Richard's story

Richard Stewart - former evening service volunteer and IMCL principal lawyer, 2006 - 2011

Like many people, Richard started his time at IMCL as a volunteer. He was initially an evening clinic volunteer solicitor before being employed as a principal lawyer. He describes how his time at NMLS defined his legal career. 

First impressions of IMCL 

"Having been involved with the community legal sector during my time at university, one of the first things I did upon arriving in Melbourne in 2006 was to seek out my local community legal centre.

"The North Melbourne Legal Service (NMLS), as it then was, was a smaller community legal centre operating out of an old office on the corner of Errol and Victoria Streets in North Melbourne.

"I started volunteering immediately, as a lawyer, and recall being gently intimidated by the then Staff Lawyer, Louisa Gibbs. She could do, and seemed to know, almost everything about law as it applied to the local community. Louisa was as impressive as she was kind, and she made the introduction to NMLS easy.

"Of course, even at that time, there was a small and capable team at NMLS helping it go about its business of helping the community and, I recall, reliance on volunteers was especially heavy at that time.  

"I also recall a few other things from my initial time at NMLS – it was, at that time, incredibly relaxed! Shoes off seemed the norm, and the old office intimidated no-one, ever, I am quite sure! Not one feature of the office in any way reflected the importance of the work being done there. Still, I developed an affection for the office and a drawing of it still hangs by my desk. I confess that I miss it."

From volunteer to principal lawyer

"In 2008, by which time I had been a Tuesday evening volunteer for a couple of years, Louisa asked me if I would assume the role of acting Principal Lawyer for 6 months whilst she took leave. I don’t know for sure but I think I was probably a last resort on this particular occasion – perhaps no one else would do it.

"After much consideration and far more fretting than I let anyone know, I agreed to take the role and arranged leave from the firm at which I was then working, Freehills (now Herbert Smith Freehills).

"Fortunately, my time as a volunteer, the Law Handbook and the small team of staff at NMLS provided me with just enough capacity to do the job as Principal, which I happily did for 6 months."

A transformative experience

"In terms of the legal service, not much changed during this time. But there were changes in me, brought about by the deeper connection I was having with the matters being handled at NMLS.

"I recall being astounded (and saddened) by the circumstances I encountered at the outreach service we provided to men at a nearby community house (I was embarrassed I hadn’t even known it was there).

"I was truly and deeply satisfied by an outcome of a Victims of Crime Compensation matter I concluded – I had no doubt it was going to change the life of that particular client.

"Then there was a special circumstances application which resulted in many infringement warrants being withdrawn and thousands of dollars in fines being, effectively, waived.

"Lives were being positively changed in circumstances where, but for the NMLS, they might not have been.

"I should add that these outcomes weren’t necessarily anything special for NMLS – it had been achieving them for years. But they were the first time I had personally been involved in securing them because, as a volunteer, you don’t tend to see matters through to conclusion.

"These conclusions had an impact on me, as a lawyer and a person. It made going back to commercial law very hard indeed."

Changes as Principal

"My time at HSF was doomed. I returned for 6 months or so after my initial stint as Principal for NMLS, but it was never the same and I no longer enjoyed it, if I ever did.

On my 30th birthday, I got a call to ask me to interview for the ongoing Principal role at NMLS and I determined immediately to do it. As far as I know, NMLS has always been governed by a particularly fine board, full of people genuinely committed to its causes. Fortunately for me, the board recruited me to the role and the fact that they did so was all the encouragement I needed.

I have previously noted, in an annual report somewhere, that I had certain objectives to achieve in my time as ongoing Principal. And, quite apart from these specific objectives and on reflection, there were changes I wanted to implement and otherwise be involved with. I wanted to see the NMLS move ahead, go the next level, in every sense. And I think it did. The main changes during my time at NMLS were, as best I recall:

- a new outreach service to the Royal Women’s Hospital was established and also to CASA House;

- a new willingness to do our own court/advocacy work and reduce reliance on the need to refer clients outside the service;

- more community legal education and otherwise engaging with our local community (otherwise than via the solicitor/client relationship);

- closer engagement with law firms and the way they supported us, which resulted in a new relationship with HSF (and an additional   secondee lawyer) and Moray & Agnew (who supported an additional drop-in service); and

- a new relationship with RMIT which saw us writing, delivering and assessing the university’s clinical legal education program.

Of course, not everything was a success and we didn’t get everything right. Some of the changes implemented during my time endured, others did not. During my NMLS time, I worked with some excellent lawyers and those who would go on to become so, as well as an array of other fine people. Fortunately, some of those people have remained my friends.

Looking into a crystal ball

I was confident that NMLS, now proudly known as Inner Melbourne Community Legal, would go on to become even bigger and better post my involvement. And it has.

My involvement with the service, and the sector more generally, has very much diminished since my departure but this is in no way a reflection of my regard for the service or those associated with it.

My time with NMLS was formative for me, professionally and personally, and I have no doubt that it has shaped many, many, people who have been involved with it – workers, volunteers and clients.

The contribution IMCL has made, and continues to make, is enormous – probably immeasurable. And so it will continue, I hope, for as long as there is a need for it to exist.

You can find out more about IMCL's current staff here.  

“The contribution IMCL has made, and continues to make, is enormous – probably immeasurable. And so it will continue, I hope, for as long as there is a need for it to exist.”