8 December 2022
Interview #4 – Allison Caputo
Allison is Practice Director of Client Advice at Women’s Legal Service Queensland. Prior to joining WLSQ, Allison was in private practice as a family lawyer for over 15 years practicing in Sydney, the Gold Coast and Brisbane. Allison is a Queensland Law Society Accredited Specialist in family law and has a Master of Applied Law (Family) from the College of Law. Allison joined the Queensland Law Society as a Councillor in 2019 and continues in this role. As part of her role on QLS Council, she is a member of the Family Law Policy committee and Chair of the Committee of Management.
Allison spoke to Kaylee about what career progression is like in a CLC, the challenges of resuming in-person services post-COVID, and her big decision to leave private practice.
KAYLEE: Could you tell me about the Women’s Legal Service Queensland and the services you provide?
ALLISON: I am Practice Director (Client Advice) at Women’s Legal Service Queensland (WLSQ). I come from a lengthy career in private practice and started at WLSQ earlier this year.
WLSQ has three offices; our primary office is in Annerley and we have offices in Caboolture and on the Gold Coast. Our practice areas are specialised – we focus on family law, domestic violence, and care and protection matters. We also have a small team working in the Counselling Notes Protect program in the criminal law space.
Other services at WLSQ include our Domestic Violence Unit, our Health Justice Partnership Team, our Temporary Visa Pilot Program and our Financial Abuse Prevention Unit.
We are fortunate to have a very experienced social work team. If we identify a client as needing particular social support services, we have our own social workers that we can refer our clients to.
WLSQ fundraising team at Women Lawyers Association of Queensland Awards (WLAQ) event
KAYLEE: Why did you decide to work with the Women’s Legal Service?
ALLISON: I worked at the Family Court of Australia for many years at the beginning of my career. I then spent the last 14 years in private practice, both on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane, always working in family law. I used to volunteer at Women’s Legal Service once a month on a Wednesday evening, and provide advice to clients.
It was a big decision to leave private practice. I got to a point where I wanted to use my skills and experience to help the more vulnerable clients and women in the community. I felt that I was able to do that better here than in private practice.
The biggest reason was just wanting a change in day-to-day practice. I wanted to use my skills in a way that didn’t cost the client.
In private practice, it was satisfying to act for clients and get them a good result, but it was very expensive to get there. I always felt this part of me that said, “it just shouldn’t cost as much as it does to get access to a result.”
I’m currently in a management role at the WLSQ, so I’m not dealing with clients day-to-day, even though I love it when I get the opportunity to do so.
KAYLEE: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
ALLISON: My days are quite varied. As Practice Director I am responsible for how my team delivers certain services to clients, so I am involved in recruitment, training and staff movements within the team. I am ultimately responsible for ensuring that the team meets service delivery obligations under our funding contracts. That means ensuring that delivery of services is both client focused and efficient. However being a CLC where staffing resources are our biggest asset and our biggest challenge, I might have to jump on the phone and provide advice to a client if required. I enjoy being involved in community legal education and as the pro bono coordinator for WLSQ, I am often speaking to stakeholders that want to work with WLSQ to assist us to deliver our services.
KAYLEE: Do you get a lot of interest from law firms around the city about helping out?
ALLISON: We are fortunate to have very strong relationships with our pro bono partners which have been developed over many years. That support includes event participation and sponsorship, volunteering, grants, raising awareness about domestic and family violence and through the donation of goods. Their support assists us to deliver our services to vulnerable women. It was through the assistance of our pro bono partners that we were able to launch the Helpline back in 2015.
Allison at Bridge to Brisbane fun run with the WLSQ team and partner from Minter Ellison
We have a wide network of solicitors in private practice who volunteer their time to provide legal advice to our clients. We could not reach as many women as we do without their support.
I would love to see more family law firms get involved in pro bono work and in particular, taking direct client referrals for our most vulnerable clients. There are still many clients who need more complex legal advice or representation that are not entitled to a grant of aid and who have no capacity to pay a private lawyer.
KAYLEE: What are some of the challenges facing the Women’s Legal Service Queensland?
ALLISON: One of the challenges for us post-COVID was being back in-person. Pre-COVID we held a drop-in clinic twice a week where women could turn up at the door, and could obtain legal advice that night with a volunteer lawyer. It’s been a challenge getting our volunteer lawyers to come back in person rather than delivering advice by telephone. We resumed our drop in clinic in October on Monday nights, and aim to build this up once the word gets out.
I think the other challenge that we face at WLSQ, is supporting our staff through the impact of vicarious trauma. The complexity of domestic violence that you’re dealing with at WLSQ is high. You have to be aware that you’re supporting your staff in that space.
Another challenge is ensuring that your professional staff feel they are getting the necessary professional training and challenges they need. The reality of CLCs versus private practice is that you’re not doing as much court work. So, making sure that there are good professional pathways for lawyers so they want to work here and remain working here as well. Feeling professionally fulfilled, is the way that I would describe it.
KAYLEE: What is the career progression like in a CLC?
ALLISON: I find that solicitors who are attracted to work at WLSQ are those that really want to help vulnerable clients but may also want to balance work with other responsibilities. It’s a good mix of being able to do client work but without some of the more challenging parts of private practice. What I have observed is that the skills that you get in certain areas here are still in demand in private practice.
In terms of career progression, we’ve got a lot of people at the paralegal stage. We get a lot of volunteers that are law students. Then we’ve got a gap at that grad or early solicitor role because we require our advice solicitors to be at least 3 years post admission. We do expect a lot from our solicitors in terms of their knowledge, because they could get any question about family law, child protect, child support, property, parenting, when someone rings our Helpline.
There’s an opportunity for senior solicitors here to do more casework and advocacy. We have a few senior solicitors who have the additional responsibilities of supervision, recruitment, training of staff. It depends on where you’re at in your career, but I think there’s a good opportunity to get really skilled, particularly in the DV and family law parenting space here.
KAYLEE: What advice do you have for young professionals wanting to be involved in community legal centres and pro bono work?
ALLISON: Always look for volunteering opportunities. If you’re studying and want some volunteering experience, we have opportunities in the paralegal space to be involved in duty lawyer work. We send at least two paralegals out to every duty lawyer that we have, and that covers four days a week across three courts.
If you are already a qualified lawyer, we have our volunteer advice team and we always need more. If we do our drop-in clinics twice a week, that requires probably four or five private lawyers to be in here giving advice on each night. So if you’re interested as a qualified lawyer to provide advice to our clients there’s always opportunities, and we will move forward with a hybrid role where you can provide advice by phone or you can come in and volunteer here.
If your firm has a pro bono team, get involved! Firms are always looking for staff to get involved in pro bono work. Particularly in big firms, there are some really awesome opportunities in the pro bono space to get involved. Or if you work in a smaller firm, you could be the champion for pro bono. The benefits are both for staff and for clients. It’s not difficult to measure. I think it always makes people feel good to know they’ve helped someone and it didn’t cost the client any money.