5 Minutes with Stephanie Puris, recipient of The College of Law Pro Bono Award

Posted on May 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm | pro bono

Stephanie Puris, a dispute resolution lawyer, specialising in insolvency and general commercial litigation from King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), was recently honoured with The College of Law Pro Bono Award at the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Awards.

Stephanie also heads up a team of 120 lawyers from KWM and the firm’s clients in her role as coordinator of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre/KWM Cyber Project. The team provides pro bono legal advice to children and their advocates on issues such as cyber bullying and family violence.

As Stephanie is also a graduate of The College of Law’s Practical Legal Training Program, we thought we would catch up with her to see how she became involved in pro bono law, and what advice she has for other graduates.

What attracted you to a career in law?

I’d like to say that I always wanted to be a lawyer and was driven by that, but actually I always wanted to go into Marketing and along the way have found myself practising law.

Prior to starting university I undertook an Advanced Diploma in Business (Marketing and Public Relations) which included a course on Business Law. I was really interested by this subject, and decided to go on to study a B. Commerce (Marketing) and B. Laws at the University of Wollongong. I actually had always intended to go into Marketing, and not become a lawyer. However, I undertook a clerkship with KWM to see what life as a lawyer was like and really enjoyed it. Here I am several years later still practising law.

Had you always planned to contribute in a pro bono capacity?

I don’t recall ever setting out to contribute in a pro bono capacity, although I do recall that in my first few months at KWM the various pro bono projects that were on offer to get involved in were extremely interesting and that is what drew my attention. From there I took advantage of all opportunities in the pro bono space, which I could fit around my commercial practice.

I don’t really view pro bono work being that different from my usual practice. I see them as quite complementary to each other. Often pro bono work provides you with opportunities to progress skills which you might not get to for a while in a large firm. For example, you often have greater responsibility on matters, manage teams across the various offices and have great contact with clients. I am certain that my involvement in pro bono work has enhanced a number of skills that I use in my every day commercial practice, especially my project management and communication skills.

How did you become involved in the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre/KWM Cyber Project?

Within the first couple of months of starting as a graduate in 2010, I became a volunteer in the KWM/NCYLC Cyber Project . Towards the end of 2010, an opportunity arose to apply for a 6-month full time secondment to NCYLC. I had been very inspired during my sessions in the project that I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss out on. I was seconded to NCYLC from February 2011 to August 2011. Upon returning from secondment I took over the coordination of the Sydney aspect of the NCYLC Project and in 2012 I became the National Coordinator.

My involvement with NCYLC has provided such great opportunities to advocate from children and young people on a national and international arena. I have had the chance to assist in drafting reports to various United Nations Committees as well as submissions to Senate Committees various proposed legislation and amendments, including the National Children’s Commissioner Bill.

What is most fulfilling about your role in the project?

Children and young people face a number of practical barriers to access legal advice and services, especially those in rural and regional parts of Australia. NCYLC provides such great service in the “Lawmail” facility which allows the young person to send an email through to the Centre and obtain legal information and/or advice. KWM has partnered with NCYLC in this project since 2007 to enable the Centre to answer all of the Lawmails sent in by their young clients. Without the assistance of the lawyers who volunteer it would be near to impossible for the Centre to answer all these questions.

The most fulfilling part is that we are providing advice and assistance directly to children and young people who are often unable to access such services and to help them navigate through dense law.

What has been your greatest career highlight to date?

In the same week as being named as a winner for the 30 under 30 Pro Bono Award, I was also jointly named the WA Lawyer of the Year (less than 5 years’ experience) with my colleague Jessica Bowman, who is also a graduate of the Practical Legal Training Program. Jess and I were nominated by the Young Lawyers Committee for our pro bono efforts in promoting access to justice and human rights within KWM and the Perth profession.

The Award recognises outstanding young lawyers who make a contribution over and above what might reasonably be expected through paid legal employment, and make a particularly noteworthy contribution to the WA legal profession.

It was an amazing career moment to win two awards within a matter of days. What was more of an honour was that the recognition was for work that I love doing and that I could not imagine not being a part of.

Do you find it hard to balance your commercial practice with pro bono work?

As mentioned above I see that pro bono work compliments my commercial practice. It provides an opportunity to advise individuals and connect with the community, a perspective which can be lost when you are acting for multinational companies in large commercial disputes.

I don’t find it hard to balance the two, as KWM is very supportive of the work I undertake and have a great community and pro bono program, KWM in the Community, which provides me with amazing opportunities. The work is also so interesting and rewarding that spending a couple of extra hours here and there is no burden.

What advice do you have for our recent Practical Legal Training students?

Take every opportunity that comes your way. There are several opportunities that I have taken a hold of when they came my way, which involved some risk but the rewards have been amazing.

I took the opportunity of the pro bono secondment that came up, even though that was in lieu of a third rotation within KWM I saw it as a great opportunity to learn new skills as well as to provide support to a community organisation. I also took the opportunity which KWM offered me in 2012 to transfer to the Perth office of the firm. It was quite a leap of faith to move from Sydney across the country but it has been an extremely worthwhile experience – and I am still here over 2 years later!