Life as a Criminal (Defence) Lawyer

It has been almost ten months since I began working as a criminal defence lawyer in the Central West of New South Wales – hopefully long enough for me to be able to share my thoughts and feelings on my experience to date. The idea of this article is simply to provide a general insight into what life is like for a junior criminal lawyer in regional Australia, something that I hope will be of interest to many of you that have followed my journey thus far.

Where am I?

I left Sydney and moved to Dubbo in November last year, a town of approximately 40,000 people some five hours north-west of Sydney. Most people know Dubbo for its Zoo, which I still haven’t had the chance to visit yet!

Dubbo

Dubbo!

What am I doing?

I moved out to Dubbo to join a not-for-profit community organisation which is focused on providing high quality legal advice and representation to disadvantaged Indigenous Australians. I’m one of approximately seven solicitors doing my best to provide such advice and representation here in Dubbo.

In simple terms, after someone has been charged with a crime, it’s my job to help them as their matter moves through the courts, a process represented by the following diagram (click for a larger version):

A criminal matter through the courts

A criminal matter as it moves through the courts

Practically what that means is (i) helping clients get out on bail, (ii) running hearings when clients want to fight charges, and (iii) making what are known as pleas in mitigation during sentencing – submitting to the court what I believe the appropriate penalty should be, taking into account the objective seriousness of the offence, subjective features and circumstances of my client, and the myriad purposes of sentencing – punishment, rehabilitation, denunciation, deterrence, accountability, protection of the community, and recognition of the harm done to the victim and the community.

The office I am based in services a very large area, and so i’m on the road a lot. To date I have appeared in a dozen different courts, from Gilgandra to the North, Lithgow to the East, Cowra to the South, and Nyngan to the West:

Courts visited

Courts visited

Many of the court buildings date back more than a hundred years, and are full of character:

Dubbo Courthouse

Dubbo Courthouse

Nyngan Courthouse

Nyngan Courthouse

The travel is enjoyable due to the wide open spaces and variety of scenery out in regional NSW:

Regional NSW

Most days I am also fortunate enough to run into these little guys!🙂

Kangaroos

What are the most enjoyable aspects of the job?

There are too many to list. It is such a privilege being able to advocate on behalf of my clients, to get up in court every day and fight for them. It’s rewarding knowing I have been able to keep a young person out of juvenile detention, divert an adult from gaol to receive mental health or drug treatment, or simply hold police to account and ensure they are exercising their powers according to law.

Every day is something new – each time I walk down to the cells I don’t know who i’ll be meeting or what they have been charged with. The work is simultaneously interesting, challenging, and rewarding. Every matter is like a puzzle – putting together pieces of the law and the evidence and seeing if they fit together. In court I have to constantly think on my feet – whether it’s listening to something a witness is saying in preparation for cross-examination, preparing sentencing submissions, or simply arguing points of law with the prosecutor and magistrate.

I feel extremely fortunate to work with so many like-minded people in a very supportive and collegial environment. Not having practised as a lawyer prior to coming to Dubbo, it has been an extremely steep learning curve, but I now feel like I’m starting to find my groove. I couldn’t have made it through the first six months without the support of my colleagues.

What are the least enjoyable aspects of the job?

The realisation that many of my clients are simply the product of the ovarian lottery, and that it could so easily be me sitting on the other side of that perspex down in the cells. Indigenous overrepresentation at all levels of the criminal justice system is a major problem here in Australia. Despite Indigenous Australians making up less than 3% of the population, they make up approximately 28% of the prison population. It is an alarming statistic, and it is the result of widespread social and economic disadvantage.

Unfortunately, it is a problem that is only getting worse:

Over representation

How do we close this gap? Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, recommends focusing on the following six goals in his book ‘Arresting Incarceration: Pathways Out of Indigenous Imprisonment‘:

  1. Improving Indigenous child development
  2. Reducing Indigenous substance abuse
  3. Increasing Indigenous school attendance and performance
  4. Increasing Indigenous workforce participation
  5. Reforming the law in relation to bail, and
  6. Reducing Indigenous recidivism

These goals closely align with primary risk factors associated with offending, and are things that I unfortunately see on a daily basis: mental health issues, substance abuse problems, a lack of stable accommodation, low levels of educational attainment, and high levels of unemployment.

Implementing these goals will require bipartisan, multi-agency support at both the state and federal level, as well as significant investment and consultation over many, many years. Such a lengthy timeframe when the problem is only getting worse is extremely frustrating, and the sooner we can assist disadvantaged Indigenous Australians with these basics – accommodation, healthcare, education, employment, and rehabilitation in particular – the sooner we can make a significant reduction in the Indigenous incarceration rate.

So that’s the least enjoyable part of my job. Doing my best day to day but in the knowledge that no matter what I do the situation more broadly isn’t changing significantly. I hope in the near future we do have the political will and public support for the widespread criminal justice and social reform needed to reduce Indigenous incarceration, because for too long now it has been a national shame.

Two White Windows

Two White Windows

Two White Windows

High Roller

High Roller

Slip Slop Slap

Slip Slop Slap

I am very pleased to report that I got a job as a criminal defence lawyer and started last week! Woohooo!🙂

As one chapter ends, another begins

A little over two years ago I shared with you my joy at being accepted into the Master of Laws (LLM) program at the University of Sydney. I’m happy to report that a little over a week ago I received notification that I had completed my final subject, meaning all things going well I should graduate in the next ceremony later this year. Woooohooooo!

The LLM is the main reason I’ve been particularly quiet on here the last couple of years, as outside of work and exercise I was doing very little apart from studying. I like to think all the hard work paid off, as the lowest mark I received was 79, and my average mark across all subjects was just under 84:

LLM subject results

LLM results

Was the LLM as enjoyable as I thought it would be? Absolutely, although it wasn’t without its challenges.

On the plus side I loved the selection of subjects (some 150 in total) that the University of Sydney offers to LLM students (and if that isn’t enough to satisfy you there is always the option of cross-institutional study). The quality of lecturers was first-class, and the class sizes small enough that I found them really interactive and engaging. On the negative side, and this is more of a personal thing, I felt a lot of stress, pressure and anxiety to perform well, and to perform consistently across all my subjects. Part of this is simply wanting to do my best and push myself, but in the back of my mind there was always the realisation that the graduate lawyer market in Australia is very competitive at the moment and that if I wanted to have any chance of getting a job in law I would need to do well.

Have I done enough to secure a job in law? Have all the years of study, stress and pressure been worth it? I don’t know, as it will only be in the next couple of months that I begin to seriously look for a new job in the hope of following my passion and changing careers, so watch this space!🙂

To assist in my job-hunting prospects I recently became an accredited mediator. For those who aren’t familiar, mediation is a largely informal process in which an independent third-party (the mediator) assists parties to identify issues in dispute, develop options, consider alternatives and (hopefully) reach agreement. Mediation is great because it empowers parties to resolve their own disputes, and is generally far less expensive, time-consuming or stressful for parties compared to going to court.

I decided to become an accredited mediator because mediation is increasingly becoming a mandatory part of many pre-trial procedures, meaning that before you even step foot in a courtroom you must have made a genuine attempt at resolving your dispute through mediation (or some other form of alternative dispute resolution).

Becoming an accredited mediator is not a particularly difficult process (a 5-day workshop followed by a video assessment), and the skills that you develop can be used across a wide variety of disputes, not just those that would otherwise end up in court! For further information on mediation or becoming an accredited mediator please see this website. A great book on interests-based negotiating (central to the mediation process) is ‘Getting to Yes‘ by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton.

That’s about it for now. What will I be doing with all my free time now that I’m not studying? Well for a start I’ll be spending a lot of time reading for personal enjoyment. Over the past two years I’ve collated a list of about 100 books I want to read (here for those curious). Other than that I’m looking forward to exercising more and importantly getting back into photography – just wandering the streets, documenting the world as it unfolds in front of me, and of course sharing the results on here!🙂

Group Selfie

Group Selfie

Group Selfie

3 Guys, 1 Girl

3 Guys, 1 Girl

You'll have to drag me

You’ll have to drag me

Untitled 12289

Untitled 12289

Under a rainbow

Under a rainbow

Under a rainbow

Roller-girl

Roller-girl

Untitled 12199

Untitled 12199

Prams & kites

Prams & kites

Nepal

Two Nepalese girls

Two Nepalese girls

Clean & dirty

Clean & dirty

Hung out to dry

Hung out to dry

Bhaktapur brickworks

Bhaktapur brickworks

Melamchi labourer

Melamchi labourer

The School in the Sky

The School in the Sky

Collecting yarn

Collecting yarn

The man from Bhaktapur

The man from Bhaktapur

It’s been a while – just over a year to be exact – since my last post! I’ve been shooting much less than I would have liked, as my sole focus has been on finishing my Masters degree.

I recently arrived back home after spending two weeks in Nepal, where I participated in the Himalayan Field School, which was focused on the interaction between development and human rights in developing countries. It was an incredible experience, and my only wish was that I could have stayed longer and gone trekking in the Himalayas. Nepal is a beautiful country and the people are so warm, welcoming and friendly. If you have the opportunity I can definitely recommend it as a holiday destination, albeit one a little more off the beaten track than your typical getaway!

The field school will (hopefully) be my final subject – it all depends on how I go with an upcoming take-home exam and 8,000 word essay. Fingers crossed!🙂

Thumbs up

Thumbs up

Thumbs up

Spare some change?

Spare some change?

Bag lady

Bag lady

Shut it

Shut it

Up and down

Up and down

Untitled 11744

Untitled 11744

York & George

York & George

I’m a lawyer.

Earlier this month I was admitted as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of NSW. It was a nice occasion – my parents flew down from Queensland, there was all the pomp and ceremony one would expect, and the ceremony itself was conducted in the Banco Court by the Chief Justice of NSW.

I'm a lawyer!

I’m a lawyer!

A few of the reasons I haven’t posted in a while are that I’ve been ridiculously busy at work, and since my admission I’ve been contemplating my future.

What am I going to do now that I’ve been admitted? The short answer, at least for the time being, is “not much.” I am just about to reach 9 years of service with my current employer. If I quit now I do not receive any long service leave. If I stay until I reach 10 years of service I become entitled to 2 months paid leave.

Whilst I am eager to begin my legal career, I would be stupid to quit now instead of working a further 12 months and receiving 2 months paid leave. The long service leave may also allow me to fulfil a dream of mine to cycle around Australia raising money for charity and talking to children and young people about the benefits of regular exercise and a healthy diet.

So that’s where I’m at – I will keep working with my current employer for the time being, complete the Master of Laws, receive my long service leave and then see where the road takes me.

Another factor that I have taken into consideration is that job prospects for law gradates at the moment are not particularly good. There seems to be a significant oversupply of law graduates.  This recent submission by the Law Society of South Australia provides a good overview of the problems facing new lawyers. For an in-depth discussion from the perspective of students/graduates see these three Whirlpool forum posts – Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone – may 2014 be full of love, joy and happiness for you all!🙂

How

How

How

Love lock

Love lock

Huddle

Huddle

Freerunning

Freerunning

Dusty under the bridge

Dusty under the bridge

Aerial view

Aerial view

Through the window

Through the window

Digging at the cemetery

Digging at the cemetery 

Haven’t been very active recently – apologies.  I had an essay due followed by a take-home exam, then I rebuilt my little macbook to the latest version (OS X Mavericks) and had to reinstall Lightroom etc… and this week I’ve been a little under the weather, so I haven’t shot anywhere near as much as I would have liked!

Rainbow Observer

Rainbow observer

Rainbow observer

Jumper

Jumper

Shapes

Shapes

Bronte Sunbathers

Bronte Sunbathers