Article on Volunteering by Abigail Dawes

VOLUNESIA

“Volunesia” (noun) – that moment you forget that you’re volunteering to help change lives, because it’s changing yours.

Lawyers are professionals with a specific skill-set. We spend days (and nights) interpreting the law, arguing the law and advising on the law. It would come as no surprise then that when we are asked to avail of our time to serve society in a meaningful way, we feel that volunteering in a community legal clinic or taking on a pro bono case would be the best way to do so. Indeed it is an admirable thing to sacrifice your own time for pro bono work knowing that ordinarily it would have been billable hours. However, is that the only way that lawyers can give back to society?

As a student volunteer at my university’s community legal clinic I too used to think that that was the only way for me to give back to society. What else would I have to offer? I had spent my time in university living on every word that proceedeth from case law and the law textbooks. The idea of mentoring young delinquents or organising a drama workshop seemed like something more for a social worker than for a lawyer. My misconceptions were changed three years ago when I was invited to join my church group in organising a Christmas party for a girls’ hostel. There was no turning back and since then I have been a volunteer with them for three and half years to date. The girls at the home are minors mandated by the Courts to serve out their probation or sentence in the girls’ hostel. I volunteer as a mentor and help to organise skills training workshops such as writing, drama and photography. Twice a month I go down to the home and help facilitate character-building sessions that focus on topics such as anger management, self-esteem and social awareness.

While the girls’ home is part of the legal system of Singapore, my volunteer work is unrelated to the law in that I do not provide any law related advice. The experience has opened my eyes to the fact that as lawyers we have a lot to offer in other areas of society and still more to gain from diverse volunteering opportunities.

Developing Soft Skills is Hard Work

Lawyers are specialists. We are experts (or hope to become experts) at distilling legal principles, drafting submissions and legal briefs for complex matters. Volunteering with the girls’ home has not only helped me to hone other skills that are also useful for practice but to realise that there are other skills required for succeeding at legal practice.

For young lawyers, volunteering stints outside of the sphere of law can provide opportunities to develop leadership skills. While community legal clinics and pro bono cases are often undertaken by yourself, volunteering with an organisation will give you the opportunity to work as part of a team whose members are from diverse backgrounds. It is a great way to network with a wider circle and also to develop leadership skills in leading small to large teams in organising events and programmes. It’s hard enough to manage a group of people that are on your payroll; imagine managing those that are giving of their time for free! You learn quickly how to read people and perceive what makes them tick, and use that to harness their best for the job at hand.

Time management is another skill that I picked up when I decided to volunteer. It is no secret that lawyers are busy – we have to manage filing deadlines, client expectations, partner expectations and still find time to fulfill CPD requirements. However, once I made the decision that I would be spending two hours every alternate Tuesday volunteering, I found that I was able to make the commitment save for the odd insurmountable deadline. I learned how to make a commitment and stick to it. You begin the work week with your volunteering stint in mind and say no to the little distractions during the day so much so that you end up working more efficiently. Interestingly I also discovered that your firm’s partners are more than happy to let you have the space and time to volunteer in meaningful activities.

Diverse Opportunities to Contribute as a Lawyer 

While my volunteer work with the girls’ home was in the capacity of a mentor to the residents, sometimes the hostel would encounter issues in its administration that I was able to help with. For example, the hostel wanted to build a cat shelter on their premises to encourage the residents to take responsibility for caring for pets. As they were not aware that they could not build any structure on the land without planning permission and other permits, I was able to assist with research into the matter. The areas of law that you are exposed to usually are outside of what you would generally practise and it is certainly an eye opener and a good challenge.

You may even end up discovering that you have more to offer than just legal advice and research skills. I for one discovered that I had a real talent for putting together programmes that deal with character building themes. I enjoy the process of researching self-help books and sourcing for activities that would help empower and equip the residents at the hostel.

Volunteering Refreshes You

Sometimes you just need to step out of your own world in order to appreciate it better. At the end of a tiring day at the office dealing with legal issues, I find myself looking forward to meeting with the residents at the hostel just to talk with them about their life and offer simple advice on school, career and even dating!

I am challenged to dig deep into myself to draw on life experiences and convert those experiences into principles or tips that can be shared with someone from a completely different walk of life or world view. You come to realise that people are not all that different and that we have the same basic fears and desires in life. You also discover a lot about yourself in the process and come to the realization that you have more to give to the world than you thought. People often ask me if I find volunteer work tiring or draining. I find that when I volunteer I am struck with a condition called “volunesia”, a condition in which you forget that you are volunteering to help change lives, because it is changing yours. To be honest, I believe that I have gained much more than I have given. I have learnt how to be more patient, work in teams and be comfortable in a leadership role. More importantly I learnt how to relate to people from all walks of life – surely an indispensable skill for legal practice.

The moment I stepped into the girls’ home I got a sense that it was going to be a life-changing experience. In my interaction with the staff and the residents I felt a palpable feeling of optimism and hope for a better day. I chose to continue volunteering with them over the next three years because I felt connected to and believe in the mission of transformation and second chances. I genuinely enjoy talking with the residents and spending time with them during activities such as drama workshops, character building sessions or a game of bubble soccer.

The residents are not the only ones who benefit. I have discovered my own strengths and talents in the course of planning and facilitating various activities for the residents. I have seen leadership and creative abilities develop in myself and within the team that I volunteer with. While I often come to the home after a long day at work, I am always refreshed when I leave at the end of each session. I feel compassion in my heart growing steadily even as I watch the residents grow and transform.

 

 Abigail Naomi Dawes

Straits Law Practice LLC

Member, Young Lawyers Committee 2016

The Law Society of Singapore

 

This article was first published in, and is reproduced with the permission of, the Singapore Law Gazette.