I am a fifth year Law/Arts student at Monash University, with a Major in Indigenous Studies. By the end of my first semester of university – between my Law units and Indigenous Studies – I’d decided that I wanted to practice in criminal defence law with Indigenous clients. I’ve always wanted to get out of the Melbourne, move to the country and work in a rural town. I knew nothing about Tamworth, but when I was offered an internship there through the Aurora Project, it seemed like a good place to start.
Tamworth is a small, flat, country town in northern New South Wales. It is built on the lands of the Kamilaroi nation, which stretches from the Hunter Valley all the way up past the Queensland border. It is Australia’s home of country music and Barnaby Joyce. It is not desert country, but it is so, so dry. The sky is vast.
I spent four weeks interning with the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Tamworth over the winter break. The ALS is a criminal defence organisation that provides free legal advice, representation and advocacy to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around NSW. I spent my days in court and in police cells, learning how to interview clients, manage court lists, and prepare sentencing submissions. '
As my placement progressed, I began to realise how many things I hadn’t been told about in Law classes. I realised very quickly that I have no idea how to ‘be a lawyer’, and had had no practice at ‘lawyering’ at any point in the last five years of studying. Here are the top three things that I wish I had been taught:
Many Law subjects emphasise the importance of lawyer-client relationships and the importance of knowing what your client wants in order to get the best outcome for them. And yet, there seems to be a lack of practical advice on how to achieve this. For example, not much advice is given in classrooms about what to do if your client is ‘on the nod’ and coming down from a drug high, or is in a state where they are not mentally or emotionally able to give instructions. There’s a constant focus on how to make arguments to keep clients out of jail: no lecturer had ever addressed what to do if your client announces that they actually want to go back to prison.
In my last week, my supervising solicitor and I ran through some mock interviews. I’d been watching my supervisor for weeks, dutifully noting the order of questions, the language used, the advice to give. She had made it look easy. It was very hard.
Clients were often distressed, or distressing. My supervising lawyer would be managing a stressful legal situation and a stressful emotional situation – taking care of both her client, herself (and me). Having never had to do this myself, I drew blanks in knowing how to respond to a difficult ‘client’. I’m very glad my first attempts were in a safe situation rather than with a real case. Mock interviews and developing practical people skills deserve more space in Law classrooms.
Court etiquette and procedure
I had to ask my supervising solicitor about the role of everyone in the courtroom: who was the person working with the Magistrate in court – did Magistrates have associates? Why were there multiple solicitors, acting in different cases, all sitting at the bar table at the same time? What was the difference between a Police Prosecutor and a Crown Prosecutor?
I didn’t understand procedure: how did they know when to mention their cases, and how did they know what order to bring the cases before the Magistrate? How did they all know when to stand up, where did they learn all the court etiquette phrases (such as: ‘if your Honour will excuse my back’ and ‘if the court pleases’ and ‘we are in the court’s hands in this matter’)?
The best thing I can recommend for other law students who are interested in pursuing a career that involves court advocacy (whether criminal or civil) is to spend as much time as they can watching court proceedings. I slowly began to see patterns in procedure, picked up the language by osmosis, and could predict the order of events. By the end of my internship, the lawyers who I watched that were unfamiliar with court procedure really stuck out – for the wrong reasons. As there is no compulsory unit that teaches law students when to stand, how to speak and even how to dress in court, exposure is the best way to learn.
Self-care (and care of others)
The work was hard.
Often the alleged offending was serious and sad – domestic violence, assaults, and drug abuse were difficult and confronting. But at other times, the cases were confronting not because of the behaviour of the clients, but because of the behaviour of the legal system. It was heart-breaking to see children – who were sometimes sweet, sometimes surly, full of bravado or fear, both energetic and listless – speaking from behind interview windows in police cells. Sometimes it was the actions of the police, the attitudes of court staff and language used by Magistrates that was shocking and difficult to witness.
I’ve signed up for an ‘Accidental Counsellor’ training course after my supervising solicitor told me about them. Such courses provide training for people who are not professional counsellors but who often find themselves in a counselling role by accident, including teachers, team leaders, youth workers and lawyers. It teaches participants the skills to best respond to the person in need while ensuring that your own wellbeing is protected. It was so clear that this was an axillary but inherent part of being a criminal lawyer. Law students must be encouraged to take steps to learning these skills as well as learning the law – we owe it to future clients, and to ourselves.