Amplifying Black voices in the legal profession: Dawn McNish
Dawn McNish shares her experiences as a Volunteer Administrator at our Free Legal Advice Centre and as a Black legal professional
A crucial part of our work at Toynbee Hall is providing wider access to justice to the communities we serve to create a fairer and happier society. Our Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) has been providing free, expert legal advice since 1898 and the service has always relied on the dedication of pro-bono volunteers. This month, in honour of Black History Month, we want to celebrate the impact and contribution of Black volunteers.
We asked Black legal professionals who give up their time to offer free legal advice, to share their experiences of volunteering at FLAC and how their racial and cultural background has influenced their approach to providing essential legal support.
Dawn McNish, FLAC Administrator, shares her experiences:
What volunteering role do you have at FLAC?
I started volunteering at the women only sessions while studying for the LPC, gaining invaluable experience coming from a non-legal background. I supported and shadowed the advisers with administration and covered reception greeting clients and providing advisers with their clients’ notes.
Why do you volunteer at FLAC and why do you think pro bono volunteering is important?
Having worked in the charity sector for over 10 years now it was important to me to volunteer in some capacity. I wanted to bring my experience of working within a people centric environment to help provide clients with the most comfortable experience possible as well as learning more about the practical application of law. Clients often attend with very sensitive issues and need to feel safe and supported during visits. Pro bono volunteering is essential particularly during challenging economic periods such as these, where many people would be unable to access the knowledge and experience available at FLAC. It’s also important for those advising to experience clients outside of the usual circles for a more rounded view.
Is there a success you’ve had for a client that you’re particularly proud of? If so, how did you help the client and what outcome did you have?
For me the biggest success is knowing that clients feel listened to and taken care of while attending. FLAC is unable to provide ongoing case work so often the most that you can do is provide information on where to go and what to do next. The most impactful for me personally at the WO sessions was a client dealing with a difficult child custody situation who needed more than FLAC was able to provide, I was only able to signpost and guide on next steps which felt inadequate. The client returned a few minutes after leaving with hot chocolates to say thank you for the advice she received. The role every volunteer plays at FLAC cannot be underestimated and knowing how each small interaction can impact clients attending is incredibly humbling and a reminder of why these sessions are so crucial.
What’s your favourite part of volunteering at FLAC?
From a human perspective I enjoy greeting guests on reception, having seen what the legal issue is in advance I want the women coming to feel at ease whatever brings them to FLAC. Sitting in the sessions brings the theoretical together with the practical and learn how to apply in real life situations. It is such a great experience to support and watch experienced professionals advise.
From your experience, if you could change one thing to improve access to justice for people in the communities FLAC serves, what would it be?
There are always more people that need the support of FLAC than available advisers and sessions. Social inequality means that often those in need have neither the financial means or awareness to access legal advise, there are also language and cultural barriers at play. Increased funding to support the services at FLAC, and increased pro bono support from a wider range of legal firms would help address this. When interventions happen at the earliest opportunity there is a much greater chance of issues being resolved. I have seen clients who have left the issue for too long which only escalates situation and reduces time available to address it, purely because they don’t fully understand the implications. There may be other community touchpoints that could promote the services and ensure those in need are aware of what is being offered.
Do you feel your racial/cultural background has influenced the way you approach pro bono assistance? If so how?
Being a woman of colour influences my approach to most things including pro bono assistance at FLAC. I am very aware that there are spaces and roles that are occupied or perceived to be occupied by people who do not look like the community that they serve. At a time when society is becoming more aware of the various privileges that exist and the impact this causes, we all need to be cognisant of the role that we can play in changing the narrative. Seeing somebody who looks like you, understands your cultural landscape can have a huge impact on the overall experience and impression of the sector as a whole.
At a time when society is becoming more aware of the various privileges that exist and the impact this causes… Seeing somebody who looks like you, understands your cultural landscape can have a huge impact on the overall experience and impression of the sector as a whole.
Supporting young Black people with aspirations in the legal profession
Much has changed since since we began offering free legal advice 122 years ago but sadly structural racism still exists in society and in the legal profession. Toynbee Hall and our longstanding corporate partner Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP are committed to eliminating all forms of structural racism and maximizing opportunities for Black lawyers.
That’s why this month to coincide with Black History Month, we launched the Champions Project – a programme for black people in Tower Hamlets at university, or who have recently graduated—both aspiring to become lawyers or are interested in one of the many professional careers in an international law firm. Participants in will be matched with a colleague within their London office as a means of widening access to law firms and creating positive change within the legal profession.