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Non-profit practice fills the gap

Non-profit practice fills the gap

The first Australian non-profit law practice aimed at providing more affordable and 'compassionate' legal service is expanding.When Carolyn Devries opened her new office space in 2009 with no…

The first Australian non-profit law practice aimed at providing more affordable and 'compassionate' legal service is expanding.

When Carolyn Devries opened her new office space in 2009 with no other staff, no client base and no prior experience in running a law practice, her dream of building the first non-profit law practice seemed "overly optimistic".

But now, New Way Lawyers' office in Corinda, Qld has five full-time lawyers, four administrative staff, two volunteer law clerks, an active client base of around 160 clients and a strong referral network with mediators, counsellors and accountants. Plus, the practice is now opening another office in Brisbane, with a view to expanding practice throughout Qld and Australia.

Operating on a fee-for-service basis, New Way Lawyers (NWL) is self funded, designed only to cover operating costs, and does not require an eligibility test unlike government funded legal services.

With a growing number of the middle class ineligible for legal aid, yet unable to afford the fees charged by commercial practices, Devries said non-profit practices address the disparity in the legal services market and help people falling through the gap.

Devries, CEO and principal lawyer of NWL, is currently investigating into legislation in different Australian states which might hinder the process of setting up further non-profit legal services.

"A lot will rest on the national profession reform framework and how that sits with incorporated legal practice. We operate under Queensland legislation so it's quite state specific," she said.

In 2007, the passing of the Legal Profession Act (Qld) allowed law firms the option to operate an incorporated legal practice and structure as a public company limited by guarantee - the common entity type used by charitable organisations.

The practice model, according to Devries, has tended to attract more junior lawyers and those with a "passion for this kind of work". The five lawyers at the Corinda practice - which focuses on family, estate and criminal law - come from diverse legal backgrounds with salaries on par with the rest of the profession.

"The reality is a lot of older lawyers are already partners of firms and it's hard to attract them away. We get a lot of junior lawyers," said Devries.

Unlike community legal clinics, NWL provides service to clients right up to court representation and does not have to meet onerous daily billing targets, which according to NWL family and criminal lawyer, Philippa Miller-ibos, means more time for "compassion, innovation and creativity".

"Because there is less focus on billable hours you can really take the time to think through a particular situation and develop and tailored legal approach," she said.

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