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SPOTLIGHT ON: Joanna Wolfarth

Please introduce yourself!

My name is Joanna. I graduated from King’s (Law) in the summer of 2020. However, I am 25, as I started my LLB as a mature student. I grew up between France and Ireland, then moved to Montreal in Canada when I turned 18 to study Political Science and International Development at McGill.

Thank you for sharing your very interesting background with us! So, was your undergraduate study in Political Science what got you interested in law?

Among other things, yes! It was after taking a few law-related courses – I took public international law and international Human Rights law, and that was when I realised that I wanted to practice law. When you dig a bit deeper, you realise that public international law is a thing of itself; it was not an area that I planned to pursue as a career, but I was interested in the thinking and the academic literature of the subject. Reading case law on real facts, for me, was much more interesting than the very theoretical protocol that I was doing – it's a bit more concrete.

I've noticed that you worked as a legal intern at King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Could you tell us a bit about your experience of working with the NHS?

That was my very first deep dive into the legal profession, so it was great! It was in sharp contrast to the shiny city corporate offices where I was attending open days and insight evenings. I was not working on corporate matters, but I found it incredibly interesting, and I think the work that we were doing was really, really important. I mainly worked on medical negligence cases, with a bit of personal injury and some inquiries as well. Essentially, treatments that did not go according to plan at the King’s Hospital in Denmark Hill, so I did some trainee/paralegal tasks: administrative work, drafting letters, sending documents to anyone who needed them, some bundling and legal research. They were very much the kind of tasks that a junior paralegal might undertake. I also attended seminars, court hearings, some conferences with counsel (barristers), and experts (which was really interesting as well!). I did some bundling for a case that went to the Court of Appeal, which was a rare occurrence. It was an amazing experience. It really taught me to be curious and to ask questions, because the solicitors that I worked with most likely have gone through similar experiences in the past, so they are very open to answering questions and clarifying obscure concepts. They really pushed me to ask for challenging tasks and to seek feedback to improve, because that’s the best way of doing it, and it’s the best place to do it as well.

Wow, that sounds like an amazing experience! And how did you apply for this role?

It was through the King’s Pro Bono Society. They have a history of having King’s Law students interning there.

Based on your previous experience as a legal intern at Amicus, Florida Center for Capital Representation intern, and the president of the Amicus Chapter at Pro Bono Society, it seems like you're very interested in Pro Bono. How did you get interested in this area of work?

Yes, I am interested in Pro Bono – I can confirm that! I became interested in human rights – specifically, human rights within the criminal justice system and prisons – when I was in Canada. [In Canada,] I joined a group of students who would read and answer letters from prisoners in local prisons, who would ask any questions that they had. Just by reading those letters, I could see the extent of people’s distress – it was very clear. So, we did small things to help. Sometimes, we would conduct some basic legal research to help people who were asking for definitions of certain terms or articles of the Penal Code, as Québec uses a mix of civil and common law. [Our work was useful] Because some people didn’t have access to law libraries or didn’t know where to start their research. We also had people asking for the list of the songs on the Top-40 at the moment so they could ask prison staff to download the music and put them in their MP3 players. We were doing such a wide variety of things. But at the core of all this, you could always see people’s feelings. There was always some sort of cry for help, so it was a bit tough when I saw the situation for the first time. So, I promised myself to always be involved in that area one way or another, whether it be by raising awareness or writing directly to them. I just hate that people are [sometimes] defined by the worst thing they’ve done – or even by things that they haven’t even done. Amicus thus shows the huge difference that adequate legal representation makes on the lives of people – particularly those who are unjustly discriminated against based on race, social class, and disability, among others.

And what advice would you give to students who wish to participate in Pro Bono activities like you during their undergraduate studies?

I would say ‘don’t be shy.’ Send some speculative applications, because charities, law centres and legal clinics always need help. I sent a lot of speculative applications – this was how I got involved with Amicus and the Florida Center of Capital Representation. These opportunities aren’t always advertised, so it’s good to send applications directly to the organisations. Show how you can add value, and it doesn’t need to be intricate knowledge of law. It’s about having time and working hard – that’s enough. Getting involved in student societies is always a huge plus, and King’s has amazing societies, namely Pro Bono Society which I had a great time with. And you don’t necessarily have to be a part of a society (although working with the committee is great), as there are other ways of getting involved, and they don’t take as much time. They’ve got great projects, and there’s a bit of everything for you!

On another note, it can be frustrating to do long-term unpaid internships – that's a whole other issue. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes necessary to do unpaid internships, as it will help you get to where you want to go. Most charities and law centres do not expect you to work full-time for long periods, which allows you to work part-time to support yourself financially. It also always feels nice to help as well, so even if it’s unpaid, do your absolute best. It’s still a way of networking with different people, you will develop many transferable skills, and there’s always something to learn.

I think you’ve given us some brilliant tips for students who may be struggling to find relevant experience, as many organisations cancelled their internships during Covid-19. And I think you’re absolutely right that unless you actively seek out opportunities, it’s going to be much more difficult this year.

Even if you’re in your first year, you don’t have to wait. It might seem more daunting, but it’s perfectly possible.

Now that’s another very useful piece of advice for first-year students, who may be more hesitant to apply since they may not have as much experience!

And to be honest, I felt the same when I was looking for legal internships in my first year, despite having done another degree beforehand. I thought I didn’t belong here; I don’t have the skills. But actually, everyone is always learning, and even if you start by doing non-legal tasks and jobs, you will learn by osmosis from working with and asking [people in the organisation] about what’s going on with project x, what are the legal ramifications, etc. Even just meeting people who can teach you a bit more will be a huge win.

You have also worked as an insourcing project data clerk and resource, compliance, and performance team clerk. How does your work as a clerk differ from a legal intern/advisor, and what skills did you gain through this role?

For some context, the insourcing was during the summer between my second and third year. I took that job to pay for my plane ticket to commit to my work with Florida Center for Capital Representation in Miami. Eventually, I asked if I could return to this job during term-time, so I converted it into a student job. Then, when I graduated, they offered me to work full-time, so that’s how I’m still working there! I do a lot of things in this role as it’s been more than a year and a half. I mostly do recruitment and compliance work, but I always get to join interesting projects. At the moment, recruitment within King’s local communities, so that’s a pretty cool project with great social impact. In comparison to my role as a student advisor at the King’s Legal Clinic, there’s much less client contact. The work is less legal in its substance – I'm not doing any legal research; I’m not advising clients or drafting any legal documents. However, there’s quite a high level of responsibility and there’s always some sort of legal aspects to it. For example, the insourcing was what’s called TUPE – Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. The ins and outs of this were quite like a legal transaction, so that was interesting. Although I didn’t have a role in advising, I worked with an employment lawyer who was working as a consultant on the project, so I got to meet someone with intricate knowledge of the relevant law and learn a lot about employment law through them. Also, I’m always doing some work with contracts, and because everyone knows that I aspire to be a lawyer, whenever there’s something [relevant to law that comes up], they would talk to me about it. So, to answer your original question, my work as a clerk is completely different from my previous experience as a legal advisor.

However, this experience shaped my work ethic. It makes me work daily on transferable skills that law firms look for. For example, communication skills – I write dozens of emails, I’m always on the phone communicating with employees, trade unions, senior management, finance, payroll, human resources, etc. There’s a lot of teamwork involved as well. At least what I do tends to be a bit bureaucratic, given that King’s is a huge institution, so there are processes for everything. Thus, the way you do your work is always going to impact someone down the line, so you’ve got the choice of whether you want this impact to be positive or negative. Organisation skills. This one is pretty obvious, but there are tasks and deadlines that must be met every week and month. Yet, I also have to be very flexible because loads of emergency situations arise all the time. So, I think it’s a useful group of skills that I really work on a daily basis, which I think really helps with my legal career.

Yes, I think the work that you’re doing now is going to be a great asset in the long run – as you’ve said, you are gaining so many different skills and experience through this role! And now, we’re onto our final question: who is your role model?

This one is tough! I’m going to say: Gisèle Halimi. She’s a French-Tunisian lawyer who unfortunately passed away last year. She was also an activist and an author. She first worked in Tunisia. Then, her work focused on defending women against various injustices in France, as well as Algeria. For instance, there was a landmark case on rape, she also represented women in landmark cases on abortion, and triggered some changes in the death penalty law in France (it was abolished quite late). She was involved in so many difficult cases. And what I love about her is that everyone expected her to be this “crazy feminist” (a problematic term in and of itself) because of her radical stances. In fact, she was very calm, composed and methodical, kind of like Ruth Bader Ginsburg – and her arguments had such strength that it managed to change laws and people’s mindsets. She has done so much work: she wrote books, involved herself in public debates around reproductive issues, reproductive rights, and rights of women in general. Given her impressive and impactful legal career, and the way she empowered women in France in so many areas of their daily lives, she is definitely my role model.

Yes, absolutely! From what you’ve just told me, she sounds like an extremely inspiring woman, and I’m definitely going to learn more about her after our interview! So that’s the end of our interview – thank you so much, Joanna, for your time.

[End of interview].

Interviewed by: Olivia Kim


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