DOING TIME AT THE ALS:
Lessons that a textbook cannot teach
Over the winter break, I spent five weeks as a volunteer at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Newcastle as part of the Aurora Internship Program, doing whatever I could to ease the load of the under-staffed and time-poor criminal justice team. This team provides an invaluable service to the individuals it represents and creates some sense of social justice within the criminal justice system for a sector of the community that is overrepresented within our gaols.
The lawyers help guide clients through the “alien-jungle” that is the courtroom, to quote trial advocate and resident-wit, David Malcolm. They explain the often complex, sometimes counter-intuitive, procedures and rules of the criminal justice system, and often have to do so at court itself, just prior to getting instructions from the client and going into the courtroom. The lawyers are supported by dedicated administrative staff, who themselves know the court system inside out. The admin staff also have a knack for communicating with clients, potential-clients and their families, calling the office in various emotional states, ranging from pleasant to abusive, sometimes demanding to see a lawyer who is away in court. Finally, the team is completed by the field officers. These gems, unique to the ALS, create a crucial connection between the lawyers, the clients and the community. They support clients in court, search for appropriate services to deal with the extra-legal issues that clients face, and work in the community to deliver effective legal education.
Amid the days spent in shadowing lawyers in court, summarising briefs of evidence, filling out Supreme Court bail applications, and a fair share of scanning, my time with this team has taught me some invaluable lessons as to what it would take to be a good defence lawyer in the ALS. Firstly, I’ve learnt that communicating effectively with clients requires adjusting how and what one says depending on the situation and the individual client. In particular, from sitting in on client interviews, I’ve learnt that, sometimes, to best serve the interest of the client requires a ‘tough-love’ approach. No one wants to hear that their side of the story will not hold much weight in court, that they are unlikely to get bail, or that they will likely have to serve out a custodial sentence. But it’s not the role of a defence lawyer to make a client feel better in the short-term, only to have a rude awakening in court. And while some clients ultimately understand and appreciate this, others will inevitably direct their frustration at their lawyer. Hence, developing a tough skin is also necessary part of an ALS lawyer’s skill set.
Secondly, being generous with one’s time, experiences and knowledge helps build a collaborative and supportive work environment, which is necessary amid the pressures of court and clients. Throughout my time at the ALS, everyone was always willing to answer my incessant questions, tell me stories from their experience, and offer advice, making every day a learning experience. Even if I had spent the day scanning briefs of evidence and answering the phones, I got to hear about the complexities of past cases, the judicial styles of different magistrates, and the practical consequences for clients due to the amendments to the Bail Act. In a way, these conversations were a more than satisfactory exchange for the simple tasks that I was helping with.
Finally, from observing the lawyers in court and talking to the team in the office, it seems that a good sense of both humour and humility goes long way in sustaining one’s self in this field. Humour seems a useful tool to remain sane in the face of the relentless flow of clients, each with their own complex set of circumstances and life stories. Humility is also important in order to treat each of these clients with the respect they deserve and avoid putting them into stereotyped categories, which could be all too easy after years in the field. And both these attributes are also useful when being told by a magistrate that one’s argument, pursued as per the client’s instructions, is not all that persuasive.
These are just some of the lessons that I’ve learnt from my experience with the ALS team, both in the office and in the courts. Their dedication, intelligence and generosity cannot be taught in any textbook or classroom, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from them.
Applications for summer 2016/17 internships via the Aurora Internship Program will be open from August 1 through August 26, 2016. For more information, please visit: http://auroraproject.com.au/internship-program