As I was looking in an Indigenous artwork shop in Oenpelli, a remote town in the Northern Territory, one of the lawyers frantically ran in. ‘Andrew, we need to leave, right now!’. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘There is a cyclone, we need to get on the plane right now, all the planes at Darwin are already grounded!’. Good reason, I figured. As we took off in the tiny plane, heading directly into an endless black cloud, I pondered, what exactly had I got myself into?
The cause of my existential questioning, as we flew over crocodile infested waters, can be traced to my decision a few months earlier to apply for an Aurora Internship. The Aurora Native Title Internship Program places approximately 100 students per intake (summer & winter) at the 15 Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) or at over 60 other organisations around Australia working in policy development and social justice to further Indigenous rights. When I was asked where I would like to go in the interview, my answer was straight forward. ‘Out of Melbourne, as remote as you can go!’
I had spent the last summer doing clerkships at commercial firms, and I wanted a breath of fresh air, with the chance to help people who didn’t have the resources to help themselves. I can safely say that my time at NAAJA (North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency) in the Northern Territory, provided me with that opportunity, and then some!
NAAJA has a civil and criminal division, and I was placed in the civil division. I worked on matters ranging from complex research into suing police for police brutality and considering whether hospitals had the power to involuntarily detain patients, to going into a community and trying to help a family get their car back that had been seized and helping a young boy prepare to take his L’s test.
Three things should be made clear at this point. Firstly, it should be apparent that volunteering at a place like NAAJA is not a ‘soft law’ option. You deal with real people and issues that are often confronting, sad, and brutal. You come face to face with the huge disparity in social and legal standards that Indigenous people face.
Yet the key thing is that you actually have a chance to hit these issues head on. When you finish a half hour meeting with a client and you are able to provide steps they can take to sort out a problem that has been on their mind for months, the sense of appreciation and gratefulness in their eyes reminds you why you originally wanted to study law.
Secondly, the work you undertake is useful from a number of perspectives. Coming from a background of undertaking clerkships at large commercial firms, I found that the work I did at NAAJA was extremely interesting and challenging. In a corporate firm, as a clerk you will often write a memo, which will go through the path of solicitor, senior associate, partner, before it finally is sent off. At NAAJA, due to the nature of government funded legal aid, the same resources simply do not exist. This means that solicitors will be relying upon your work on a day to day basis, when providing advice to clients, or presenting a matter in court. This sense of responsibility serves to motivate you, but also dramatically improves your legal and research skills.
Thirdly, an Aurora internship is not all work! The opportunity to live in a different state for six weeks is an experience in itself. This is particularly so in Darwin. Due to the nature of the city, it is a youthful place with people constantly coming and going. It also has a pleasantly relaxed culture! I have become good friends with the other five or six interns up here at any given time, not to mention the people who work at NAAJA! As well as work, we have managed to see jumping crocodiles, swim under a double waterfall, and get to Kakadu!
I would like to finally touch on one of the very special things about working at NAAJA – the opportunity to go ‘out bush’. NAAJA visits many remote communities on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. I went to Wadeye, the town that sparked the NT intervention, as well as Jabiru and Oenpelli, where we encountered the aforementioned weather problems. Often the day involves sitting outside under a tree speaking to clients and giving advice – fairly far removed from a plush office on Collins Street! These trips had a strong impact upon me. It was only when I got ‘out bush’ that I began to fully appreciate the immense disadvantages Indigenous people face, and this served to motivate me even more!
I hope that my piece has adequately conveyed the amazing time I had, and the way my internship has helped me develop as a person and a lawyer. I leave you with this message: Seriously consider applying for an Aurora internship. Don’t write it off because you don’t see yourself working with Indigenous issues in the future – you may surprise yourself, and learn skills that will ultimately make you a much better lawyer in whatever field you do choose! Applications for the upcoming winter 2012 round of internships will be open on-line via the Aurora website from 5th to 30th March at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram.