To celebrate National Volunteer Week 2023 we interviewed our volunteer of 15 years, Pat Karnis, Barrister & Mediator at Victorian Bar (Foley's List) - Barwon Community Legal Service

To celebrate National Volunteer Week 2023 we interviewed our volunteer of 15 years, Pat Karnis, Barrister & Mediator at Victorian Bar (Foley’s List)


Why did you decide to become a lawyer / barrister and what work were you doing previously? 

My origin story is unusual. Previous to law I was working in hospitality. Part owner/cook, Quattro Stagioni Café, Lorne Fish n Chips, and Apollo Pizzeria. At one time, I ran those three businesses along the coast, in Lorne & Apollo Bay, concurrently! Madness. But it was a fabulous baptism of fire for managing stress.

I then trained as a chef at the Gordon, and in my final year at William Angliss, and completed that training in 1998. I was a single mother and hospitality, as brutal as the hours were, was financially secure. Also, being my own boss was perfect when single parenting. Alas, I knew all that I did not know. There was a gaping hole and thirst for knowledge.  I was always keenly aware that I did not have an education. I left school in year 11 to get married. So, in 1998 I took the first of many steps and I went to the local high school, Lorne P-12, and enrolled into year 11. I would tear off the apron from the café, and run in to my chosen classes with all the other kids, who were 20 years my junior, and did my best to complete year 11 & 12 subjects to prove to myself that I might perhaps be able to go to university as a mature age student.

In 2000 I enrolled into Deakin University off campus to study part time Philosophy & Literature, and that ultimately led to a Bachelor of Arts degree. I knew I did not want to teach or be an academic, so a BA was not useful, it was however glorious in relation to my confidence in myself and the ability I had to learn after 40.

At the ripe age of 45 in 2005 I took the plunge and enrolled full time in Law at Deakin University and successfully completed my Bachelor of Law in 2008. By 2009 I was working as a family lawyer for a wonderful firm called Cahill & Rowe. I will always be grateful to the people that gave me an opportunity to prove that at 50 years old we can begin again. Thank you deeply Jill Treloar, Allison Rowe and Paul Cahill. I was with them for one year and decided that I would dive deeper and apply to the Victorian Bar for admission to work as a barrister. I was called to the Bar very quickly, faster than I anticipated and I accepted in 2010. That was sheer lunacy! But I survived it. I signed the Bar Roll as a barrister in 2010 and have been practicing since, primarily in Family Law. I decided law and in particular family law, as it is a dynamic area of law that affects people’s lives at their most vulnerable and powerless. A divorce is like a death. It is devastating and I try to do my best to shepherd people to higher safer ground. It is my passion and a great privilege to serve, I never take that for granted


What is the best aspect of your role and what is the most challenging?

The best and the most challenging aspect of my role as a family law barrister is to keep people out of court. Yes, you read that right. People look at barristers like they are gladiators. And we are, I keep my gladiator shield under my desk, but use only when absolutely necessary! Seriously, my job is to deescalate emotions, cut out the unnecessary conflict and steer people away from court to outcomes that will benefit them and their families in the long run, without the need for high conflict, confrontation and the unnecessary time and money spent in court rooms, if they can find the same outcome away from a court room. I find that very satisfying.


How long have you been volunteering with BCLS and what made you become involved in the sector initially?

I began volunteering with BCLS while I was a student at Deakin, helping with intakes.  I continued once I was admitted as a solicitor, and I saw no reason why not to continue when I was called to the bar as a barrister. It has been around 15 years now.


What do you wish other people knew about volunteering in a CLC?

The joy of giving someone advice and hearing the relief in their voice. The comfort you can provide in half an hour is immeasurable. The sheer relief that things may not be as bad as they think. That there is a solution. That one hour, one day at a time they will survive this current situation. It is truly a great privilege to be in a position to serve at a CLC for the benefit of those that cannot afford the fees attached with legal advice.


What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Do not waste a good worry. It is another way of saying do not sweat the small stuff. Easy to say but hard to do. We have much to worry about in life, so do not waste your worry.


If you weren’t a barrister, what would you be?

 A writer. I adore reading. I am a voracious reader. And I’m not fussy, I’ll read anything from classics to pulp fiction. Long sagas to short stories. My favourite book of all time is Hemingway’s ‘the old man and the sea’. It’s the story of life. Of love and loss and being human. A tiny book. If I had the luxury of time again, I would be a writer. As I write this I think, you never know, that may be the next reinvention ….. why not!?

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