By Emily Sandrussi
Over the summer I completed an internship through the Aurora Internship Program that saw me spend four redefining weeks at North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Darwin.
When I applied for Aurora, I didn’t really know what I wanted out of the program – or out of a career in law. What I got though, was an experience that was personally and professionally transformative, with the added bonus of meeting the requirements of the Legal Internship elective.
I felt like a fraud writing my application for the Aurora program. My initial motivation for applying was the anger and powerlessness I felt while studying native title in Property Law – that hardly made me deserving of a place in such a well-respected and valuable program. My sense of inadequacy was only heightened by the fact that I didn’t know what exactly I was hoping to achieve through an internship – despite having to answer this question in some form several times throughout the application process.
At this point, I was even starting to doubt that I wanted to practice law at all. I was worried that if I took all that doubt into an internship, I would be nothing more than a well-intentioned burden in an already over-stretched workplace.
If I was going to do it, I wanted to be actually helpful to an under-resourced organisation – even if that meant scanning and filing and fetching coffees for four weeks. Beyond that, I secretly hoped for an answer to the question of whether lawyering, and specifically lawyering in the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, might be the career for me.
My internship at NAAJA gave me that answer – and so much more.
Rich and substantial work
The work I was tasked with from the moment I arrived was rich and substantial. All of my doubts about practicing law vanished in a whirlwind of legal research, client meetings and drafting advice. I experienced the high of discovering flaws in opponents’ submissions and obscure causes of action for clients.
After two years spent stewing in the study of doctrinal law, I was (perhaps short-sightedly) shocked to discover that the skills I had been gathering had practical use. It was surreal to watch the abstract concepts from my cold Melbourne classrooms come alive when faced with real clients facing very real legal issues in the humidity of the Top End.
I was well equipped before leaving for my internship. Between Aurora’s pre-departure induction and the materials NAAJA supplied, I had read widely enough to not be completely naïve when I landed. Even so, I quickly discovered the systemic inequalities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is far worse than I’d imagined – and they’re only magnified in the unique context of the Northern Territory.
An empowering experience
Before my internship, I would have expected to feel overwhelmed with hopelessness in the face of this. Instead, I found myself buoyed by the particular pragmatic optimism of NAAJA’s cohort of talented staff. In the midst of the ongoing war against the big systemic stuff, it was empowering to discover the skills I’d gained in torts, contract law, public law and the trusty Australian Consumer Law were all valuable tools to help win important battles for our clients each day.
Again and again, I learned how legal problems often affected clients’ lives in profound and complex ways. I saw the direct impact our small actions made for individual clients and their families. And I witnessed the way the cumulative effect of these daily experiences equipped the team at NAAJA to fight larger-scale battles in advocating for law reform and appealing cases all the way to the High Court. It was a dizzying and humbling privilege to roll up my sleeves and play my small supporting role for one short month.
My Aurora internship helped me find a passion for legal practice and with it an antidote to my anger at the world’s injustices. And for the record – the only coffees I purchased were to fuel my own addiction.
Applications for the winter 2020 Aurora Internship Program are still open for Indigenous applicants. I understand Aurora is also working hard to ensure placements are flexible, including options for virtual internships.