Deakin Law Clinic: a training ground for tomorrow's lawyers

Studying law in a classroom is one thing. But what if you could underpin that academic training by representing real-life clients that desperately need your help?

Deakin Law Clinic is Deakin Law School’s teaching law firm where law students in their final years attend placement 1.5 days a week during the 11-week trimester. Students interview clients, manage client matters and assist their supervising lawyers and clients by drafting legal advice and court documents, including court orders and court submissions.

Deakin Law Clinic provides free legal assistance to eligible clients across five different practice areas of civil law, employment law, family law, criminal law and policy advocacy law. Policy advocacy law practice is offered to students online and the remaining practice areas operate out of our Geelong office at the Waterfront campus or our office at Deakin Downtown in Melbourne Docklands precinct.

'We take clients who are unable to access justice,' says clinical solicitor Rebecca Tisdale, who was named Not-for-profit Lawyer of the Year in the 2018 Women in Law Awards for her work with the clinic.

'It might be that they can't afford to pay for legal services or because they're from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, they're experiencing domestic violence, or perhaps they're Indigenous. Or because they have a matter that’s in the public interest.'

Learning the art of empathy

Principal solicitor Michele Tucker says the clinic’s family law practice often involves clients who have experienced family violence.

‘We have assisted clients to resolve parenting matters and at times negotiate small property settlements on their behalf,' says Tucker.

'These clients often cannot afford legal assistance or due to their circumstances find it difficult to navigate the family law system. Our assistance enables clients to achieve a fair outcome so they can move on with their lives after what has usually been a very distressing time during their relationship breakdown.'

Tucker says working on these types of matters not only teaches students practical legal skills but also gives them exposure to those less fortunate.

'Family law can be an extremely challenging area because you're often seeing people who are desperate, who are really traumatised,' she says.

'It’s having the skills and encouraging the students to have that required empathy, the required professionalism, the innate understanding, the humanity to say "look this person is really struggling, they're going through a traumatic process".'

A high-profile murder case

Deakin Law Clinic made headlines after being involved in a historic decision in late 2018 to grant a young Indigenous man in the Northern Territory eventual early release from prison.

Zak Grieve had been jailed under the Territory's controversial mandatory sentencing laws for his role in a murder plot he ultimately didn't go through with.

'He wasn't physically present at the time of the crime, but he was found guilty of murder and mandatorily sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 20 years,' Tisdale says.

Deakin Law Clinic lawyers and students worked with a broader team of barristers, including Professor Felicity Gerry QC, a member of Deakin Law School, to petition the Administrator of the Territory on Grieve's behalf.

While the legal team fought for Grieve's immediate release, the result was an eight-year reduction in his non-parole period. It was the first-time mercy has been granted for a serious crime in the Northern Territory since 1978.

What sets Deakin Law Clinic apart?

Deakin students are encouraged to gain as much practical experience as possible, which can include an internship at an external law firm.

However, it will likely be a different experience than a placement at the Deakin Law Clinic, Tisdale says.

‘I would say clinical legal education offers students an incredible experience to learn in an environment where it‘s been set up specifically for their learning, a teaching practice, as opposed to potentially going into a firm or an external location where they‘re very much focused on their practice and having students is a secondary thing,' she says.

Career benefits

Tisdale says that as well as greatly improving their skills, the experience can help students launch their career – perhaps with the help of a reference from the clinic.

'It (the experience) looks really good on their CV,' she says. 'The clinic teaches them the skills that they might not develop at any other point during their degree that they can then talk about in an interview for another role.'

Want a law degree that’s flexible and practical? Discover Deakin’s Bachelor of Laws.