Pro bono professionals Emma Dunlevie and Ilana Kacev from Russell Kennedy Lawyers share their experiences navigating the challenges of 2020. They say while the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted work practices, it has also led to wider acceptance of flexible working arrangements. These changes have allowed Russell Kennedy to continue providing pro bono assistance to clients via videoconferencing.
Russell Kennedy has been assisting people affected by cancer on a free basis through Cancer Council’s Pro Bono Program since 2015. Has there been a key highlight for you during its involvement with the service?
Emma: The pro bono team at Russell Kennedy feels privileged to have been associated with the Cancer Council’s Pro Bono Program for the past 6 years. The legal referral program has enabled us to efficiently and effectively utilise our pro bono capacity, and to assist many individuals and their families in very difficult times. We can help with their legal issues and paperwork, while they focus on their health needs and on spending precious time with loved ones.
Ilana: It is difficult to pick a key highlight, but generally speaking, the clients and their families are extremely grateful for the assistance in having these documents prepared… The clients and their family often expressly state their gratitude and this can at times be a good reminder about the value of what we are doing for them.
It is amazing to see the firm has been able to continue assisting clients despite the challenges brought about by COVID-19. How have you found working as a lawyer during a global pandemic? What have you learnt over this time?
Emma: With the widespread use of video conferencing, we are better able to organise meetings at the last minute, reduce travel time, and we are generally more accessible to our clients. In some respects, living through the pandemic has brought us closer to our clients. When working on matters, I would often find myself in personal conversations with clients, sharing our respective experiences of lockdown (e.g. the challenges of conducting a client conference with chatty children at our heels) and reflecting on the enormity of the impact of COVID-19 around the world. I noticed people seemed more open about their personal experiences during the pandemic, and felt a greater sense of connection, of “being in this together”.
COVID-19 has, however, undoubtedly exacerbated problems experienced by disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, and driven extra demand for legal assistance in areas such as employment, housing insecurity and family violence. When the pandemic first hit, I admit that we were fearful that law firm pro bono assistance would decline due to the economic impact and the uncertainty we were all facing.
However, lawyers have continued to carry out a significant amount of pro bono work despite the pandemic and economic downturn. For law firms like Russell Kennedy, with well-established pro bono practices, pro bono remained an essential part of the organisation throughout the pandemic. It was, in a sense, a test of the values espoused by our firm and of our dedication to the ethic of service and fulfilling unmet legal needs.
In Victoria, special measures have been introduced which allow for the remote witnessing of certain documents during COVID-19. What impact has this had on your ability to continue to assist pro bono clients with their wills, enduring powers of attorney and medical treatment decision makers, particularly during the Victorian lockdowns?
Ilana: The new remote witnessing laws have been an enormous help during the lockdown, particularly in relation to pro bono clients who have been stuck in hospital… If these laws did not exist, we would likely need to post or email the documents to the client and suggest that they either try to execute their Wills in front of two witnesses at the hospital or sign the document informally. Enduring Powers of Attorney are more complicated as they require at least one of the witnesses to be a qualified witness such as a lawyer.