Ahead of the WLANSW 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner, we spoke with NSW Community Lawyer of the Year 2021, Lehana De Silva. Lehana is a solicitor at the Tenants Union of NSW providing assistance and training to the state’s four Aboriginal Tenancy Advice and Advocacy Services. She also advises community legal centres and organisations throughout NSW in the areas of housing and residential tenancy law. Lehana shared her approach to overcoming cross-cultural challenges, how her passion for human rights has been the driving force for her career, and advice she has for young lawyers interested in the community legal sector.
Your different engagements with the Cancer Council Pro Bono Program, Anti Slavery Australia, and with SPARK - assisting refugee children - clearly show you have a passion for human rights and helping your community. Where does this drive come from?
My passion for human rights has definitely been the primary motivating factor for my career. I believe that it comes from my parents, who, from a young age, taught me the value of community and the importance of making a positive contribution to your community.
You interned at the Federal Court of Australia within their program working with superior courts around the world. Can you tell us more about your experience there and what you learned in this role?
The International Programs Unit at the Federal Court of Australia promotes international judicial development and cooperation and offers project management and technical expertise to superior courts in other countries. Foremost, the internship was a great opportunity to develop my cross-cultural communication skills. But I also found it really fascinating to learn about how the judicial system works in other jurisdictions, and it gave me some pretty unique insights - all while I was still a law student.
My passion for human rights has definitely been the primary motivating factor for my career.
You’ve had various roles throughout your professional life. Are there any pivotal moments that have shaped your career so far?
One of the most pivotal moments of my career was when I graduated from university. I was fortunate to have the choice to work at either a large commercial firm or a legal firm that specialises in assisting indigenous communities. I decided to work for the specialist firm Chalk and Behrendt Lawyers and Consultants, and it proved to be a pretty pivotal moment for me. While I was there, I was lucky to work with experts and dedicated lawyers. They fostered in me a sense of commitment to utilise my legal skills to try and be of service to the community.
Your current role at the Tenants Union NSW - where you provide support to NSW's Aboriginal Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services - requires a high amount of cross-cultural awareness. What is your approach to solving cultural challenges, and what are some common misunderstandings you see in a cross-cultural context?
I believe we all have our own cultural lens through which we view the world. So in a cross-cultural context, one of the most common misunderstandings I see is when someone makes assumptions about other people based on their own cultural lens. Therefore, my approach to overcoming cross-cultural challenges is to avoid making assumptions about other people's cultures or beliefs and never forget the importance of building trust and genuine relationships. Some additional advice includes employing active listening skills, asking questions, and embracing the attitude that there is always more to learn.
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What advice do you have for young lawyers that want to get into community work?
My main advice would be to reach out to your local community legal centre and see if there are any opportunities to become involved in their work. Maybe you can assist in the advice line shifts that they run a few times a week? Try to get experience in any capacity - whether it’s research, giving advice, or client facing. Being exposed to and understanding how community legal centres operate is hugely beneficial if you want to get into community work.
To finish up, we've got three quick questions for you which we ask all of our leaders in law interviewees:
- What’s your favourite way to wind down? I discovered a new favourite way to wind down during one of Sydney's lockdowns. I was walking my dog one day when I came across a playgroup for puppies in the park. I've been bringing my dog there ever since. Ten adorable puppies running towards you is an instant boost of serotonin!
- What’s one thing you would tell your 15-year-old self? I would tell my 15-year old self to stop, smell the roses and take every new experience as an opportunity to learn. I would tell her not to be so preoccupied with the destination - just enjoy the journey.
- And last but not least, are you a cat person or a dog person? I am definitely a dog person. My dog would be upset if I said otherwise.