Author Archives: agatajw

The Lawyering for Change report

The fellowship report is now available online, here: Lawyering for Change (2015)

All feedback, or suggestions for further work, or collaboration, are welcome by email to


Lawyering for Change report launch: Wednesday 11 November 2015

You are warmly invited to the launch of the Lawyering for Change report.

The launch will be held at K&L Gates at 5.45pm for a 6.00pm start on Wed11 November 2015.

RSVP online here.

K&L Gates is at Level 25, 525 Collins St (Rialto Tower South), Melbourne CBD. Best entry is by way of the escalator on Flinders Lane (between William and King Sts), near Vue de Monde.

The report is a reflection on how community legal centre (CLC) lawyers can best use their legal cases to achieve both justice for their clients and social change for their communities. Drawing on interviews with 100 lawyers and thinkers across Australia, as well as the UK, USA, Canada, and South Africa, the report suggests seven best practice principles of strategic lawyering for CLCs.

Agata Wierzbowski, CLC Fellow, will briefly present the findings of the report, and screen a series of insights from interviewees including Doug Lasdon (Executive Director, Urban Justice Center, New York), Jennifer Robinson (Lawyer & Director of Legal Advocacy, Bertha Foundation, London), and Jo Shulman (CEO, Redfern Legal Centre, Sydney).

This will be followed by a brief panel discussion of how the principles can be practically implemented within the sector. Panel speakers include Felicity Graham (NSW Bar), Brendan Sydes (CEO, Environmental Justice Australia), and Joel Townsend (Social Inclusion Program Manager, Victoria Legal Aid).

Nibbles from Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Catering and drinks will be provided.

The project would not have been possible without the generous funding of the Victoria Law Foundation.

Migrants at Work: Unravelling the Web of Employment Law for New Arrivals

The law does not operate effectively if it is not properly understood. Yet few people have the skills to understand the legal protections that apply to them. This is particularly significant in the area of work, that part of life from which many derive a sense of financial security, self-esteem, social cohesion and identity. It is amplified where the law is drafted in a language that is not one’s own.

Secure income and employment conditions are key social determinants of health. For new Australians, these are also key contributors to a successful settlement in a new place. Yet members of newly arrived communities often experience poor employment conditions, while knowing little about their rights at work.

Western Community Legal Centre (previously Footscray CLC) is working to bridge this gap through its Employment Law Project. It has trained six bilingual community trainers on employment rights to in turn educate their communities about their rights.

Read more about this project in ‘Migrants at Work: Unravelling the Web of Employment Law for New Arrivals‘.

No work, no worth?

When we talk about loss, and grief, we only ever rarely talk about loss of identity. This is curious, given it is such a pervasive form of loss in our affluent society, with many possible triggers:the loss of work (injury, redundancy, or retirement), home (emigration), a relationship (family violence), or health (disability, mental illness). I am uncertain that we have adequate language to talk it through, or understand its complexity.However, this article is a good starting point for discussion. It also names some of the more pervading, and unhelpful, public attitudes to our clients. For those interested in reading more in this area, you may like Marc Auge’s ‘No Fixed Abode‘, a brief and thoughtful fictional ethnography of homelessness.

The Power To Persuade

People who are unemployed can be made to feel worthless, stigmatised, unwanted and lonely. Tracey Robbins discusses how we can seek to understand the loss of identity and loneliness people can feel as a result of being unemployed, and reset the way we work together as a community to help people find a way out of loneliness and possibly, find work too.

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On embracing failure: the paradox of public interest lawyering

(This is an amended version of a brief presentation given at Progress 2015 Legal Drinks).

You have likely spent today talking about progress, campaigning, and changing the world.  So  what then, in your view, is the first step to making a more meaningful impact with your work? What is your first step to changing the world? A common response to this question is that in order to change the world, you first need to change yourself. I agree with this, wholeheartedly. And yet, what does it actually mean? It could  mean anything, and so risks meaning nothing. This leaves us with the same question: as a public interest lawyer, where do you start?

I am going to suggest a first step that may be, for some, controversial. I am going to suggest that the first step to being a more impactful public interest lawyer is to embrace risk, failure, and uncertainty. I want to talk about mistakes.

I don’t say this out of the blue, but on the basis of some research I have been working on for the last four months. My research focus is on best practice strategic lawyering: how are public interest lawyers doing their work, what works (and what doesn’t), and how can we do our work better, particularly around holding institutions to account? This  has meant that I have spent the last four months speaking to close to 100 lawyers, academics, and thinkers across Victoria, in Sydney, and Darwin, and in seven international locations, about these very questions.

One surprisingly bright thread that emerged from these discussions was that the lawyers who I perceived to be doing the most impactful work were also those that were most comfortable with talking about their mistakes. They were the lawyers who were most willing to run the cases that were not clear-cut, in which there was a real risk of not pleasing everyone, of having to make difficult decisions, and so, ultimately, of failing at any number of precarious junctures along a litigation path. When (what could be described by some as) mistakes were made, these lawyers chose to reflect on this meaningfully, humbly, and learn from it. They did not obfuscate, self-aggrandise, or deflect.

One example of this is the work of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), in Johannesburg, in responding to the Mapungubwe mining project over the last five years. Mapunguwe is a listed World Heritage Site and national park in the very north of South Africa, just near Botswana and Zimbabwe. It is a broad, sweeping savannah, which once lay at the centre of the Mapungubwe kingdom between approximately 900 and 1300 AD. This was the first established modern African empire, labelled by archaeologists as one of the most complex societies in southern Africa at the time. The site contains numerous ruins from this era, as well as diverse fauna and flora. It is supported by a buffer zone.

In 2008, an Australian-based company called the Coal of Africa (CoA) applied to mine for coal steam less than 7km north east of the Mapungubwe boundary. This was predicted to have severe implications for the cultural and environmental value of the site. CALS, together with the community campaigning group Save Mapungubwe Coalition, has over the last five years worked to at first oppose, and then mitigate, the effects of the mine on the area. They have succeeded in stalling mining operations, decreasing CoA’s share price, ensuring that CoA bear a cost for non-compliance, brought CoA under a greater regulatory regime, shifted mining operations further away from the Mapungubwe boundary, and, eventually, played an ongoing and meaningful role in the mine’s governance and oversight through their seat on the Environment Committee.

But not everything has worked. Most evidently CALS didn’t, through its initial litigation strategy, stop the mining. CALS and the Coalition commenced negotiations with CoA in 2012, but this stalled shortly thereafter due to a revelation that the company had withheld critical information. CALS’s resources were massively drained by the up-front litigation effort. There were miscommunications not only between the Coalition and CALS and their opponents, but also between CALS and the Coalition. Yet, despite all of this, there is no doubt that the two organisations have played an integral role in ensuring corporate accountability in this case. Interestingly, CALS has chosen not hide its reflections on the Mapungubwe story, but to write about them instead, in a series of publications.

One of my favourite examples of this is its Community Engagement Policy, which sets out some CALS reflections on how to work with community groups, in light of its Mapungubwe experience. CALS has also extracted out of this experience the inadequacies of the environmental regulatory regime, and made recommendations for how the environmental governance system should be amended to make it simpler and easier to navigate for civil society. CALS’s explicitly reflective approach to its work is one factor that makes it good at what it does. Its willingness to talk about what could be characterised as mistakes means that we can all learn from them, of course.

But there is something more to mistakes than the way we relate them back to success. One wonderful and talented writer that I met on my travels, Eve Fairbanks, writes this:

 “I think failure has a special beauty to it. Like a piece of furniture that falls apart, a mistake reveals more of its construction – of the efforts and motivations of the mistake-maker – than a success does”.

I love this. Like patches on an overcoat, failure has its own unique qualities. And, as Kathryn Schulz suggests in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by simply acknowledging failure’s distinct (and inevitable) essence we may actually open ourselves to a wider breadth of experience and emotions. Embracing failure can feed our imagination, give us cause to laugh, and ultimately make us less arrogant, more empathetic, says Fairbanks. Which, in the legal world, is always a valuable thing. And so, one step toward being a more impactful public interest lawyer, or social change campaigner, may well be to get comfortable with failure.

It is a wonderful paradox, that in the perfectionistic legal profession, we might actually be better at our work if we can only hold risk in our hands. And skate so close to failure that sometimes, inevitably, we tumble into icy waters. American entrepreneur and venture capitalist Auren Hoffman says that in order to grow, you should aim to fail 20% of the time. Less than this and you’re not growing, but more than this and you may get disheartened. In law, and particularly in litigation, you may not choose to give yourself that leeway. However, there is always room to move. I would suggest creating a space in which you can experiment in failure, and see where it takes you.

A tale of CLC innovation: “The Future of Access to Justice… Starts in Werribee?”

The future has always been about outer space. Now, well, it just may lie in outer Melbourne. Werribee, in the City of Wyndham, to be precise. Through an innovative project spearheaded by Shorna Moore of the Wyndham Legal Service, the Werribee Magistrates’ Court and surrounds may become the site for the first integrated justice precinct in Victoria.

To read more about this project, see this article I wrote for Right Now magazine.

Systems of measurement have a productive power in our lives

Systems of measurement have a productive power in our lives. Here David Beer writes that “it is crucial that we see metrics as being central to the power dynamics of the age in which we live“. The discussion around metrics is fascinating, and I am interested in the measurement of impact and influence in particular.

However, I am at the same time wary that an over-reliance on metrics risks oversimplifying a complex world, and so dulling our ability to grapple with it. It is interesting to contrast Beer’s article with the views of Greek Finance Minister, Yannis Varoufakis, for example, who talks passionately here about how “one of the great evils of our time, is this penchant to quantify unquantifiable variables.” And to consider carefully what metrics we choose to prioritise, and why. See for example this article about David Cameron measuring the “wrong type of happiness“. And finally, to think about how through metrics we might focus on past and future, without looking at what’s going on right now. See the end of this wonderful article about characterising change, and history, for example, in which Ian Mortimer writes about how at the turn of the twentieth century, developments in technology allowed us to better predict the future. And so, how it was at this point that “the future” started to take on a dominant role in public discourse.

There are certainly diverse and evolving attitudes towards the use of metrics, in their various guises, in society. It is interesting to consider to what extent we might want them to guide decision-making, in which areas of life, and why. I am still undecided.