9 November 2022

Interview #2 – Raquel Dos Santos

Raquel has dedicated most of her professional life to exploring how legal services can increase access to justice and address system-level issues to improve the justice sector. Before joining Everyday Justice, Raquel worked on commercial and pro bono matters at Allens, and in not-for-profit organisations, Justice Connect and LawRight, leading court-based services in a range of jurisdictions in QLD, VIC, NSW, the ACT and TAS. Raquel has a background in business management, has completed post graduate studies in innovation and design thinking, and holds legal qualifications in Australia and Brazil, where she started her legal career in the public service.

Raquel spoke to Olivia Roney about the case that first inspired her to work in social justice, being a mentor to students and young practitioners, and why pro bono work ‘is chicken soup for the soul’.

OLIVIA: Raquel, tell us about the work that you do with Everyday Justice.

RAQUEL: Everyday Justice is a charitable law firm launched in 2021as a philanthropic initiative of Mills Oakley. We are committed to providing accessible legal services on a national scale to the Australian missing middle. We assist clients with everyday civil law problems like employment, housing, debt, financial abuse, and with matters we consider to be in the public interest. Everyday Justice operates a national internship program in partnership with the College of Law, and we are proud to offer a supportive environment for law graduates and young practitioners to practice in social justice law. We acknowledge our wonderful volunteers around Australia working towards our common goal of creating a more accessible and fairer legal system for the missing middle.  

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

RAQUEL: Through clinical legal education when I completed my first law degree in Brazil. At the legal clinic attached to our university we met a woman pregnant with a foetus with severe anencephaly. That meant her baby was going to be born without a brain and would only survive for a couple of hours. Our client needed help to apply to the court for an order to terminate the pregnancy. She was really distressed because she didn’t want to go through the trauma of having a funeral for her baby just days after it was born.

My peer and I worked hard with a law professor to develop a legal strategy and find a pro bono expert. It was a novelty case at that time in Brazil, and the first application of that type in our State. I recall one afternoon our professor told us that the Judge hearing our application wanted to see us in his chambers. It was nerve racking – two law students walking into a Judge’s chambers – we didn’t know what to expect. The Judge told us informally that he was impressed by how we briefed the medical expert, and that we had “dropped a hot potato on his lap” so he needed some time to consider the case.

By the time that the court granted an order to terminate our client’s pregnancy, she was about six months pregnant. Our client had decided that she was going to give birth to the baby and donate the baby’s organs, which was a dignified way of dealing with a traumatic situation. In the end, we helped create a legal precedent to help other women in similar situations.

It was a great experience to work at the legal clinic helping the local community. I understood very early that pro bono was always going to be a part of my legal career, and I would always create space for public interest matters.

OLIVIA: From there, how did you get to be at Everyday Justice?

RAQUEL: My legal career has not been a linear journey but has surely been an interesting one. Initially I worked for a State Supreme Court in Brazil executing court orders and preparing reports for a pool of Judges in civil law proceedings. I was very young then, and had a lot of responsibility in that role, which helped me develop very quickly. After I immigrated to Australia, I worked in business development and other areas for years, because I was not yet admitted to practice law here. I then completed a Juris Doctor and joined Allens for about four years. It was a great experience to work at a top tier firm with such a strong pro bono culture. I ended up coordinating the Allens pro bono practice in Brisbane and working in really interesting pro bono and commercial matters. 

In 2014 I left Allens to join the not-for-profit sector, first working at LawRight and then joining Justice Connect in 2018. I have since led a range of court-based programs designed to support people trying to access the justice system with little or no legal help. I feel privileged to have worked with so many stakeholders in the pro bono and community sectors, the Judiciary, Governments, institutional and consultant researchers, and to have contributed to end-to-end legal service design, delivery and evaluations over these years. I think that I had a much broader exposure to the law and our legal system, than I would have if I only worked in private practice.

I took 6 months off to travel after Melbourne lockdowns, and early this year I was in Brazil about to go on a survival camp in the Amazon Forest when Luke Geary and Amy Burton invited me to apply for the acting Managing Lawyer role at Everyday Justice. I knew straight away that this role was very aligned with my skills, experiences, and interests, and I am very happy to be able to cover for Amy while she is on parental leave. Everyday Justice is essentially the pro bono arm of Mills Oakley, and it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to lead such a strong pro bono practice and team at Everyday Justice.

OLIVIA: In those experiences and where you are now, how do you talk about your “why” as a social justice practitioner? 

RAQUEL: I have had excellent mentors and have been particularly inspired by resilient and resourceful women. I don’t come from privilege. So, I know how strong support networks in our families and communities can make all the difference in someone’s life. Whether I practiced law in an international top tier firm, or in a ‘grass roots’ local community project, I also always relied on my lived experience – as a woman, immigrant, worker, tenant, etc – for a deeper understanding of the law and of my role as a social justice practitioner.  

I am very grateful for having started my legal career in Australia in a strong commercial practice, but I always knew that it was just not enough for me. There was something missing for me in those purely commercial matters. Pro bono work was the part of my work that I enjoyed the most, so I decided to dedicate myself full-time to pro bono and community projects. I was also always interested in how to design, set up and evaluate legal services, and wanted to have a broad area of practice. I now feel like I can meaningfully contribute to a range of legal practice areas and legal research and design projects.

OLIVIA: Turning then to Everyday Justice, can you describe a typical day, if there is one?

RAQUEL: A typical day will usually involve a mix of legal practice supervision, stakeholder engagement, planning and progressing priority projects, and as in any leadership role, finding and supporting capabilities in people. I might start my day by discussing with lawyers and interns the conduct of legal matters that we are working on, or will accept, and delegating and reviewing legal work. I also have my own load of client work, legal files to progress and supervise. I enjoy mentoring Law Interns and will supervise a few at any given time. I love seeing legal graduates progressing into confident well-rounded lawyers.

I might then need to respond to those types of issues that a managing lawyer will grapple with to support an effective team — for example, making informed legal practice decisions, considering potential conflicts of interest, signing correspondence, analysing data and reporting on our pro bono practice internally and externally, etc. A managing lawyer or principal lawyer usually has so many competing priorities, that it’s essential to have good task and project management tools in place, and to carve out space to proactively plan and progress projects.  I am also privileged to work directly with the Everyday Justice Board, lifting our gaze and building a vision for the future. Currently, we are starting a legal design project to consider how Everyday Justice might enable participation of corporate and government lawyers in our legal practice. We are committed to creating a pro bono scheme that is specifically designed for in-house legal teams.

OLIVIA: What have been other major learnings from your work with Everyday Justice?

RAQUEL: Everyday Justice is a charity with two very specific objectives: to provide access to justice for the missing middle, and to advance education. I joined Everyday Justice not long ago, in July of 2022, and I quickly learned that Everyday Justice’s objectives and service delivery model are strategically designed to better enable the participation of two key user groups in the legal system: individuals in the Australian missing middle, and the legal profession.

Our partnership with the College of Law helps us to operate a national training program for law graduates and PLT students interested in practising social justice law. Interns at Everyday Justice are either very new or future members of the legal profession, so we play a critical role in supporting young practitioners to better understand the needs and the capabilities of the missing middle. We hope that young practitioners will carry these insights with them to inform future professional experiences.

OLIVIA: What’s your advice for young legal practitioners wanting to get involved in community legal centres and pro bono work?

To be a great legal professional, whether you are in private, community or government practice, it is not sufficient to be technically brilliant. You need to be emotionally intelligent and continuously work on soft skills also. Being involved in community legal centres and pro bono work can help us develop ourselves as lawyers and to expand our networks. And we do all that while we are doing meaningful work.  

Someone said to me once that pro bono work is like chicken soup for the soul. And it really is. When we find organisations that give us opportunities to practice social justice law in a supportive way, it can be a transformative and wonderful experience.

It’s also important to remember that the legal profession can be very demanding. We need to proactively manage our mental health and set healthy boundaries, both at work and in our personal lives, so that we can make pro bono a lifelong contribution. It’s not a sprint, it’s a long race.

Finally, when you ‘make it’ in your legal career, there will come a time when you can pay it forward and create pro bono opportunities for younger practitioners. If you do, you might find  very satisfying to inspire others to learn about the power of pro bono, not only for their clients, but for their own professional and human development.

OLIVIA: What are the ways students can get involved in Everyday Justice?

Internship opportunities and the application link are published on Everyday Justice’s website. We always welcome passionate and dedicated PLT students and young lawyers who want to learn and make a difference.