Timothy Maybery

Social Science
Native Title
Summer 2013

The Aurora Project is an initiative supported by a host of government, private, educational and philanthropic organisations that was originally established to offer much needed support to the Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) sector on a national level. Although Aurora has expanded these days to offer a range of services and scholarships in Indigenous affairs and education at large, a flagship component of Aurora remains its excellent Native Title Internship Program that enables law, anthropology and some social science students and graduates to undertake meaningful professional placements in a range of NTRBs and other Indigenous organisations across the country. Over the summer of 2012-13 I had the pleasure of spending five weeks interning full-time at NTSCORP, a Redfern-based Indigenous Native Title Service Provider (NTSP) which performs statutory functions under the Native Title Act alongside a range of other anthropological, genealogical and policy services for Indigenous people in NSW and the ACT.

Building upon my background in art history and cultural heritage I was successfully placed by the Aurora Project as a social science intern. However, upon commencing with NTSCORP I was immediately assigned by my supervisor to assist the legal team for the duration of the placement. Although NTSCORP often takes on social science interns to assist with policy work, at the time of my arrival the organisation’s most significant policy submissions were being prepared by solicitors in the legal team, meaning that for them an extra set of hands would definitely not have gone astray at that given moment. This decision in itself instantly gave me a perspective of the all-hands-on-deck approach undertaken by the entire staff at NTSCORP and other like organisations – and although as a first year graduate law student I was obviously thrilled at this unexpected turn of events, I should point out that Aurora generally requires law students to have completed the Real Property component of their degree before being eligible to apply for the competitive legal internship category.

While the Aurora Project rightfully emphasises that the purpose of an internship is more about offering support to the host organisation as opposed to buttering up the intern, my own experience nonetheless demonstrated that the benefit of interning for an oftentimes thinly-stretched organisation is that rather than have a supervisor need to find or invent tasks to prevent you withering away, unnoticed in a dark and dusty corner in the office (or, even worse, numbing one’s brain with eight hours of Facebook and Angry Birds each day), the intern necessarily enters the thick of it and assumes responsibilities that amount to actually helping extremely dedicated professionals carry out their day-to-day job – in other words, slightly-lethargic-looking-yet-always-smiling professionals who will graciously milk you for all your fresh-faced and eager to please worth while expressing copious levels of appreciation. To be clear, although an intern can expect to complete a healthy dose of filing, photocopying, hole punching and stapling (luckily for me I am one of those highly unusual beings that is genuinely enlivened by such prospects), at NTSCORP I was advised to give priority to assisting on more substantive tasks with looming deadlines attached, which were without doubt forthcoming. As a result I feel incredibly fortunate to report that upon having completed merely one year of my JD, thanks to Aurora I have already gained experience in completing a range of bona fide paralegal-style tasks, an achievement I’d not imagined I would have garnered so early along my path in law.

During my internship I was asked to help assist the solicitors with tasks such as compiling and delivering a brief for counsel, drafting case notes by reviewing and summarising evidence and phoning clients to make arrangements for meetings. Bonus experiences that made my nerdy law student eyes light up included having coffees with NTSCORP’s head solicitor and one of Australia’s most experienced native title barristers, being invited to a media launch event at the Australian Human Rights Commission, attending call over and directions hearings for matters in the Federal Court and sitting in on a progress meeting with the State at the Crown Solicitor’s Office. The most engaging ongoing responsibility that I worked on from day three until Christmas was that of transcribing several oral affidavits drawn from recordings of on-country interviews captured between NTSCORP solicitors and Traditional Owner claimant group members, discussing heritage, law, kinship and cultural ties to their country. I felt it was an absolute privilege to be intimately exposed in this manner to a number of personal histories that were often emotionally stirring, full of life, character and fascinating insight into the very real, human side to native title law.

For me, one of the greatest benefits of undertaking the Aurora internship is that it inevitably doubled as an accelerated, yet highly detailed learning experience through which I without doubt developed a far better understanding of the complex native title process than I ever had beforehand. There is much to be said for gaining a dynamic, firsthand appreciation of how a unique legal process such as native title – one that spans administrative, commercial and land law as well as policy, human rights and more – operates beyond the comparatively abstracted theoretical approach to learning, offered by courses in university.

Prior to commencing my internship I could not say that I had seriously considered pursuing a career pathway in native title specifically; it would be more honest to say that I submitted my application with a keenly open mind and a broad hope to gain some initial professional experience volunteering for a social justice oriented organisation. My perception changed markedly during the placement and I remain inspired beyond completing it. This is in large part due to the fact that during my time with NTSCORP I quickly learned how much host organisations value Aurora interns, and how the internship so often serves as the first crucial foot in the door; indeed, several of the permanent paralegals, research assistants and graduate solicitors at NTSCORP themselves began as Aurora interns before completing their degrees or professional entry requirements, and my understanding is that this pathway is somewhat of a norm across the NTRB sector. Having my awareness drawn to this potential avenue for career development and progression has certainly ignited my motivation to maintain a relationship with NTSCORP and the Aurora Project.

Although Aurora offers the exciting possibility of being placed in remote or interstate locations, remaining in my home city enhanced a capacity for continued relationships with the welcoming, humorous, talented and measured people I met and worked with for a solid chunk. Not only would it be rewarding to keep tabs on the progress of matters that I became considerably familiar with during my five weeks, but who knows where things may lead – perhaps in due time I’ll be the graduate solicitor being thrown into the deep end at last minute by appearing for a client before the Federal Court one year out of College of Law while my contemporaries who take up graduate positions in the corporate sector are still drowning beneath skyscrapers of discovery documents and wondering if the cows are ever going to come home.