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On the job as a criminal lawyer at Victoria Legal Aid
David de Witt studied Law and Journalism at Queensland University of Technology and is now a criminal lawyer at Victoria Legal Aid.
Where did you study?
I grew up in the northern suburbs of Brisbane and attended Queensland University of Technology to study a dual degree in Law and Journalism.
What's your job title?
I work at Victoria Legal Aid as a criminal lawyer. I joined Legal Aid as part of the New Lawyers Program, which is a 2 year program designed for people with under 2 years PAE. The program gives lawyers interested in working in the social justice sector exposure to different areas of law and in working in metro and regional areas throughout Victoria.
What is your employer’s goal?
Victoria Legal Aid’s objective, as an organisation, is to further access to justice in the community by helping to ensure that, no matter a person’s circumstances or vulnerabilities, they receive a just outcome within our legal system.
What does your role involve?
As a criminal lawyer my role gives me the opportunity to help vulnerable people charged with a broad range of criminal offences. I do this by appearing as a duty lawyer at Magistrates Courts across Victoria to provide members of the public with legal advice or in-court advocacy. When matters become too complex to resolve on the day of court I have the opportunity to open a file for that person to assist them between court dates. This can be particularly fulfilling because it gives you the opportunity to work closely with your client to build rapport, ensure their circumstances are conveyed to the court persuasively and encourage them to seek assistance for any underlying issues that might have contributed to the offending.
What do you like most about your role?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is having the chance to see meaningful progress made by clients motivated to address really complex issues in their life. By helping to manage the stress of a client’s legal issues I believe we are able to help to put clients in a position where they can focus on addressing these broader issues like substance dependency, homelessness or disengaging from an abusive relationship.
Another great aspect of my job is the daily opportunity that I’m given to appear in court on behalf of clients. Though court work can be very stressful I’ve loved the challenge of speaking on behalf of persuasively explaining a client’s circumstances to the court and having the opportunity to apply my legal knowledge to secure real, tangible outcomes for my clients.
Why did you choose a career in law?
I grew up in the northern suburbs of Brisbane and attended Queensland University of Technology to study a dual degree in Law and Journalism. Having a large Malaysian family, most of which worked in helping professions like nursing, teaching and social work, probably contributed significantly to the development of my very early desire to find a job that allowed me to help vulnerable people in my community. While I felt that this could be accomplished by a career in either journalism or law, I ended up going with the latter because I was more interested in working directly for individuals rather than maintaining journalistic objectivity.
Throughout university I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of my law degree as well as the opportunity to apply existing law in new creative ways. Coupling my studies with work experience anywhere that would take me (including commercial firms, the DPP, CLC’s and Legal Aid organisations) gave me the chance to learn more about practicing in a broad range of areas. I eventually settled on criminal defence because I came to love the opportunities it gave practitioners to work with clients, appear in court and engage in a broad range of fascinating subject matter.
What personal qualities are required for success in your position?
Like most areas of law I believe that a practitioner in criminal defence must develop strong resilience, good sense of humour, healthy work-life balance and an appreciation of the aspects of the job that personally motivate them to ensure they are able to forge a positive, successful career in the profession.
Criminal law, particularly at a Legal Aid organisation, can require practitioners to get very proximate to emotional, confronting subject matter that can be difficult to deal with objectively. This means it becomes really important to develop good self-awareness about how issues might be impacting on the lawyer personally and to have a good support network of colleagues to debrief with (usually over beers and unhealthy snacks).
Most importantly I think criminal defence lawyers need to have a strong belief in people they assist and in the idea that, even though people make mistakes, there is always an opportunity to turn things around.
What are the limitations or downsides of your job?
I think one of the most frustrating limitations of my job is that no matter how hard we work or how much we care there is only so much that we can do for our clients who will often continue to struggle to overcome really complicated legal and non-legal issues in their lives. Oftentimes it can be easy to get frustrated about the realities of finite resources invested in funding programs and services that would change the lives of people engaged in our legal system (and in many cases divert them away from it long-term).
While I think I will always feel these frustrations, I’ve always found that helps to remind myself of the progress that our community continues to make in supporting vulnerable people and how lucky we are as lawyers in this sector to get the opportunity to use our knowledge and experience to keep thinking of ways to tackle this problem in the future.
What opportunities do you have at the College of Law that aren't available elsewhere?
After graduating university I was eager to jump in to practice and didn’t want to waste any time in enrolling in PLT. Having considered the program providers available in Queensland I opted to go with College of Law because it provided students a broader range of electives than any other course. Because I had strong interest in both criminal and family law, a major factor in my decision was that College of Law was the only provider at the time that allowed students to do both these electives.
As someone who was already working full time when I commenced PLT, another reason I chose College of Law was because of their excellent reputation for structuring their courses to assist people in my position. By setting teaching and assessment in intensive blocks and online, College of Law was able to help minimise the time I had to take off work to complete the course without pushing out my completion date. I appreciated working with lecturers that had excellent experience in their areas and who were understanding about work commitments and the realities of trying to balance employment and study.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of completing your PLT through the College of Law? Has it been a positive experience and, if so, why?
I had a really excellent experience in completing my PLT through College of Law. I found the content to be practical and well focused on law and procedure relevant to the first years of practice. I enjoyed the course and appreciated the opportunity to work with lecturers still practicing in a variety of areas. During my time at College of Law I was fortunate enough to meet a great group of like-minded students at a similar stage in their careers as I was. A real highlight was getting to develop such good friendships with people I still maintain contact with today.
Which three pieces of advice would you give to a university student?
- Travel and experience as much as possible, even if that meant delaying graduation or admission. The workforce is always going to be around and jobs always come up. You will never regret travelling and in the end the experience you gain from being exposed to new places and cultures will make you a smarter, wiser person and a better legal practitioner.
- Not to get too caught up in the competitiveness of law school or the stress of university marks. Ultimately it’s just not accurate that you’ll never get a job if you don’t secure that clerkship or maintain that GPA. It’s so easy to subscribe to that culture and lose track of how excellent student life is. There are so many interesting non-legal things to do and learn out there. Use those university holidays.
- When you’re deciding on which direction to take your career, think about the specific aspects of work that you enjoy rather than jobs themselves. Make your decision about what to apply for based on jobs that best meet those features. Do you like interacting with people? Interested in court advocacy? Do you prefer legal research or looking at the broader picture? Maybe you might be happier working in counter-terrorism policy at the Attorney General’s Department instead of at a big firm doing law you don’t really feel strongly about (or maybe that big firm culture fits you perfectly).