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Catching up with Lander & Rogers after three years of Adopt a Lawyer with Warmun Arts Centre

25th May 2017

Warmun artist Lena Nyadbi smiling and painting on a black canvas. Warmun artist Lena Nyadbi. Photograph by Delwyn Everard.

The Adopt a Lawyer program partners Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Art Centres with a single law firm for a three year partnership. It is designed to streamline the existing Artists in the Black support of art centres by facilitating a strengthened relationship between an art centre and a single law firm. Joanna Renkin is a Sydney based partner at Lander & Rogers and works in Pro Bono Community Support. Lander & Rogers has been a member of our Adopt a Lawyer program since 2013. After three years of being part of the program we spoke with Jo about what inspired Lander & Rogers to become part of the Adopt a Lawyer program and what they have learnt since working with their adoptive art centre, Warmun Art Centre in Western Australia.

In May 2016 Lander & Rogers held an art exhibition of works from Warmun Art Centre. What was behind the decision to hold an exhibition?

A number of partners already had purchased artworks from Warmun prior to the relationship and were keen to promote the artists to others. We were also really keen to support the artists, arts centre and also to highlight the relationship to the whole firm and our clients. The exhibition also came about as an idea after Jess (a former Lander & Rogers lawyer) returned from her secondment and came from a desire to extend the lawyer relationship. It felt the right way to provide financial support to the community and Art Centre. 

When your firm began the relationship with Warmun Art Centre, were there any specific outcomes personally and/or professionally that you and your staff were looking to gain?

Personally - I was interested in the Aboriginal Arts Centres and how they operate and sit within remote communities. I thought it was a great way to get to know a remote community as it gave a valid reason to begin a relationship.  I was excited to have to go outside the metro area to get to know people in a completely different part of Australia. Ironically I had visited Warmun as a tourist some years before so was thrilled when this was suggested as an option.  I also thought that professionally it would be a challenge to really understand the client and provide legal advice but rewarding if it worked well.  Due to my family background I was keen to engage with first people's, grow my understanding and awareness of their history and current challenges, and also felt that I was well placed to contribute in some way to meeting any unmet legal need or building a strong art centre with our legal expertise as a way of contributing to economic stability for artists and communities.

For the firm - I thought that as well as getting to know a remote community the synergy with legal advice, building a sustainable community around the art centre and art was a good one for us.  I knew we had skill sets/ expertise that might be of assistance and knew that the firm would embrace the relationship.  We had completed some discrimination work for a remote NT community and I knew how much the lawyers enjoyed the work and also working with people in the community.  I hoped we could build a firm wide relationship that would provide our firm with insight, challenging work, and an opportunity to get to know a remote community in a more meaningful and long term way. 

You are now three years into this relationship, what are the personal and/or professional outcomes you feel you and your staff gained from engaging and working with the people at Warmun Art Centre?

For me - I have really valued the experience of getting to know Warmun Arts Centre and the community.  Although I have largely handed the relationship over now to the RAP consultant I found visiting the community and staying with them incredibly profound.  It challenged how I viewed aboriginal people/communities in a remote context and also gave me incredible insight into the relationship with the land and the complexities of living in a town such as Warmun.  Some of the history of the people was confronting too. I was really challenged to understand my entrenched desire to "solve" problems and change outcomes for people I met.  I began to understand the importance of listening , respect, dignity and empowering people.  It became apparent to me that we could really build new understanding and capabilities in a two way relationship.  This is really the most exciting thing professionally and personally - we have really built a strong two-way connection. 

For our people - the work has been challenging and unlike anything else we have experienced due to the very unique issues/workings of the arts centre.  Our people have made deep friendships and have built trust and respect because they have approached this from the position of trying to understand and learn as well as provide practical legal advice. Those that have been fortunate to spend time at Warmun have been enriched by the opportunity. They have gained understanding of Gija culture, history, present day issues. I think it has impacted them and their view of themselves.  The opportunity to visit Warmun is seen as a very special experience because of the warmth of the welcome and the trust and friendship that has been given to us and the responsibility we feel towards that community. Many people and organisations come into the community but we would like to be one that stays and works with the Arts centre and its surrounding community. Our firm does feel this long term and meaningful connection. 

There will undoubtedly be a large cultural gap between a law firm in a capital city and a remote Aboriginal art centre. Did Lander & Rogers notice this gap, and how did Lander & Rogers navigate this gap?

The gap is certainly large. As I had visited the area I understood this would be a new and potentially different relationship but one that could be wonderful.  I suppose I took the view that we needed to build two way trust, a connection across the divide and respect was a fundamental component of this.  I took small steps to start to get to know the community - meeting the community here at our offices but importantly made a time to go to them.  This introduced us to the community (a face and person - "the Melbourne lawyer mob"), showed Warmun respect, an intention to get to know them, that we valued the relationship and also allowed us to understand the world of our client. This is really important given the advice we are giving and the manner in which decisions are made and instructions communicated. The life in a remote community and the life experience of the artists  is starkly different to our own and the place of the arts centre in the community requires an understanding to navigate so that we provide suitable advice.  Following up the visit with a secondment and Jess' keeping in touch with people in the community gave us a really close connection.  We have continued to show our appreciation and respect through the exhibition and support of Warmun's other work with Melbourne Uni and private galleries in Melbourne.

How did Lander & Rogers navigate the cultural and communication differences?

We were lucky that Warmun was very patient with us.  The visits to the community were vital as it gave a few of us cultural immersion and we were able to begin to understand how people communicate and what is appropriate.  We tried to to talk to as many people who had worked in remote locations and also spent time talking with Arts Law Centre to understand what might be appropriate behaviour and what to expect. Communication can be difficult especially with the Gija creole and the nuanced and sometimes indirect way that people express views. Gija time is how we have to operate and this is normal pace for our client.  There are processes we need to understand and allow for.  We could only understand these after spending time in the community.  The Arts Centre Manager also assists to navigate the differences however this is also complex as the manager is not our client but the mouthpiece of the client and largely the person who drives agendas.  There is an inherent conflict in the position. The Managers, board members and our lawyers have regularly communicated with one another to try and build understandings and bridge any differences.

Did Lander & Rogers have to tailor the way in which it usually delivered legal advice? Were there certain legal considerations unique to Aboriginal art centres?

We did have to think through what sort of advice was practical.  This came from understanding the way things operated, the personalities who had power and the way the group worked at a board level.  We got this knowledge largely after Jess had been living for 3 months in the community.  I am not sure this would have otherwise been properly understood.  We also observed the way the community formed views and discussed important issues, who set agendas, what influenced action and decision making and who took control.  The complex inter connection of workers, community members, the manager and family and cultural expectations means we need to be careful to listen to what question is being asked of us, what view is expressed, what might be possible, who should be making decisions and after what consultation.  Additionally making sure that we make known that  information is kept confidential if it is not  appropriate for everyone to know.  This was particularly so in employment matters where people were used to knowing everything but could not know things that were being discussed about them from us as it was not appropriate.   We have also been challenged by what should be considered appropriate work place behaviour in a very open work environment. I think we took time to try and work out the best advice for the situation. At times we had to be patient and explain why we were taking the position we had, what it meant to accept or reject the advice and try and provide guidance as well as advice.  At one point we were assisting with Board deliberations so that Board members could understand when matters were their decision and they could ask any questions around the legal issues being considered. Many of the board members appreciated that we could offer our time to them to build their capability  to navigate their responsibilities.  We wanted them to be able to feel empowered to understand when they were required to make a decision, what they were deciding, the legal context and the potential outcomes of different decisions. 

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