Getting a Foot in the Criminal Law Door

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As final semester draws to a close, many law students will embark upon clerkships with large corporate law firms.

But for those interested in a career in criminal defence, it can be difficult to know where to start – as criminal law firms are smaller than their corporate counterparts, and internships can be hard to come by.

There are, however, many other ways for aspiring criminal defence lawyers to get their foot in the door.

Here are just a few suggestions.

1. Volunteer With a Community Legal Centre

Community legal centres (CLCs) are an integral part of the criminal justice system; with organisations such as Legal Aid, Aboriginal Legal Service and suburban centres bearing a huge caseload each day in court.

Working with a CLC is therefore a great way to see if a career in criminal law is right for you – and to begin learning the ropes. Depending on the particular centre, volunteers can be asked to liaise with clients, their families, police and other players, assist with the preparation of court documents, and even assist lawyers in court.

There are a huge number of CLCs across Australia which offer volunteering opportunities, and many cater to specific segments of the community – such as Indigenous people, women and refugees, so if you are justice minded, there is bound to be something out there for you.

Duty solicitors who help people on their first day of court also require volunteers from time to time, and offer a valuable opportunity to observe short court matters (eg mentions, bail applications and pleas in mitigation), client conferences and basic preparations.

As CLCs are heavily under-resourced, it is likely that any position you apply for will be strictly voluntary.

Some organisations are able to take on students for as little as one day per week, so that the work does not interfere with university or paid employment.

2. Apply for an Internship

It is a common misconception that internships are non-existent in criminal law. While corporate law clerkships are heavily promoted by universities, criminal law clerkships tend to receive little attention – meaning that students hoping to get a head start in criminal law may overlook them.

The good news is that several institutions offer interesting and challenging internships to those hoping to pursue a career in criminal law.

The Public Defenders, for example, offers unpaid internships to aspiring criminal defence lawyers.

Public Defenders are barristers who appear on behalf of socio-economically disadvantaged defendants charged with serious criminal offences. They often represent clients who have been granted Legal Aid.

Students who undertake internships with the Public Defenders are exposed to a wide range of criminal cases, and can be called on to assist barristers with research and case preparation. They may even assist inside the courtroom.

The Law Reform Commission is another body that often advertises for volunteer student interns. The Commission provides a valuable opportunity to those interested in law reform and social policy to assist with inquiries and undertake research alongside ALRC staff. To accommodate work and study commitments, the Commission allows students to volunteer one day per week during semesters, or full time for three weeks over the summer break.

3. Become a Judge’s Associate/Tipstaff

If you’re about to finish uni and the drama of the courtroom interests you, it may be worthwhile applying to be a judge’s associate or tipstaff.

Associates sit in on court hearings and trials, and assist the Judge with administrative matters and legal research. They may be called upon to liaise with lawyers, barristers and other players in the court system, and find cases that are relevant to a particular legal issue. In some cases, an Associate may even be granted the opportunity to travel with the Judge while he or she travels to country courts on a circuit.

Placements are usually for a period of 12 months, and positions normally commence after university. In this sense, being an associate is a great way to learn the ropes of court procedure before working as a lawyer.

Before you apply, it is a good idea to do a bit of research to identify particular judges who may appeal to you. You should then contact the judge’s chambers directly for information about what that particular judge requires.

All the very best!

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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