Melisa Veljan started as one of our valued law student volunteers leading to experience across many areas of law. Eventually she was employed by BCLS while juggling university and other employment. Melisa shares her experience for Volunteers Week 2021.
I ran into my former high school principal when I was working in a retail job – he mentioned how my high school now had a school lawyer (Western Heights College School Lawyer Program) run by Barwon Community Legal Service (BCLS), which I thought was awesome. I got in touch with the BCLS school lawyer at the time and told him that I’d love to help out, especially with the program at my high school because I have quite a close connection to it so I wanted to get involved. That culminated in me coming in to help with the BCLS Criminal Law Clinic as well as the community legal education (CLE) activities involved with the School Lawyer Program.
I hadn’t really had much formal legal experience so I was nervous about that aspect of volunteering. But before I had even started I was constantly in touch with someone from BCLS letting me know how it was all going to play out. Everyone at BCLS was super kind which wasn’t surprising given how good their formal volunteering program is as well – it made me feel like I was there with a purpose rather than sitting around asking for things to do.
I mainly helped with the Criminal Law Clinic – sitting in on client interviews under the supervision of a lawyer, doing legal research and some drafting, I also did a couple of client interviews myself so that was super challenging but very valuable as far as experience goes. Alongside that I helped with CLE activities surrounding the WHC School Lawyer Program, which involved things like designing PowerPoint presentations, and co-delivering them to the students with the school lawyer which I really enjoyed. It was worlds colliding, because I was at my old high school but now I was the one at the front of the classroom (hopefully) teaching students things so that felt super cool.
I was exposed to lots of different areas of law, so that solidified which areas of law I don’t see myself working in… but more importantly it showed me how invaluable community organisations – legal centres in particular – are, especially to the community as a whole. The ‘legal world’ can be intimidating and inaccessible, so I enjoyed working for an organisation that helps combat some of those issues.
BCLS were and always are super flexible, so they definitely understood my schedule when it came to uni and other obligations – one day a week was very manageable! After I gained employment at BCLS I was still working my retail job so I was initially worried about spreading myself a bit thin, but I managed the two jobs and uni quite well because the hours were different so that worked out quite well. Having been there for a few months as a volunteer definitely made it easier to integrate and there was no anxious lead-up to it because I already knew the place.
Put yourself out there when it comes to opportunities – a lot of opportunities and projects can arise within community legal centres that may not be directly related to legal work or skills but could be something you’re super passionate about that you could really lean into and enjoy.