Where his heart belongs
When Leon Harper first fronted up to the Young Workers Centre (YWC) as a fresh-faced law undergraduate in 2016, he knew next to nothing about trade unions, worker’s rights and employment law. With a dream to pursue a career as a property lawyer, he entered the pro bono placement with curiosity and a plan to leave his comfort zone.
“Studying law at ACU, you’re strongly encouraged to do volunteer work in lots of different areas, and employment law was just something I knew nothing about,” he says. “I did the YWC placement on a bit of a punt to see what it was like, and it ended up being an amazing experience.”
Far from simply being put to work transcribing legal hearings and filling out documents, Leon was given a taste of what it’s like to be a real lawyer.
“Getting so much face-time with the solicitors to work on files in a really deep way was exciting and beneficial,” he says.
“Before the placement, the subjects I enjoyed most at uni were those technical, blackletter areas of law. So I thought, ‘Oh, I really want to help people and I love the community legal sector, but I also love those really technical areas of law. How do I balance this?’ When I discovered employment law, it was the perfect marriage of the two.”
Leon swiftly abandoned his property law dreams and ended up joining YWC as a placement coordinator. Nowadays, he is one of the organisation’s most valued solicitors, with a passion for securing the rights of young Victorian workers.
“That passion is fuelled by all the amazing and inspiring young workers who I come into contact with at YWC,” he says.
“There’s this broad perception that young people are disaffected or apathetic about their rights, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of them have been through incredibly terrible experiences at work, and yet they come to us and say, ‘I just want to make sure that nobody else gets hurt like I did’.”
Leon’s journey to studying law began when his life was at a crossroads of sorts. With a liberal arts degree under his belt, he worked in a range of office jobs but was unsure of his career direction.
“It was just after my daughter was born,” he recalls, “and from a work perspective, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next. But I did know that I was interested in law and I wanted to do something useful.”
In 2013, Leon was part of the first cohort of students at ACU’s Thomas More Law School in Melbourne. He says he was attracted to the law school’s focus on standing up for people in need, and for issues that matter.
“I found that aspect of it quite appealing, the ethos behind the way the law school was being set up with a focus on social justice and giving back to the community,” he says.
ACU law undergraduates are required to complete at least 80 hours of pro bono service during their degree, and many of them opt to assist worthy causes.
Leon is thankful that the program led him to his placement at YWC, an experience that not only shifted his focus within the legal profession, but has also resulted in a long relationship with the organisation. He says that Young Workers Centre could not achieve its aims without student volunteers.
“We rely on our volunteers to do so much of the first-line client interviewing and drafting, so they’re absolutely crucial to the work we do in providing free advice and representation to young workers,” says Leon, who adds that ACU has contributed 46 student volunteers to YWC since 2016, more than any other Victorian law school.
“We also view it as an opportunity to guide these students and show them that they’re valuable members of the profession already, so when they go out and become lawyers after graduating, they can use their positions to make positive change.”
As for Leon, his outstanding performance as a student was recognised in 2018 when he receive the coveted Supreme Court Prize, which honours the top student at each of Victoria’s eight law schools.
He says his main goal in the profession is to stay true to his commitment to giving back.
“There are places for lawyers to help people everywhere – in unions, in firms, in not-for-profits – but for me, the community legal sector is where my heart belongs,” he says. “I want to keep helping people. I think everyone deserves high-quality legal assistance, and I want to do my best to keep providing that.”
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