Swapping the desk for dust

29 January 2014 By Sara Summerbell

Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer Sara Summerbell writes about her recent secondment in the Kimberley_x000D_ _x000D_

Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer Sara Summerbell writes about her recent secondment in the Kimberley

One certainty in a lawyer’s daily life is reading and writing. So when you begin a new matter, instructions not to open a laptop for a week come as somewhat of a surprise.

Amongst a backdrop of red dirt, boab trees and sandstone escarpments, this instruction framed the start of my secondment with Jawun in the East Kimberley, Western Australia.


Jawun is a not-for-profit organisation that channels corporate and philanthropic resources into Indigenous development across Australia from Cape York to the Kimberley. As part of this, it partners organisations working with local Indigenous communities with employees from Australia’s blue chip companies and law firms.

Matching employees’ skills and experience to a project for six weeks, secondees share knowledge and expertise with a group working to improve economic and social outcomes for Indigenous communities.  

Herbert Smith Freehills is one such partner that offers its employees the chance to participate in a Jawun secondment. A key aspect of the firm’s Reconciliation Action Plan is that all members of society should have equal access to opportunity and justice. Partnering with Jawun is, however, also recognition of the value of practical reconciliation. 

The East Kimberley region is one of Australia’s most vast and remote. Roughly the size of Victoria, it has a population of about 12,000 people, approximately half of whom are Aboriginal.

In August-September 2013, I was seconded to a new organisation, East Kimberley Job Pathways (EKJP) in Kununurra, approximately 37 kilometres from the Western Australia/Northern Territory border. 

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Commencing operations on 1 July 2013, EKJP provides employment services and training opportunities across the East Kimberley and Halls Creek/Tjurabalan regions. EKJP is a joint venture between two local organisations, the Wunan Foundation and the East Kimberley Community Development Employment Projects, which were successful in tendering for the contract to deliver the Federal Government’s Remote Jobs and Communities Program.

Working with the CEO, Sandra Mitchell, I helped to develop EKJP’s employment and human resources structure. Much of the work involved consultation with local employees and the leadership team to ensure development of user-friendly materials and, ultimately, Board approval for the broader framework.

As a corporate lawyer specialising in employment law, the type of work was not unfamiliar. However, helping EKJP develop materials for a new entity, while working with people with different backgrounds and cultures across a vast region was a new challenge.

EKJP has employees across the region from Halls Creek on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert and Wyndham on the Cambridge Gulf to communities such as Warmun and Kalumburu.

Visiting a local office could mean an eight hour drive through Miriuwung, Gajerrong, Gija or Djaru country or a chartered flight, while borrowing the work car might mean driving a ‘troopy’ or troop carrier.

Consultation might involve a yarn at an outbuilding or visiting the art centre where local Aboriginal women create paintings as part of the remote jobs and communities program.

Needs of an organisation may vary and ways to approach solutions may differ to conventional practices in urban, corporate Australia.

Take a step back

Rather than launching into action mode from day one, a chance to listen, observe and reflect meant that the laptop was later opened with an appreciation of the region and its challenges.

Engaging with the community, such as volunteering at the East Kimberley Aboriginal Achievement Awards, was also an important way to develop understanding and forge rapport with locals.

Like any legal work, pro bono work is a combination of intellectual precision, practical thinking and enthusiasm. Working on-the-ground serves to magnify this. It offers an opportunity to make a genuine difference, gain a better appreciation of the issues and a deep respect for those working in the region with a commitment to sustainable change.

Today, pro bono matters reflect the changing nature of work in the legal profession. Here, there is a focus on practical engagement and calling upon your abilities as a practitioner at a grassroots level. In a global environment with an increasing emphasis on cross cultural awareness and understanding, this approach will only continue to grow in importance. 

Sara Summerbell is a senior associate at Herbert Smith Freehills. She is pictured (left) with Celeste Dally

Swapping the desk for dust
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