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Slater and Gordon has congratulated its Melbourne-based paralegal Colleen Chen, who won Law Student of the Year at the 2017 Law Institute of Victoria awards in recognition of her significant advocacy and achievements around youth employment issues.

Ms Chen co-founded Interns Australia in 2013, a non-government organisation that supports interns and lobbies for fairer regulation of unpaid work across Australia.

She was the recipient of the Commonwealth Government’s National Youth Employment Award in 2015 and also presented her research on the status of intern advocacy organisations around the world to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

Ms Chen revealed that the uncertainty and anxiety she experienced in her own pursuit of post-graduate employment motivated her to become an advocate and ultimately study law.

“When I completed my undergraduate degree, the job market was very competitive and I did a lot of unpaid labour to try and break into the creative industries area,” Ms Chen said.

“I looked to others for inspiration and realised the majority were literally working years without being paid and burning themselves out trying to juggle unpaid internships with hospitality or call centre jobs to make ends meet.

“I realised it was not only unfair, but completely unsustainable, so myself and several others in similar positions started Interns Australia to drive public awareness and law reform.

“About a year later I realised I needed greater legal knowledge to really make a difference, so I started a Juris Doctor at the University of Melbourne and I haven’t looked back.”

Ms Chen said her advice to law students is to find something they are passionate about and follow their own path.

“So many law students stress about having perfect marks, but one thing I’ve learned is that your academic transcript is not the be all and end all,” Ms Chen said.

“One of my mentors in the start-up space told me something that I regularly draw inspiration from which is that there are important skills that cannot be taught to the rigid schedule of a semester-long unit of study.

“There are so many ways for students to engage in advocacy and other projects outside of study, but the biggest mistake they can make is expecting there to be a handbook.

“Find something that drives you, define your own success and don’t compare yourself to others and you’ll find that all the pieces of the puzzle have a way of falling together.”

Ms Chen has worked as a paralegal at Slater and Gordon since 2015, primarily with the team handling the landmark Manus Island Detention Centre class action.

Slater and Gordon General Manager Ben Hardwick said the firm is incredibly proud of Ms Chen’s achievements.

“Colleen’s dedication and passion for employment advocacy goes to the heart of Slater and Gordon’s values and we are very grateful to have her on board,” Mr Hardwick said.

“In our experience, offering our staff flexibility and the opportunity to work part-time while studying gives them a broad skillset that allows them to hit the ground running when they do graduate.

“The employment rights of unpaid interns is a growing area of concern in the gig economy era and we applaud Colleen’s admirable advocacy for social and regulatory change.”