Ever considered a career in criminal law?
This is part two of our blog on six things you won’t get taught in law school.
4. Practical experience is everything
There is only so much you can learn in a lecture hall, although how much hands-on training you receive at university will differ from place to place.
Some universities, such as the University of Western Sydney, incorporate going to court, visiting prisons and mooting into the syllabus, while universities such as the University of Sydney take a more traditional approach with less practical experience.
But regardless of the university course, having real-world experience is crucial.
Most law students pass through their years of legal training never learning basic skills that are essential to criminal law practice, like how to:
1. Determine the validity and appropriateness of charges in a Court Attendance Notice,
2. Prepare a brief to Counsel including drafting ‘Observations’,
3. Scrutinise a ‘brief of evidence’, and
4. Structure ‘Representations’ for the withdrawal of charges.
Even the basics of going to court are ignored, including elements of court etiquette from bowing when entering the courtroom, to how and when to mention your cases, and how to address the Magistrate or Judge.
Being given advice, guidance and supervision by your Senior Lawyers, and being exposed to the courts, other lawyers, police, the DPP and a whole range of clients slowly but surely provides you with the experience that you need to become a capable lawyer.
Of course, there are fields of law where you will rarely, if ever, see the inside of a courtroom – but developing as a criminal lawyer requires regular exposure to courtroom rules and practice, as well as legal strategies and techniques generally.
5. Trust accounting
While not all lawyers will deal directly with the financial side of business, for those working in a smaller firm or planning on setting up their own practice one day, managing law firm finances is a significant, but often over-looked area of legal practice.
There are very strict rules concerning the money side of things at law firms. In fact, an entire chapter of the Legal Profession Act 2004 NSW is devoted precisely to trust money and trust accounts.
Any money collected from clients before the law firm has begun working for them must be put into a trust account, and breaches of the rules set up to govern trust accounting can constitute a criminal offence. Even one tiny slip-up could have serious implications for a legal practice.
The accounting obligations of a law firm are very exacting, so keeping the records on paper is not a very practical option these days.
Several software programs such as Cabenet are available and can make the onerous task of finances a little easier.
Collecting funds from clients can also be tricky, particularly in criminal law.
Anyone who works at a private criminal law firm knows that if you don’t collect money before you represent your client in court, your chances of ever seeing that money are very low.
Despite the fact that office accounting is an essential part of the day-to-day operation of a law firm, it is not touched upon in the university syllabus.
And finally, patience! While the legal world is fast-paced, anyone who attends court on a daily basis will know that going to court often involves a lot of waiting for your turn.
Even if you will only appear before a Magistrate for a very simple ‘mention’, or court appearance, you could spend the better part of an hour in the courthouse waiting for other lawyers to mention their cases.
It is not unusual for a young lawyer that is patiently waiting their turn to address the Magistrate to have a more senior lawyer push in front of them at the bar table in court.
But perhaps more importantly, being patient when before the Magistrate or Judge is vital.
You will quickly learn to always:
1. Wait until they finish what they’re saying before you speak,
2. Speak slowly, loudly and clearly, and
3. Be careful to ensure that he or she is able to finish taking down notes of what you say before you commence speaking again.
This may involve you pausing between points and waiting for the pen to stop.
Many young lawyers often get a surprise when they realise the profession isn’t simply what they learnt at university. But while it is certainly a challenging field to work in, it is also a very rewarding one.