Like many law students, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with my degree. Do I want to practice? If I do, do I want to work in the city or go regional? Do I even want to have anything to do with the law when I finish?
I decided to try and gain a better perspective. I found some work experience with a sole solicitor firm in Grafton, a city of around 20000 located between Coffs Harbour and Lismore on the NSW North Coast. Fortunately, the solicitor was the second person I approached. He told me to come in, I gave him my prepared ramble, and he told me to meet him at the courthouse the following Monday.
I remember coming home from my first day of work experience, after a Local Court listing day, and thinking ‘this is what I want to do. This is the light at the end of the tunnel’.
I’ve been doing experience on and off for nine months now, when I’m home from uni, and I’ve had some incredible experiences.
My work experience led me to meet a barrister from Sydney, who was in Grafton for District Court (which travels to Grafton approximately every six months). After spending several days with him and the solicitor, I was offered some work experience in the city by the barrister. For a country kid, this was a fantastic opportunity, which I of course accepted. This experience allowed me an insight into what working life is like in a city-based environment, and it really did reconfirm that my calling is to the country.
During my work experience there was a sexual assault trial at District Court. The first week long trial resulted in a hung jury after a day’s deliberation. As a result, there was a retrial. I got to see certain provisions of legislation being used, such as s 306C of the Criminal Procedure Act, which dictates that a sexual assault victim is not compelled to give further evidence. The second jury came back with a guilty verdict after two hours.
During this case I was showing the barrister the quick-reference table and documents I’d organised for his closing. The solicitor commented that I should sit up at the bar table next to the barrister because I was ‘all over it’. I laughed, of course. Turns out the solicitor was serious. With the Court’s leave, I had the incredible opportunity of sitting at the bar table, advising the barrister (read: handing documents and notes… ‘would you like a glass of water?’) during his final speech.
Not only do I get to watch court trials, I also get to see so many other facets of rural work. The big thing about rural solicitors is that they don’t have a single area of practice. A typical country lawyer’s day could involve a PCA hearing in court in the morning, a family dispute just before lunch and a property matter that afternoon.
Another thing about rural work is that everybody knows everybody. You see exactly the same faces everyday, so maintaining a good working relationship is especially important. In the typical country way, everybody is friendly, and the lawyers, court staff, police and Correctives workers are usually chatting or having a joke around before the judge comes in, at which point it’s all business.
My experience has allowed me to visit accused people in the police cells (where people who are on remand or in custody are held before their trial), drink coffee with the Correctives officers, speak to clients and their families, sit in on negotiations and to see how much time and effort goes in to preparing a trial. I have had the opportunity to meet Crown prosecutors and local solicitors, even a retired NSW Supreme Court judge who is back in practice. I didn’t actually know who he was until after he’d left, but I did offer him my chair, so I didn’t embarrass myself too badly.
I realise this is sounding more like a big brag than anything, but there is an ultimate message. If you don’t know where you want to go after law school, don’t immediately discount a career in a regional area.
The experiences and networking which have come from this are priceless. And the best part of it all is that it’s reinforcing to me that there is something to look forward to after I finish my degree, and reminding me that after five years of hard study (and another one for my PLT) I can finally combine and get paid for doing one of my favourite things: helping other people out. After all, helping others is the country way.
Enjoyed this post? Sign up for the Survive Law weekly newsletter for more.