1 February 2023

Interview #7 – Kate Adnams

Kate Adnams is a lawyer in LawRight’s Community and Health Justice Partnerships, which provides pro bono legal assistance to people who receive social support from partnering community organisations. Kate supervises legal assistance provided to children, young people and women who are or have experienced homelessness, sexual violence, and other vulnerabilities. She holds a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Creative Industries from Queensland University of Technology, and is also currently completing her Master of Laws at the University of Melbourne.

Kate spoke to Kaylee Neil about what volunteering taught her that law school didn’t, why she loves working with young people and what it means to draw boundaries at work.



Kate Adnams, Brisbane Youth Service

KAYLEE: How did you first get involved in social justice work? 

KATE: I started volunteering as a university student here in Brisbane at a Community Legal Centre called Caxton Legal Centre. I was at that point in my law degree where I was thinking about next steps and find some experience. There are no lawyers in my family, and I had no idea how to start a legal career. A lot of the guidance we received at university was to go into a clerkship and work in private practice, but I never really wanted to do that, as I was not particularly interested in corporate law subjects at university. Volunteering at Caxton was an excellent experience for me because it meant that I learned the breadth of what community legal centres can do. I also grew up volunteering at different services, doing things like surf lifesaving, and my parents really instilled and ethos that if you have a skill, you should use it to help people. By whatever happened in my life, my skill was in law. There are more interesting talents out there, but that’s the one that I got!

KAYLEE: What drew you to work with the Brisbane Youth Service? 

KATE: When I first joined LawRight I worked in employment. I was talking to young women saying they were being sexually assaulted by their managers at work and were expected to put up with it. It was upsetting that young people don’t realise they are entitled to be treated with respect. That’s something that everyone deserves, whether they work in hospitality, or retail, or as lawyers, or doctors, unemployed or whatever their life circumstances may be.

When I first started working at the Brisbane Youth Service, I was 23 and had just got my practising certificate. One of my first clients was not only born three days before me but was also born in the same hospital. 

It was such a confronting experience to meet your peers and think, “Through some turn of fate, you and I are sitting across the table from each other. I’m your solicitor and you are experiencing homelessness and need some help.”

KAYLEE: I would really like to hear more about the Brisbane Youth Service.

KATE: Our partnership with the Brisbane Youth Service has been run by LawRight since 2008. It’s part of what used to be called the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic. We changed the name because many of our clients don’t identify as experiencing homelessness and have a range of vulnerabilities they need assistance with. We are a small group of solicitors – there’s about five of us – and we provide outreach to services in Brisbane one day a week. Then through the support of national pro bono firms, we continue to assist with casework.

The Brisbane Youth Service is run through partnerships with LawRight, Holding Redlich and King & Wood Mallesons. It’s excellent because with the support of the firms in private practice, we can see significantly more clients. I worked on 213 matters last year – but it only seems impressive because we had a lot of solicitors in private practice providing such immense pro bono support to our service.

KAYLEE: What does a typical day of work look like for you?

KATE: I love that it’s really varied. On a Monday, I’m at the Brisbane Youth Service where I first sit upstairs with the youth workers answering some of their questions. Then there may be a couple of young people who’ve arrived in crisis. I’ll go down and have a quick chat with them and explain what we can assist with.

In the afternoon we have very structured appointments. From around 1pm to 4pm we’ll have a solicitor from one of the private firms sit with me, and we’ll do back-to-back appointments. When they go back to their firm, they take on the carriage of the file and work with the client until the matters are resolved.

Kate with youth workers from the Brisbane Youth Service

Kate and the Brisbane Youth Service youth workers

We also do a lot of other work that isn’t casework. Last week I was training doctors at BYS medical clinic on how to support young people who have experienced domestic violence. Or sometimes we assist other organisations that have clients within our cohort. For example, last week I was also at Helena Jones Correctional Centre, which is a low security women’s prison. I spoke to women there about their rights, support they can get if they have experienced violence, and how to access victims’ assistance or redress.

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: It sounds like very fulfilling work.

KATE: Young people are a wonderful cohort to work with. You have the opportunity to meet with someone who is 17, 18, 19, and they might be in crisis and not realise they are entitled to support. The work we do can be really transformative. I have a client who just finished her teaching degree and is going off to start her first full time job. I also currently have a client who just commenced his law degree. There is a lot of hope working with young people.

KAYLEE: What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your career?

KATE: As wonderful as it is to work with this group, it’s sometimes just heartbreaking. It can become really difficult to continue to work with people when you realise you’re just a small drop in the ocean of their lives. For example, I might meet someone and work with them for six months. But in the grand scheme of things, the stuff that I’m doing might not be that important because they’ve just experienced so much hardship, like sexual violence or child abuse. So, another big challenge is dealing with vicarious trauma. It’s an ongoing challenge for me. 

Then the other thing – and this was particularly difficult during COVID – is to draw boundaries as their solicitor. As a solicitor, I give advice and options to my clients, support them, advocate for them and represent them in matters as required. But at the end of the day, my client might make decisions that I don’t necessarily agree with. It’s not for me to not take that as a personal failing. Sometimes you will tell a client “This is what I think is the best option”, and they might say, “I just don’t want to do that.” And that’s okay, too.

KAYLEE: What support networks have you been able to rely on in that time?

KATE: LawRight is really excellent with providing us support. Because we are working with a cohort of people who are experiencing extreme vulnerability, all the solicitors are very supportive, especially our seniors. If I need to go see a solicitor and tell them I’ve had a rough appointment, they are always understanding of those challenges. We are also fortunate at LawRight to have other supports in place, like group sessions where an external psychologist comes to our office and we get the opportunity to speak about issues that we are finding confronting.  

I also think it’s important to draw strong boundaries between my home life and work life. Which means keeping my hours reasonable and making sure I give myself time to do things I enjoy outside of my work.  This is so important when working with high caseloads and matters that can be distressing. At the end of the day, making sure you are looking after yourself enables you to be a better solicitor.

Queensland Legal Walk, a fundraiser for LawRight – Alexandria, Stephen Grace (Managing Lawyer of the CHJP) and Kate Adnams in Cairns

Queensland Legal Walk, a fundraiser for LawRight – Alexandria, Stephen Grace (Managing Lawyer of the CHJP) and Kate Adnams in Cairns

KAYLEE: What advice do you have for young professionals wanting to be involved in community legal centres and pro bono work? 

KATE: When I was at university, so many of my mates – and I did it myself – who were so hung up about their GPAs. I think at law school we sometimes forget that when you’re sitting down face to face with a young person who is homeless and telling you about their years of childhood abuse, it doesn’t matter that you got a seven in your university subjects. What matters is whether you can speak to that person, make them feel comfortable, safe and explain to them what their options in a way that’s appropriate to that person’s experience and circumstances. This is the hardest skill to learn as a lawyer and in my opinion, one of the most important skills that lawyers should have.

There are so many things that you can pick up from volunteering at community law centres, that you sadly never see in law school. At community legal centres, you often get the opportunity to sit in with more senior lawyers and watch how they run appointments or have the opportunity to do some client work and see how people respond to matters. 

I always say to law students that if we’re looking to take on a new volunteer, I am more interested in the students who have worked in retail or hospitality, or volunteered in their community, or played sports or things like that. That shows that they are happy and excited to work with people, because that’s what the law is, at the end of the day.

If you have the opportunity or means to volunteer at a community legal centre, you should. Look into the opportunities your university provides, for example the UQ Pro Bono Centre. Volunteering is a great opportunity to see what you might be interested in, rather than waiting until you’re in your first grad job. It was through being a student volunteer at Caxton that I got into my current role. There are so many community legal centres in Queensland – you can go on the CLCQ website and find the one that’s closest to you and just send them an email offering to volunteer.

If you’re already practicing in private practice, speak to your pro bono team in the firm to find what opportunities are available. Working in pro bono and the community legal sector is a lot of saying “yes” to put your hand up and make yourself available. I don’t think I would have got to where I am now if my attitude wasn’t, “Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll give it a go. Let’s see how we can do it.” Back yourself and have that little bit of confidence to put yourself out there. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.