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?

At Deakin, law students in their final years have been given the opportunity to work on cases ranging from property disputes to parenting orders, and from early-stage start-ups to a history-making murder mercy plea.

Deakin students have taken on those cases, and hundreds more, during 11-week placements at the university's teaching law firm, Deakin Law Clinic.

The clinic, which students attend 1.5 days a week by application, provides free legal assistance to eligible clients in the areas of civil and commercial law, employment law, family law, early stage ventures and criminal law.

'We take clients who are unable to access justice,' says principal 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, perhaps they're indigenous. Or because they have a matter that’s in the public interest.'

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 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 end 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.

Six Deakin students were involved in that case, and additional students continue to offer free legal support to Grieve.

Learning the art of empathy

Principal solicitor Syd Balachandran says the clinic is also regularly involved in family law, with many clients having experienced family violence.

A recent case involved a mother unable to afford legal assistance.

'In the space of about 18 months, we've been able to resolve both her parenting (custody) and property matters,' Balachandran says.

'Essentially the outcome provided her with a significant amount of money to move on with the rest of her life, to look after the child in comfort. We probably saved her about $50,000 to $60,000 in legal costs.'

Balachandran says working on such a case not only teaches students practical legal skills, but also gives them exposure to those less fortunate.

'Family law is an extremely challenging area, because you're seeing people who are desperate, who are really traumatised,' he 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.'

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, as opposed to potentially going into a firm or an external location where they‘re really very much focused on their practice and having students is a secondary thing,' she says.

Unlike most universities, Deakin's law clinic has offices in the heart of Melbourne's CBD.

And in what Tisdale believes is a first for Australian university legal clinics, Deakin provides free legal advice to early stage start-ups – a service deemed to be in the public interest.

Student Charrie Mata gained hands-on experience by working with start-up firms.

'It's an opportunity to acquire practical skills by working on a range of legal matters, under the supervision of legal specialists, and having real client contact,' she says. 'I particularly enjoy the exposure to the life cycle of a start-up venture and knowing that I am contributing something in our thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.'

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.