geneva Sekula Wow, I mean that's incredible. I mean to be part of that Nicky, I imagine that must have just been such a, you know, incredible and powerful point in your career. Jed, how about you? Has there been anything that you've worked on or that you've seen come through the firm that you've been particularly inspired by or felt like is worth sharing?

James Daniel Yeah, absolutely. I should say at this point, although my legal name is James, my nickname is Jed because of my initials. So that explains some of the references so far. So I think the matter that really got me involved in a substantive way with the pro bono program at Allens was when I was in my first year of the grad program, and I got involved in a matter that we were working on with PIAC to assist two young indigenous girls who'd been arrested in quite unfortunate circumstances. And the matter went on for quite a long time, over a year, and in the end we were able to get them an outcome that they were really happy with. And I think seeing that first hand was I think, quite a formative experience for me. Not just I think seeing the outcome that we got for them, but I think also seeing what it meant to them to have someone and a firm stand behind them and take their needs and their interests really seriously and represent them the whole way through. I think it really demonstrated to me the powerful effect that we can have in the community to assist people who really need our help. So I think that was the matter for me that I think really exposed me to the good we can do through the pro bono program. Another one I'd mention is one more recently because it's quite different I think in terms of approach but that was assisting the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties to make a submission into the Parliamentary Inquiry into whether Australia should have a Magnitsky Act. So for those of you who might not have heard of this before, this is basically legislative change to more effectively allow the Government to target human rights abusers. So it would do things such as freeze assets and prevent people coming, in this case, to Australia who are known abusers of human rights. So that I think was quite a different type of matter because it was working on quite an abstract academic submission, there were no kind of 'real people' so to speak involved that we were working with, we were just all working as a team together on this submission with the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. But I think again it demonstrated to me the real powerful impact that we can have at Allens through bringing all different people together to work on this really important proposed piece of legislative change. I think seeing both the depth but also the diversity and the types of matters that we get involved with has had a really powerful impact on me.

Geneva Sekula Yeah amazing. Correct me if I'm completely off the mark here but I feel I've heard that we were involved in the voting rights in the High Court challenge - Nicky is that right, did Allens help with that one?

Nicky Friedman Yeah absolutely. We ran the vote case, we did that work with the Human Rights Law Centre but we were actually the lawyers on the record for Vicki Roach, the plaintiff in that case. There was legislation introduced by the Howard Government that limited the franchise of prisoners and the challenge mounted was to argue that that was an unconstitutional fettering of the franchise and that it was unreasonable to deprive that many people of the right to vote. We were successful in the High Court, the High Court agreed that it was an unreasonable limitation of people's right to vote and unconstitutional, and the vote was restored to anybody who was in prison for less than five years. The decision was handed down quite soon before a general election and in that next general election some weeks later people had the right to vote who otherwise would not have been able to do so. It was amazing to see the real life effect of that really quickly like it sounded like a very abstract idea but in fact it meant people casting a ballot who otherwise wouldn't have been able to do so. It's a great example of what pro bono work can achieve. Again like the work I described for Mr Austin before but more so because that matter actually ran in the High Court. It was a huge undertaking. The research needed was enormous. The resources that had to be invested in preparing a matter like that for a hearing in the High Court was really significant. There were senior barristers involved on both sides, big legal teams, people going back and forward to Canberra etc, and that was something we were able to do because we chose to invest our resources in it because we thought it was a really important question of law that needed to be resolved. Because we had the independence to take on whatever matter we thought was worth doing we were able to take that work.

Geneva Sekula Yeah the first time I obviously heard about that case was at uni, we studied it. So when you come around and it's like yeah we did that, you think oh wow I'm pretty happy to be part of a firm that does that sort of work, that's really special I think.

Nicky Friedman It's special that the firm is brave and robust and is not necessarily so popular to take work for prisoners, it's not kind of – it's not necessarily obvious what the public appeal of work like that might be. It really is a question of justice and due process and so on, they're very lawyerly ideas. But the fact that the firm is happy to be there and be brave and take on these arguably controversial matters and put the resources into it I think it is something absolutely to be proud of. Also what it's demonstrated over a number of years are the number of these types of complicated questions of law, you know when you're a top law firm with some of the smartest people in the country not only can you provide great services to your commercial clients but you can provide great services to pro bono clients because some of those types of matters, they're really hard and the questions of law that need to be decided and discussed are complicated and require real expertise in constitutional law or migration law or administrative law or whatever the particular areas of law being considered are. And that's where being Allens with really, really smart high level expertise becomes really important and relevant and we really are a lot of organisation's first choice of law firm to run a pro bono matter. They come knocking on the door because they know we'll bring the smarts to the table and we'll bring the generosity as well.

Geneva Sekula Yeah it is I think, and I think from my perspective having only been here a little while I find it really exciting that a good chunk of my work week is engaging with this kind of stuff but also learning from it at such a, I guess impressionable start and stage of my career so I feel very grateful to be somewhere like this. Guys, we like to wrap up by asking you both if you could give your former self one piece of career advice, what would it be - Jed if you want to kick off?

James Daniel Absolutely. My career didn't start all that long ago but I think one piece of advice that I've received and that I'd give to others is, especially when you're starting out, don't be too hard on yourself. It's a time for learning when you first begin work and you're inevitably going to make mistakes because everybody does. But as clichéd as it is the important thing is to learn from them and to not beat yourself up about any mistake that you make and just to enjoy the journey because otherwise it will be a long path if you give yourself too hard a time. So that's what I'd say, just do your best to learn from all those things and enjoy it along the way.

Nicky Friedman I often tell people, particularly young women, that you're in charge of your career and it's really going to be you who has to have a plan. And even if that plan jumps around and isn't necessarily completely linear as James wisely said it might involve some false starts and some mistakes along the way, but you can't wait for people to come and offer you things and suggest things to you. You really have to be the one who forges the path for yourself and put your hand up to nominate for opportunities and it kind of forms a view of where you might be heading. I think we often think that someone is going to roll out a magic carpet for us or come and take us by the hand and lead us in the right direction. But actually it's really, those are jumps that we have to take on for ourselves.

Caitlin Burke That's great. Thank you so much both of you for your time today. It's been amazing hearing all about the way that Allens runs such a diverse and forward thinking pro bono practice. Thanks to everyone for listening and we will see you next time.

About the presenters: Geneva Sekula & Caitlin Burke

Geneva is a Senior Associate in our Disputes and Investigations team. She loves brunch, dogs, Netflix marathons, and giving unsolicited advice. A graduate of the University of Sydney, she clerked at Allens in Sydney in 2015 before joining the firm as a nervous but enthusiastic graduate in 2017.

Caitlin is (allegedly) a Lawyer at Allens. She joined the firm as a clerk in 2017, before running away to join the circus for a few years and returning like the prodigal son to the Disputes and Investigations team in 2020. Caitlin studied at the ANU and exercises her right to embarrass herself daily; at work, in the streets and on the dance floor - sometimes simultaneously, but always with a smile.

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