Making a difference at the coalface of legal need

Making a difference at the coalface of legal need

Monday, 1 March 2021
Sonya McDonald sitting at her desk while wearing a black jacket and a white polka dot dress and holding a pen.
Sonya McDonald, Sonya McDonald Legal

Sonya’s journey

Sonya McDonald’s journey into the law has been indirect, but no less impactful and satisfying than her colleagues who took a straight path to their legal careers. Now a sole practitioner with her own practice - Sonya McDonald Legal - her circuitous legal route was born out of non-legal beginnings.

‘Upon finishing year 12, I completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in history and archaeology. I loved the course, but lacked direction when I entered the workforce. I held various administrative roles, before taking a role as a hearing officer in the Guardianship List of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

‘Working at VCAT inspired me to see law as a career path, so I completed my law degree on a part-time basis while working at VCAT, and then at State Trustees, where I helped to administer the affairs of people with disabilities,’ said Sonya.

Subsequent roles included being a Judge’s Associate at the County Court, prosecution roles at the Department of Primary Industries and Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior legal officer with the Child Protection Unit, Department of Human Services and undertaking child protection and family law work with Heinz and Partners in Ballarat before moving into private practice.

The attraction of legally aided work

Having undertaken legally aided work since 2011 and a practitioner on our child protection, family violence and youth crime panels, Sonya is passionate about legal aid work, and sees first-hand the vital role it plays in the community.

‘Having access to justice is a fundamental right for all citizens and our society can only be stronger when all members of our community are able to access legal assistance, regardless of their personal circumstances.

‘Undertaking legally aided work also enables me to do work that makes a difference in the lives of the people I serve. This is particularly rewarding for clients who experience disadvantage within society including the challenges of living with disability or mental illness, suffering from addiction, being the victim of family violence, experiencing childhood trauma or encountering disadvantage by having a culturally or linguistically diverse background.

‘These people are frequently more limited in their options to seek assistance and may well feel disempowered.’

Having a front row seat to people transforming their lives is a powerful experience, and a driving motivation for Sonya when advocating for her clients.

‘There is nothing more satisfying than seeing clients who have made changes in their lives for the betterment of themselves and their families, and knowing in some way you have played a role in supporting them to make those changes.

‘I especially like representing young people, to help them understand their legal issue, recognise their legal options and ensure their voice is heard.

‘It fills me with optimism and pride when my young clients overcome challenges within their life, and move on with positive plans for their future.’

As for the personal and professional attributes needed to be a good panel practitioner, Sonya believes there are five non-negotiables.

‘Compassion and respect for clients who frequently come from a background of vulnerability and disadvantage, excellent communication skills to deal with a diverse group of people from the judiciary to people from troubled backgrounds, honesty and integrity to have difficult conversations with clients, persistence and ability to persevere in protracted cases and solid organisational skills when many matters are being juggled in a duty list,’ she said.

Advice for panel practitioners undergoing an audit

While some practitioners see an audit as an imposition on their time, Sonya takes an alternative view.

‘The quality audit process gave me an opportunity to reflect on my practice, and the processes that I have in place, and this enabled me to not only adhere to VLA’s requirements for being a panel practitioner, but also provide the best service to my clients as possible.

‘I appreciated the feedback provided through the audit process which positively reinforced what I was doing well within my practice, and valued feedback on areas in which I could improve.’

Having recently passed our audit with flying colours, Sonya has plenty of useful advice for her panel practitioner colleagues.

‘The checklist provided by Victoria Legal Aid after you have been selected to be audited is very handy, and I encourage panel practitioners to use it.

‘It allowed me to work methodically through the information I needed to provide whilst preparing my files for submission, and ensured I didn’t overlook any information that was required.

‘Also, while you may know your files inside out, don’t assume that the auditor will see it the same way, and ensure that your files are in a clear and logical format for the auditor to work through.’

Quality Assurance Manager Anthony Benka said Sonya was a great example of how panel practitioners should organise their files and record dealings with their clients.

‘Sonya’s files and documents were clear, detailed and comprehensive, and all supporting documents including incoming and outgoing communication with clients were arranged in chronological order, which greatly assisted our auditors.

‘She is a strong example of a panel practitioner exercising best practice in file management and client service,’ said Anthony.

More information

Read about the Section 29A panels conditions.

For more information contact the Quality Audit team on (03) 9269 0605 or (03) 9269 0558.

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