I want your job: Criminal Defence Lawyer, Jessie Smith
Jessie Smith is a criminal defence lawyer at Stary Norton Halphen but outside her legal career, Jessie manages a fair-trade business called SEW (Supporting + Empowering Women), a social enterprise that employs HIV+ women in Tanzania to make bags. I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with Jessie and ask her a few questions.
What made you want to study law? Did you always want to be a lawyer?
I was always really interested in human rights, and I loved debating and politics. I was bent on being a politician or diplomat until I realised that I could never peddle a political agenda. I chose law thinking I would go into politics, but then retreated from that pretty quickly once I had gone on with my degree.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
5-6 a.m. Wake up and prepare my matters for court.
8 a.m. I'm usually in the office. As an advocate, I have to be in court every day. I deal with a lot of terrorism matters but I’ll generally also do other things, like drink driving pleas or appeals in the County Court. It is the most varied and interesting job you could imagine.
9-12 p.m. I’ll usually be in court, on my feet arguing in front of a judge, which is great fun. You have to be a good public speaker, however many of my colleagues wouldn’t consider themselves public speakers and they’re amazing, so it’s definitely something you get used to.
After lunch, I’m back in the office for client appointments all afternoon. Somewhere amidst all of that, I have to start ongoing preparation for my other matters – so calling psychologists, issuing subpoenas to get records in and researching areas of law for my next day’s appearances.
It’s a job that then bleeds into the evening. I might leave work at 7 or 8 p.m. Sometimes I’ll leave earlier, but then I’ll take work home. It’s very much a lifestyle as opposed to a job.
What do you enjoy about being a criminal defence lawyer?
Criminal law is interesting because you deal with all sorts of social policy aspects. When a lot of the client base is disenfranchised communities, you need to understand the political scene. And then, you’re not just a criminal lawyer; you become someone who can agitate for change in areas like drug policy or domestic violence.
As a defence lawyer, if you can go into the hardest case and ensure that rights are protected, you can do it for anyone. You need to keep reminding yourself that there is always going to be an unfavourable person. You’re not there to justify their actions, or to peddle their agenda. You’re there to ensure that if the trials aren’t run properly, there is no point doing it.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
It’s one of those careers where you have little victories all the time, and I don’t think you can even separate them. Being able to do your part in a therapeutic process and trying to address disadvantage is quite rewarding and satisfying. A lot of community-spirited people end up in this field for that reason.
Seeing clients leave the system better than when they entered is amazing. I’ve had clients who have done a complete 180, which is really great! There’s not one clear case that represents this. There is no difference between victory in, say, a highly publicised terrorism matter, and a teenage refugee who has managed to stop offending and get a job. They are both just as exciting as each other!
Yes, it can be quite taxing, and you can’t deny the fact that it does wear you down – you need a lot of mental health breaks. But it’s so enjoyable and interesting that I’ve never once paused to think, “When will this day end?”.
Do you have any advice or tips for law students?
I think the biggest thing that’ll make you a good lawyer is being engaged from day one. Explore as many volunteering opportunities as possible, and enrich your legal studies with as many co-curriculars as you can.
At the end of the day, experience is more valuable to becoming a lawyer than the name of the firm. To a potential employer, knowing how a file runs or how to read judgements is so much more impressive than doing two weeks at a fancy firm. Do what interests you, not what you think will interest others.
There’s no rush to grow up or graduate. Putting off law for a while to gain life experiences isn’t a bad idea. Go on exchange, travel or study abroad. It’s totally worth the experience!
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