La Trobe Law School Alumnus Stephanie Falconer on her CAALAS placement: “I really feel like I was able to make a difference.”

Every law graduate is required to do a certain amount of hours of professional placement before admission. While gaining this full time legal experience is invaluable some people can  feel quite intimidated (and even inconvenienced) by the idea of finding a place to complete three weeks of unpaid work.

Usually, this placement is done as part of the Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice course that students will undertake on the completion of their LLB. For my Diploma of Legal Practice, I went to the Leo Cussen Centre for Law and did their onsite course, which I found to be excellent. One of the best parts of the course was how Leo Cussen staff are there to help you with organising a placement. If you know where you want to go, you still have the option to organise your own.

Any anxiety I had about the challenges involved in a placement were eased by our placement briefing at Leo Cussen. The coordinator mentioned that some people go interstate to do their placement, and specifically mentioned that placements in the Northern Territory were a truly unique and rewarding experience. This piqued my interest, because I had done some work for La Trobe Law School regarding Indigenous Human Rights – this had given me an understanding of how overwhelmed the Northern Territory legal system is. As a result of this work I also knew about the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS), so I asked the placement coordinator if I could do my placement with them, in Alice Springs.

CAALAS and Aboriginal Legal Aid

My coordinator contacted CAALAS and, after a few weeks, we got a response saying that they would be ‘delighted to have me’. This is when the reality of what I was about to do hit me and I suddenly found myself wishing I’d never asked. But, I pushed through, and I’m so very glad that I did. I cannot recommend an internship with CAALAS highly enough.

CAALAS loves having interns. They have so much going on all the time and any extra help is always valued – but they also love being able to show students what the justice system really is and how it operates, to teach the practicalities of law and not just the theory. In my three weeks interning at CAALAS I saw more, and did more, than I ever expected. It was a truly hands-on experience and I was extremely well supported by the staff up there.

My first day was a whirlwind and I was swept up into the world of Aboriginal Legal Aid. Within 30 minutes of starting, I was already down in the cells at the Local Court with the Duty Lawyers and watching interviews with clients. Once all of the interviews were out of the way, it was back up to the Courts and time to make bail applications, guilty pleas or sentencing submissions as instructed by the clients. It was a calm chaos – all of the lawyers, police, judges and court staff working their way through an overwhelming amount of charges and dealing with all the issues as they arose.

On my second day, I was granted leave to sit at the bar table on a Supreme Court Jury trial involving charges of serious harm. I was able to see the examination in chief, cross examination and legal submissions that make a trial right up close. I met the client and assisted the defence lawyer in developing questions consistent with the case concept, while also undertaking legal research dealing with the admissibility of evidence. I worked on several submissions that were ruled upon by the Judge and were fundamental to the trial. This trial went over several days and was challenging at every turn. I’m pleased to be able to say that the Jury returned a verdict of not guilty. It was a fascinating process from start to finish, and it felt like this experience would have been enough to make the placement worthwhile on its own.

I was also granted leave to make appearances despite not yet being admitted. I appeared on behalf of several clients to seek adjournments and, I even represented a client in a guilty plea. Naturally, this was all supervised and no one’s livelihood was at risk, but it was still a big deal to me. It was an amazing feeling to see the all those years of study culminate into really practicing the skills I’d learnt.

I was also fortunate enough to get to experience bush court while working at CAALAS. This is a circuit court in which a Magistrate will travel to certain Aboriginal communities on rotation. Lawyers from CAALAS will go along and represent people who have been charged with crimes in remote communities and cannot make it to Alice Springs. We travelled to Yuendumu and Pupunya and represented clients in all manner of cases, from unlicensed driving to aggravated assault. I was able to interact with the Aboriginal community and see how important the legal aid service really is.

A worthwhile opportunity

At the end of my three weeks I had learnt more and done more practical work than I ever had in 6 years of study. I am so grateful that I took the leap and undertook my placement with CAALAS. It is an opportunity I cannot recommend highly enough – even though its intimidating and very hard work. It’s definitely worthwhile.

Aboriginal legal aid is a vital service in the Northern Territory and the lawyers that work there work extremely hard on a daily basis to make sure that justice is applied equally. The staff at CAALAS were incredible – they were fantastic lawyers and excellent human beings to boot. They all look out for one another and have a lot of fun – even when dealing with the heavy reality of the criminal law system. I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to help them while I was there and I really feel like I was able to make a difference.

I strongly encourage any students, who have the ability and willingness to undertake the challenge, to consider contacting CAALAS and organising an internship with them over the holidays, or as part of their own pre-admission professional placement. It will be the most valuable experience of your studies.

La Trobe