On the job as a Principal solicitor at Law Society of New South Wales

Nerida Harvey studied law at University of technology Sydney and is now a Principal solicitor at Law Society of New South Wales.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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What's your job title? How long have you worked in your current position?

I’ve work at the Law Society of New South Wales for eight years, and I’m a principal solicitor responsible for the community referral services (CRS). There are three services that fit within this scheme: the solicitor’s referral service, the pro bono service, and the alternative dispute resolution service.

The pro bono schemes assists those who are unable to access full-fee-charging lawyers. These are people who have been refused legal aid or have a matter for which legal aid is not available. Legal aid has a very stringent means and merit assessment process, whereas ours is a little more generous. This means, for example, that people whose means are greater than permitted by the Legal Aid eligibility test, but lower than would be required to access a full-fee-charging lawyer, can still access advice and representation. The pro bono service refers cases out, but also takes some of them up, functioning as a legal practice embedded within the Law Society.

The solicitor referral service allows members of the public to access the details of law firms that suit their requirements. For example, a person might call with a criminal law matter in Parramatta and request the names of lawyers who can represent them in that area, and who also speak Arabic.

The alternative dispute resolution service assists with mediation, arbitration, family law settlements, and other forms of dispute resolution. This allows matters to be deferred from the courts - which are often overwhelmed - and also allows people to address matters that can’t go to court yet because they need to be mediated first. For example, a contract might specify that, in the event of a dispute, the parties must mediate or arbitrate before they litigate. We appoint independent and appropriately qualified mediators and arbitrators to assist them.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It changes from day to day, but there is, for example, some structure when it comes to meeting with staff. I meet with the staff in my department every Monday and we discuss ongoing cases, as well any other administrative responsibilities. If it’s a court day, then I’m off to court, which usually starts at around nine.

If I’m not at court, then it’s an office day, which could involve processing applications, dealing with in-house matters, preparing for the many talk and speeches we give at different organisations, or recruiting firms to participate in the pro bono scheme. I also run our practical legal training program. We have four practical legal training students in our department at any one time. So we invest a lot of time into training them, mentoring them, and also recruiting new students.

What are you average hours like?

I think they’ve gotten a lot less over time. When I first started working, I was working crazy hours - I‘d arrive at around six or seven in the morning and not leave until quite late at night. Now it’s a lot more manageable, although I do occasionally wrap things up at home.

Can you speak more generally about the role of the Law Society?

Sure. However, I think it’s important to emphasise that the department I work in is quite unique. Broadly speaking, the Law Society is a professional member’s body and supports and regulates the legal profession within New South Wales. My department is a public-facing, so our goal here is to improve the accessibility of the legal system.

Have you worked on any particularly rewarding cases?

I think that, for me, the cases that involve children are the most rewarding. I’ve worked in commercial law and, certainly, when you close a contract for somebody, there’s a thrill. But when you help a father gain access to children he hasn’t seen for two years, that reunion can be really beautiful - it’s really worth any figure. Some of these cases go on for several years, so when you get even a little victory, it’s really very rewarding.

Where did you work before joining the law society?

My previous role was at a private firm in New York, where I focused on immigration law. Prior to that, I practiced in Young, which is located in rural NSW.

Can you give us a brief overview of your professional background?

I went to Pittwater House in Collaroy and then studied law at UTS. Afterwards, I worked for a year doing defender insurance litigation for insurance companies. Subsequently, I moved to Young and worked for a private law firm, mainly focusing on their legal aid project - a mixture of family law, criminal law, and child care and protection. I spent four years there before relocating to New York, where I practiced until starting with the Law Society of New South Wales eight years ago.

You seemed to have gravitated towards roles that involve some element of social outreach. Can you explain why?

Well, I’ve certainly had the thrill of being flown around and working at big law firm with fancy parties and things like that. But after a while… for me, the excitement wore off. I’d much prefer to earn less and be working for people. I’m not being critical of commercial lawyers and the work they do, but I don’t think I have it in me to be disconnected from the human factor in the way that commercial success often requires.

What attracted you to law?

I actually started off studying nursing, but then I hurt my back and knew that wasn’t going to work. So I moved into law and immediately enjoyed it. I’m not sure why I chose law, but I did know already that I enjoyed speaking and wanted to work closely with people, so some alternative careers, like accounting, were disqualified.

Which personal attributes are important for success in your position?

You’ve got to have a pretty thick skin. We frequently assist people who have been dealing with the legal system for quite a long time. They’re frustrated, sometimes even angry, and it’s easy for them to project that onto you. Often, they’re grateful to have somebody to speak to, so you need to learn how to alternate between appropriate levels of professionalism and patient empathy. This is the best way to develop trust and, without trust, you’ll never develop a successful legal relationship.

You also have to be able to read people well, especially because there is so much variety when it comes to our clients and, even before investigating the legal aspects of a case, it’s vital that you can connect well with the person involved.

How do you maintain a comfortable distance between your personal and professional lives?

I think there are certain things you learn to be responsible about - things like safety and privacy. For example, I use a fake name on Facebook and take care not to disclose identifying details of personal life when talking with clients. You have to bear in mind that many of the clients are complicated and occasionally dangerous people.

What’s one thing it might surprise people to learn is advantageous in your job?

I think it’s quite admirable when people take on cases that have been turned down by LegalAid. It doesn’t always pay off - there’s definitely an element of professional risk involved - but, when it does, few things are more rewarding.

Which three pieces of advice would you give to current law students?

  • Keep your options open. Try not to get channeled into just one area of law. If you can do internships in various practice areas, then make sure you do. This is true also of placements for your practical legal training.
  • Do a broad range of subjects - even if you think you won’t enjoy them. You might be surprised to learn that, actually, you really click with something unexpected. There are happy tax lawyers.
  • I think that, once you accept a graduate job, you should stick it out for at least a year or two. It never looks good when you see a resume and somebody has jumped around after three or four months. Of course, if you’re being mistreated or something similar, then you’ve good cause to move on. But, otherwise, those quick job changes are conspicuous in a way that probably won’t be very helpful.

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