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Vincent Shin, Australia's First School Lawyer

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

Vincent Shin, Australia’s first in-house school lawyer, looks up and smiles at his framed year 12 VCE score of below 30, which hangs on the wall of his office. It’s purposely placed between his certificate from the Supreme Court and posters of his amateur boxing fights. Vincent leans back in his chair, tipping it over slightly, as he considers what it meant for him to finally become a lawyer. He says his journey was a “rollercoaster” of emotions, starting from when he finally discovered he was accepted to study law at Victoria University. “When I was in year 12 my father left, and as a result of the family violence that was going on … I got a 24.5 out of a possible 99.95,” he says. “I use that as a tool to mentor these kids – that if you have something you want to do, don’t let anything stop you.” Vincent not only relates to the students through his past experiences but also through the fact that he rides a motorbike and is an amateur boxer. He pauses, before gesturing to his VCE score. “It took a fair bit of tenacity to get there … I was almost ready to give up at times but I persisted,” he says. “I didn’t give up, I finished law school, with honours.”

Vincent (or Vinnie as his young clients call him) was unable to study law straight out of high school. Instead, he studied at TAFE for two years and completed an Advanced Diploma in Business (Legal Practice). Despite the excellent results in his TAFE course, he struggled to get into law. So he studied arts with the intention of transferring across. It wasn’t until he was close to quitting that he received an email from Victoria University saying he had been accepted.

Despite finishing his degree with honours and being admitted in the Supreme Court, he struggled to find work. He spent six months applying for jobs before he found employment at a private practice family law and family violence firm called D and M Lawyers. He now works full-time as an in-house lawyer for The Grange P-12 College in Hoppers Crossing and at Warringa Park School, Bethany Road Campus, an additional needs school. This is part of the School Lawyer Project, a two-year pilot run by the WEst Justice Community Legal Centre that provides free legal assistance for people in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. “I wanted to help kids in situations where they didn’t have access to services [and] I want to help [them] through community law,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a more appropriate job for myself.” The Grange is made up of students from more than 60 different ethnic groups, most from a low socio-economic background. Vincent represents both the secondary school students and their parents. The problems faced by his clients range from criminal and family law matters to debt and tenancy issues.

PLGRM Media released a documentary about Vincent Shin, detailing his work at the school and his experiences with family violence. He also delivers community legal education sessions on topics including family violence, sexting, employment law and consent. A recent session Vincent organised was called No Violence, No Way, which brought two professional actors to the school.They role played different forms of family violence and demonstrated examples of economic, emotional and verbal abuse. On the day of the session, about 20 students shuffled into the room. The session was held in a small classroom reminiscent of a lecture theatre.

School counsellor Bahar Ilseven says the program has been very valuable for the students. “We know that they need [the legal help], that they are being exposed to domestic violence [and] that they need IVOs (family violence intervention orders). They need all these things that they wouldn’t normally access,” she says. Bahar, who has been working with Vincent since January, says encouraging the students to see Vincent has not been difficult. “It’s really good because they see him out in the yard. He doesn’t look like your typical lawyer. He’s not in a suit, he doesn’t look scary. He’s approachable,” she says. “He’s gained a lot of respect in the community of the school. You’ll see him walk past a group of boys and he’ll do a handshake. Because they respect him … they’re not frightened or reluctant to go to see him.” Bahar also says that Vincent’s Asian background, friendly nature and casual attire make it easier for the students to connect with him. “Once he establishes that relationship with one student then all his mates know that ‘Vinnie is OK, he’s cool, you can go to him for advice’.”

Vincent first witnessed family violence at the age of five. He recently wrote in the Law Institute Journal that there had been an incident between his mother and father that ended with his mother lying on the concrete at the front of their house. Afterwards, Vincent and his sister picked out the thorns that had been embedded in her skin from a prickly bush. In the PLGRM media documentary about Vincent titled The High School Lawyer, Vincent recounted the last words spoken between himself and his father. “His famous last words were, ‘don’t ever call me Dad. I have no son’. And then he left,” Vincent said.

Between coming to The Grange and his brief time at a family law firm, Vincent worked in the child protection system for three years. But it wasn’t only Vincent’s background in family law and child protection that made him right for the job.

Another way Vincent relates to the students is through amateur boxing and his motorbike exploits. “I love being fit and active and being out there … travelling, food, sport. That’s pretty much me,” he says with a wide grin.

Vincent’s office is marked with large graffiti writing, which shouts: “Vinnie Shin School Lawyer.” His office door is a patchwork of papers and notices. Pinned in the centre of the door is a cartoon image of Homer Simpson in a judge’s wig holding a gavel. His office is in the wellbeing centre and the students can come in whenever they like. “It’s this holistic approach,” Vincent explains. “I’ve got so many staff members ready to help if need be, to really help every aspect of this kid’s life,” he says.

WEstjustice hopes to extend the program – which is funded by multiple philanthropic organisations including RE Ross Trust, Jack Brockhoff Foundation, Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, Slater and Gordon Community Fund and Newsboys Foundation – for at least one more year. The next step is to establish a cluster model, which will hopefully roll out in several schools across Victoria.

He sees himself as both a lawyer and a mentor, with his experience in high school enabling him to relate to the students. This brings him back to his VCE score. “I use that as a tool sometimes to help with these kids who might have lower aspirations purely because they think that they’re going to get a bad score and that means ‘that’s the end of that for me’ in terms of tertiary education,” he says. “And that sort of confirms to them that, yes, you might have stuffed up year 12 but there are alternatives. And if you dream to become a lawyer, you can do that even if you [are] failing school.

“If you work hard enough, dreams become reality.”

Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in Mojo.

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