Ngalaya Stories: with Yuin and Bidjigal Legal Aid Solicitor, Kimberley Wilson
With Yuin and Bidjigal Legal Aid Solicitor, Kimberely Wilson
Yuin and Bidjigal woman, Kimberely Wilson, shares her legal career journey and her experiences of being a mature age law student with Ngalaya.
Kim grew up in the La Perouse Aboriginal Community in Sydney’s south east. After having worked in the Native Title Jurisdiction and the Federal Court of Australia, Kim enrolled in a Bachelor of Laws at the University of New England. She was in her late twenties. She completed her degree in 4 and a half years whilst working full time at the Federal Court of Australia.
Kim is currently a senior solicitor at Legal Aid NSW in the Aboriginal Services branch.
You can find a (refined) transcript of Kim and Eliza’s (Ngalaya’s Project Officer) conversation below.
Eliza: Let’s start with a brief introduction. Can you tell us about yourself, your mob, and your job position?
Kim: I’m Kimberely Wilson. I’m a Yuin and Bidjigal woman and I grew up in Sydney’s south east, in the La Perouse Aboriginal Community. I’m a solicitor at Legal Aid and I work in the Aboriginal Services branch. We work across all policy and practice areas to ensure that we’re providing culturally appropriate services to Aboriginal people in New South Wales.
Eliza: It’s great to meet you. That must be a great job at Legal Aid. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Kim: It is great. I’m new to the role, so I’m still getting my feet. It is really interesting to work across all the practice areas – crime, family and civil. It’s more of a policy and strategic role, so that is a bit different to what I was doing previously.
I’m now working on broader issues, such as cultural safety, service delivery, eligibility for legal aid and that sort of thing.
Eliza: So, what did your legal career pathway look like? Prior to this, what were you doing?
Kim: So, I guess my legal career is fairly new. I have only been practicing for about three and a half years. It is really focused on working with and for Aboriginal communities.
Prior to becoming a lawyer, I worked in the Native Title jurisdiction in case management roles at the Native Tribunal and in the Federal Court of Australia. I have been working in the legal sector for a number of years but not necessarily in legal roles.
Since becoming a lawyer, I have primarily worked in the social justice space, as a civil lawyer or in policy roles.
I think I have always been drawn to looking at the drivers that cause disadvantage for Aboriginal people and communities and trying to identify ways to address those issues. That is where my career has been leading.
Eliza: Can you tell us a bit more about your work in the Native Title Tribunal and in the Federal Court? How did you get into those roles?
Kim: I stumbled into it, to be honest. I completed an Aboriginal traineeship through the Australian government and was employed by Centrelink to do contract management in their Indigenous Australia Contract Management training program. I worked at Centrelink for two years in a corporate support kind of role.
It wasn’t really something that I could see myself doing long term and I saw a role pop up at the Native Title Tribunal as a receptionist. I contacted the Tribunal and told them that I work at Centrelink and asked how they feel about me transferring over. I went for an interview and went across and worked in the Tribunal as a receptionist. I then worked my way up to a case management role.
Eliza: So, did you study law prior to working at Centrelink?
Kim: No, I didn’t go straight into law school from high school. I went to a really small high school that focussed more on sport than academics. I think in my final year of high school there were only 20 of us doing the HSC and maybe two of us were interested in heading to university.
I did always want to be a lawyer. But I just didn’t get the marks get into law school and I didn’t really get the level of support to figure out how to go down that pathway.
Instead, I got into an Arts degree at the University of Sydney and I majored in Aboriginal Studies. That degree was a really hard slog. I didn’t love it. I couldn’t see a clear picture of where it would take me in my career. So, I ended up taking a couple of years off and that is when I started working at Centrelink and eventually at the Native Title Tribunal.
Eventually, I went back to the Arts degree but it took me seven years to complete it.
It was not until I began working at the Federal Court that I started really thinking about that legal career again and I just thought I would just apply for law school and see how it goes. I put in an application with the University of New England and I was accepted into the Graduate Entry Bachelor of Laws program. I completed that over about 4 and a half years while working full time at the Federal Court.
Eliza: Wow, good on you! That is also a hard slog!
Kim: It was! But it was much more interesting. And, I think being a mature age student, having worked for a few years before doing that, I had the organisational skills needed to get through it.
I don’t know if I would have survived as a high school student. Maybe, I would have because I have always been interested in it. But there was a very big difference between my motivation for the Arts degree and the Law degree.
Eliza: So when you graduated from law, did you continue at the Federal Court? Or, were you interested in doing a clerkship or a grad program?
Kim: I stayed at the Federal Court initially. In my last year or two, I worked in one of the Judge’s chambers and did an Associateship to develop some skills. I used that to complete my practical legal training. Afterwards, I moved into a court administrative role where I allocated work to judges under the court’s National Court Framework.
I had to make a decision whether or not to continue down that court administration path or whether I should try my hand at legal practice.
I applied for Legal Aid’s Solicitor Talent Pool and I got a call back at that moment in time when I was trying to figure out which path to go. I decided that if I didn’t try legal practice at that point, I probably never would and I might regret it.
So my first proper legal job was as – what I called myself – a “baby solicitor”. I basically went straight in as a solicitor in the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities. So, no grad program or anything.
In that role, I was responsible for providing legal services to the Moree Aboriginal Community and to Aboriginal women in custody at Silverwater’s Women’s Correctional Centre.
The role included providing legal assistance to our most vulnerable and disadvantaged clients through outreach, community engagement and community legal education. That was definitely a jump into the deep end of legal practice. But, it was very rewarding.
Eliza: It’s really inspiring to speak to someone, like yourself, who did not go straight down the typical legal pathway. You’re a reminder that it doesn’t matter what stage you are in your life, studying law and being a lawyer is always an option.
Kim: You know, I didn’t have the specific legal experience – like the typical ‘lawyer’ experience – when I started my first job. But, because I had worked with Aboriginal people and communities and worked in a court setting, I was able to bring different skills. I didn’t come in, you know, fresh out of law school with no work experience at all, I had 10 years behind me. I probably had a bit of an advantage in that sense.
Eliza: How have your lived experiences impacted your work?
Kim: My lived experiences have definitely impacted my work. My identity is intrinsically linked to my culture. On that basis, I think I can relate to my clients.
I work really hard to engage in deep listening and to allow my clients the time and space to share their stories. Listening helps build that relationship of mutual respect and trust.
Having that level of understanding and experience, however, can also be a bit of a double edged sword. It can be hard, particularly when working with our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Being exposed to that trauma on a regular basis can trigger your own trauma that you may not even realise is there.
Eliza: And how do you manage that when these traumas come up?
Kim: I debrief a lot with my supervisor or my colleagues because many of them experience the same things. Sometimes, you have to take a bit of time off. I think putting mechanisms in place to protect yourself is also important.
Very early on in my practice, I was working on country, providing legal services. I was working on the phone advice roster where I would take back-to-back calls from Stolen Generation survivors. When I would come back to the office on Friday, I would be very exhausted and a bit of a mess. So, I built in a strategy for myself. Whenever I went out to Community to run intensive advice programs for a week, I would take the Friday off as a mental health day to take a step back and reset. That seemed to work for me.
I think also speaking to Counsellors is helpful. It’s important to look after yourself. Sometimes we don’t get it right.
We are very grateful to Kim for sharing her journey and her personal experiences with us.
Stay tuned for more stories from First Nations lawyers and law students across NSW and the ACT!