16 January 2023
Interview #5 – Sandy Cho, Ian Ahn & John Song
The Korean Community Legal Service provides free legal advice to members of the Korean and Korean-Australian community who are unable to easily access legal services.
Three volunteer solicitors from KCLS – Sandy Cho, Ian Ahn and John Song – spoke to Olivia Roney about considering the cultural context of their clients , how growing up in a migrant family has influenced their volunteering choices, and why they volunteer in addition to their day to day practice.
From left to right: Sandy Cho, Ian Ahn, John Song
OLIVIA: Could you tell me a bit about the Korean Community Legal Service and the services that you provide?
SANDY: The Korean Community Legal Centre (KCLS) was first established in May 2011 by our co-founders, Ken Hong, Christina Choi, and Chris Yoo. They realised the need for a more accessible legal service for the Korean and Korean-Australian community. Barriers they identified included limited information about free legal services, language barriers, cost of private legal services, and cultural differences.
The primary focus of KCLS is to provide free legal advice to members of the Korean and Korean-Australian community who are unable to gain access to private legal services. We conduct once a month in-person and telephone-based advice services to clients – not only in Sydney, but also interstate. Our services are provided with the support of the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea. Our service areas include disputes, immigration, employment law (for example, issues with unpaid wages), and some minor criminal matters. We service around eighty to one hundred clients per year, with a slight decline last year due to Covid.
OLIVIA: You mentioned cultural differences being a big barrier to people accessing legal services. What are some of those challenges when you’re assisting clients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and how do you address them?
IAN: KCLS is a Korean-oriented organisation. All our current volunteer lawyers speak Korean, at least conversationally. Many of our clients are Korean nationals, or have Korean background. In turn, we are often required to consider the cultural context of factual circumstances and I often find this isn’t always easy.
It is well known that any formal proceeding can get expensive very quickly, yet very time consuming to see it going anywhere, so if possible, we encourage our clients to engage in ADR to save cost, time, stress, and indeed their effort.
But when it comes to negotiation, we usually find that culture and human elements play a significant role. For example, if there is a dispute between two Korean people, factors like age can be an important consideration for us, in thinking about how to best encourage the other party to come forward for a settlement talk. In contrast, if say a client of ours is having difficulty communicating with the other party because of language barrier, difficulty arising out of cultural differences, or at times both – then a common consideration for us would become how our client’s position can be best articulated. It is about seeing that broader context of what our clients are going through and understanding exactly where their frustration is coming from. I’d say that is one of the biggest challenges.
OLIVIA: John, how did you start volunteering with KCLS?
JOHN: Given that I have a legal background and quite involved in the Korean community generally, it made sense to be part of the Korean Community Legal Centre. At first, I had this huge confidence issue of whether I could capably advise or consult someone in Korean. And it’s been going okay – I’m still surviving, I’m still doing it!
The work means a lot to me. My family and I immigrated here nearly thirty years ago. We’ve been in various situations where something was wrong and legal support wasn’t there. Like most migrant families, those situations were quite common. There’s a world out there that doesn’t really connect with your own, especially if you can’t speak the language of the people that are supposed to help you. So, it means something to me to be able to stand in that gap.
OLIVIA: What have been some key learnings for you?
JOHN: Well firstly the technical skills—before each consultation we touch base with the supervising lawyer to check that our advice is accurate. There’s a learning curve in that respect because the matters that I consult on through KCLS are quite different to my usual practice.
But more than that, I think it’s also a reminder of the day-to-day difficulties of someone adjusting to a foreign land, which are things I had forgotten about. Just staying connected with that common struggle is something that I learn and gain from more than the technical skills.
OLIVIA: Sandy, what led you to volunteer with KCLS?
SANDY: I started when I was a student volunteer at university. At the time, I was already volunteering at the Redfern Legal Centre, and working there made me realise the gaps in the system – If many people in the Australian community are finding it difficult to obtain proper legal advice and find a service that can give them that advice, what would it be like for members of the Korean and Korean-Australian community who may not speak English? I started to wonder about what sort of difficulties they would be facing. So, I reached out to my fellow Korean-Australian colleagues at university and one of them informed me about KCLS. I reached out, joined as a student volunteer, and I’ve been continuing ever since.
OLIVIA: On that theme, how can students and young practicing lawyers get involved?
SANDY: It’s a very simple process. We normally post advertisements on student Facebook groups and ask for a copy of CV and a brief description of why they want to join the KCLS. This is just to check that their values and understanding of the system aligns with what we want to deliver to clients. Everyone is welcome to apply.
OLIVIA: Ian, what led you to volunteer with KCLS?
IAN: My graduate role was in personal injury law on the plaintiff side where I acted for a number of Korean speaking clients who were injured in one way or another, and I found this quite fulfilling. With that in mind, I started with KCLS and found I relate to many of the problems clients encounter, just coming from a migrant family myself.
OLIVIA: What advice do you have for young lawyers wanting to be involved in community legal centres and pro bono work?
IAN: As part of my law degree, I took an elective where a group of students went on a placement to Magistrates Court Legal Advice Service, a clinic run by the University of Adelaide. I found that very helpful throughout my university days and when I look back now, that’s probably one of those times where I had so much fun and learnt so much. I believe this is quite commonly offered across many unis, so keep an eye out!
SANDY: I practice mainly commercial and corporate law, so there is little sense, if at all, of giving back to the community. For young lawyers and students, I would strongly encourage them to get involved with community legal centres, as it provides a channel where you can give back to the community.
JOHN: In terms of how you can get started, I think start small. Try volunteering once a month. It’s low commitment, and it’s a good break in your day-to-day practice or study. In terms of practical advice—I am also involved with the Marrickville Legal Centre, so depending on where you live, you can just hit up your nearest community legal centre and see if they need help.
Another thing to consider is taking on the challenge. Like I said, before I started volunteering with KCLS, I had some hesitation, thinking, do I have the skills to do this? Not just in terms of my Korean fluency, but also the fact that I am mostly doing civil matters with the KCLS, whereas my day-to-day practice is in criminal law. So backing yourself and having that confidence in knowing that you can still make a valuable practical contribution in someone’s life if you prepare for it. There is a good reward in the efforts that you put in. You just have to start somewhere!
Interested in volunteering with KCLS? Contact the team here.
Sandy works in commercial & corporate practice at H & H Lawyers, dealing with major Korean Australian companies as well as domestic clients. In her student days, Sandy volunteered as a summer-intensive volunteer at the Redfern Legal Centre (2020) and also as a student volunteer at the at the Korean Community Legal Service (KCLS) since 2019. She now serves at KCLS as the Student Volunteer Coordinator at The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea.
Ian works in the assurance practice at PwC Australia, with a focus on banking regulations. Outside work, he puts his consultant hat aside and assists clients at KCLS as a volunteer solicitor. In 2018, Ian completed a placement at the Adelaide Magistrates Court Legal Advice Service facilitated by the University of Adelaide as part of his law degree. Since then, Ian has been an advocate for the importance of access to justice and continues to play a role to date.
John is a Senior Federal Prosecutor for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Prior to that he worked as a solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service in regional NSW, and in private practice in Sydney. John has been volunteering with the KCLS since 2021 and is also a volunteer lawyer with the Marrickville Legal Centre. Fitness, coffee, and hip hop enthusiast, you might spot him power walking to the Sydney Downing Centre, armed with his coffee and AirPods.