Isabel Leeds

Native Title
Summer 2014

I graduated from QUT at the end of 2012, and was finishing up my PLT studies during 2012 when I initially heard about the Aurora Native Title Internship Program from a friend. My friend was deliberating whether to do an internship (unpaid) with Aurora or take one of the clerkship (paid) offers from down on Eagle Street in Brisbane. As all students will know, the offer of paid employment was an opportunity she (literally) couldn’t afford to pass up. However, as a recent graduate who had already experienced the rat race of scrambling for clerkship and graduate offers in the tiny world of Eagle Street and an increasingly depressed market, the prospect of moving to a remote area to undertake a native title placement sounded like an appealing and adventurous experience, dare I say it – a rewarding experience?


I did some research into Aurora and realised the internship program was a perfect opportunity to gain some real experience and learn about an incredibly complex area of law - hopefully along the way I would be able to contribute something to the organisation. I was also incensed that I had managed to gain a Law degree and my knowledge of native title was limited to one lecture in Property Law. The material we were provided to learn was “not examinable”. You can imagine how many students crammed native title lecture slides before the final exam. I was no exception. As a person who grew up on an isolated cattle station in South West Queensland, having known many Indigenous people throughout my short life, I became increasingly annoyed at myself for somehow missing the “native title part” of my education. I decided that I would apply and somehow survive for 6 weeks in Townsville with no income, just some savings and an open mind. I saw the internship as an opportunity to broaden my horizons of what I could really do with my legal career beyond Eagle Street and moreover to expose myself to an area of law I had no real knowledge of. Thus, I set off with very little idea of what to expect.


The work I undertook once in Townsville at the Native Title Representative Body (NTRB), North Queensland Land Council (NQLC), varied from day to day. I quickly learnt that in order to under stand how native title law worked, my knowledge of real property law, administrative law, and constitutional law and also my communication skills and adaptability would be needed to becoming a proficient part of the team.


 In my first week I attended an interview with an Elder and had the privilege of hearing his wealth of knowledge of his people and their traditional way of life and how it has developed and adapted whilst still maintaining a connection to land. I learnt that gathering of such information was a crucial and time consuming part of native title process. The drafting such information in support of a Form 1 Application filed at the Federal Court was additionally challenging. I did many other tasks during my placement including assisting in identifying claim areas on geospatial maps and any overlaps, trying to reconcile priority of tenure, and assisting in Prescribed Body Corporate meetings with claim groups. I also attended authorisation meetings in Charters Towers and Townsville. These meetings highlighted to me how these complex legal issues that are quibbled over by lawyers affect so many generations of people.

No day was the same, and throughout all of this, I developed great working relationships with the team at NQLC. I really felt I was doingsomething; I was made to feel useful and used in the sense that I was always given challenging tasks appropriate to my skill set, mostly coming directly from the Senior Legal Officer (also my supervisor).  The learning experience far outweighed any financial expense or insecurities I had before I departed.


The most valuable thing I gained from the internship was being able to observe and respect what a brilliant communicator my supervisor is. I already knew that communication is a key skill required of a lawyer in all practice areas, but the ability of my supervisor to so fluidly communicate with native title claimants, barristers and lawyers in Brisbane, as well as Principal Legal Officers and various staff each in a specifically nuanced and seamless style, is a skill that I aspire to learn as someone early in their law career.


Overall I found the internship rewarding, refreshing, confronting, and challenging and I am optimistic that my future career in law will include native title. I urge everyone to research the Aurora Internship Program, as you never know where it may lead you.