Kate Lawrence - IMCL lawyer, 1994-2001
Kate Lawrence has always loved stories. It began with fairy and folk tales, then books. As a law student the stories captured her imagination more than the law. As a practising lawyer, she got even closer to the source of stories, through the very personal stories of her clients. It was this privileged position that she bore witness to the power of helping people be heard, leading her into a career as a professional storyteller at Story Wise.
Being a community lawyer
At their core, Kate says that community lawyers have one very strong characteristic in common. A sense of social justice and using the law to redress an imbalance of power.
And this characteristic makes them determined and hardworking, and importantly, holistic in their practise of law.
The need to multitask and balance competing roles is Kate’s abiding memory of being a community lawyer.
"There were three parts to the job, doing case work, community education and campaign or advocacy work. for me there was always this sense in being able to juggle," she says.
This often meant that there were competing priorities and pressure.
"If the casework was on, then you were up to your neck in case work, or if the campaign was on then the casework may fall by the wayside, or the education. But that was its great strength as well," she reflects.
She explains that each aspect of the community lawyer’s role was important and informed the other.
"The case work always informed what you were doing. You couldn’t have one without the other. It was so critical in giving you a sense in how the law impacted people on the ground."
Kate says her strengths were in casework and community advocacy. But, she dabbled in CLE.
"I went into Fairlea the old women’s prison, and then into the remand centre which is a men’s prison but also out to the new private women’s prison doing education around criminal law. I was helping women in particular to have more skills and language’ around the criminal justice system which they were embedded in."
For Kate there was freedom in being a community lawyer.
"What I loved about North Melbourne centre, was that because it only taps into a tiny bit of the unmet need, the management committee and the organisation itself were really happy for me to go into any direction I was inclined to go, as long as it had a social justice meant and it always would. I could follow my nose and do something, because why not allow someone’s passion to show in their work if you’re only going to touch the top of the service anyway."
The privilege of hearing client stories
“I loved seeing the clients,” Kate says with conviction.
“I always felt a huge privilege at being able to ask, incredibly invasive questions about the problem that someone had, because they wanted my help as a lawyer."
She vividly remembers seeing the impact on clients of being heard and sharing their story. In part, she attributes this experience to her decision to become a professional storyteller. She honed her craft through court advocacy.
"As a lawyer I had a purpose in asking those invasive questions, and then following a storyline that I thought was important to their case. I think doing court pleas showed me the benefit of storytelling and gave me artistry."
Recalling her first ever court appearance
"I remember my first ever appearance at the Magistrates court, because I was desperate to get in front of the magistrate… I had to get up there and I had jeans on and I stood up there pulling at my clothes not wanting my jeans to show above the bar. I had no idea what I was doing."
She also recalls the strong sense of commeraderie amongst lawyers who cared about social justice.
"That’s the other thing, as a community legal centre person, you could ring any barrister up, you could always ask. The legal profession was very willing to help because back then we had no mentors and very little structure around us."
The legal work
There are areas of legal work that stand out in Kate’s memory.
This included prison reform and police accountability advocacy alongside Amanda George.
"The privatisations of the women’s prison and the amazing work of the corrections working group that I became involved in. That was the major thing that I worked around. Towards the end I was doing work on Tasers and police issues."
She also remembers being a part of the first-ever specialised youth outreach service, established by NMLS and now known as the stand-alone service Youth Law.
"We started the first youth outreach service in Melbourne. We had co-located with us the youth worker from Melbourne city council. We started working with a range of services like Hotham City Mission and the North Melbourne Football Club to do some work with young people."
A roof top office
Hanging on IMCL's wall at the organisation's current location on Queensberry Street is an illustration of the former NLMLS premises which was situated on the corner of Errol and Victoria streets. It was drawn by one of Kate's colleagues at the time, former lawyer, Jo Kerr.
Kate explains that the illustration of the little person sitting on the roof in that drawing, is in fact a depiction of her.
"It was a great corner office and the trams go round the corner. I was a smoker in those days and it was a long way down the stairs and down the corridor outside so I would just cut to the chase, would hop out on the roof, because it was a narrow window, these windows went up and then I eventually realised I could take my phone which had a long cable out of the window with me. I didn’t call clients because any minute a tram would go past and you couldn’t hear anything. But I would call friends. Coffee, phone, cigarettes and I would be happy to have a little break."
You can find out more about IMCL's current staff here.