Volume 1, Issue 10 (Originally Published on 7 May 2012)
Charlotte Frew, 29, was in the first class to graduate from the Melbourne JD, having completed it in two years. She now is employed as an associate to a judge at the County Court, working in the field of criminal law with the ambition of becoming a criminal law advocate in the future.
Charlotte relishes many aspects of her job: “I like that it is a very people-focused area of law; I also think it offers an opportunity to assist some of the most marginalised people in our community. And working as an associate gives me a great insight into the practice of criminal law, and in particular, advocacy. I love being able to gain wisdom and experience from the judge I work with. As someone who aspires to be an advocate in criminal law, the chance to spend every day in court, observing, discussing, and dissecting the proceedings with a hugely experienced advocate is an immense privilege.”
She contrasts her work with those of her peers in firms: “I don’t bill hours and I don’t have to meet targets. This is not to say the court’s workload isn’t massive — it is!” However, Charlotte appreciates the mental stimulation her work provides, as well as the supportive, non-competitive work environment.
A stopover at The Hague
Charlotte’s path from Melbourne Law School to the County Court included a stint at The Hague. “As my final subject for the JD I undertook what was to be a three month internship in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). I left sunny Melbourne in November, expecting to return to a graduate position in a big commercial law firm in February the following year. After an incredibly interesting three months at the ICTY, I was offered a number of rolling contracts to stay. After a bit of soul-searching, I decided to forgo my graduate position in commercial law and ended up spending a full year at the ICTY. After those 12 months at the ICTY, I realised that I really wanted to be an advocate, so returned to Australia to get admitted to practice and build up my domestic experience in criminal law.”
Her advice for students who want to forge a career in criminal law is: “Go to the Magistrates’ Court and watch the advocates there. Bail applications, contests, and committals are all excellent for getting an understanding of the day to day work of criminal lawyers. I’d also recommend trying to get voluntary or paid experience with a criminal defence firm or Victorian Legal Aid.”
Advice for law students
Passionate about her beliefs and also about her job, Charlotte admits that it can still be stressful at times, owing to the ‘lose-lose’ nature of many criminal matters. Charlotte’s other advice for JDs: “Follow the area of law that you are interested in and don’t get too caught up in the ‘must have a clerkship, must get grad position, must do five years of commercial law, etc.’ mentality that I think is pretty heavily impressed on law students (or that we impress on ourselves). It’s true that the career paths to commercial law are well-established. But the roads leading to other areas of legal practice, or to non-legal roles, though less easily navigated, do exist.”
“Above all, be genuine: don’t try and pretend that it is your life-long dream to be a banking and finance solicitor when really you want to do criminal defence work.”
Charlotte hopes she will still be working in criminal law five years from now, whether in Australia or overseas. Public policy remains a major area of interest for her; “If I ruled the world, I’d re-distribute government spending into education, preventative health — both mental and physical — and rehabilitation programs in prisons.”
The County Court can be stressful because of the ‘lose- lose’ nature of many criminal matters. However, time management is one potential stressor that Charlotte has mastered, and her advice is also relevant for students: “Set timeframes for yourself, work only within those timeframes and don’t keep tinkering with things right up to the deadlines. Once it’s finished, put it down and walk away.”