Adventures in Interning

by Jinryu

A few weeks ago, I was in an class that discussed what we were doing at our various internships, and I was a bit surprised by the comments and concerns that were coming up.


“My boss doesn’t listen to what I say.”

“They give me more work than is possible to do in one day!”

“Everyone wants me to do something different, they just don’t understand that I have to do work for other people too.”


These internships have nothing to do with the summer clerkships that I’ve been bitching about for the past few weeks, btw.  I’m talking about something different– these are internships that we do for the university, who basically lends out our abilities to various community legal centres around the city to gain some practical experience.  Unlike clerkships, this is mostly us being “office bitch” or “coffee gophers,” in 99% of the scenarios without the prospect of actually landing a grad job afterwards.

So we have a bit of guidance, which is to say, a class where we all sit down and talk about our experiences.  It’s not that I don’t find the classes interesting– but to me, they’re simply not all that helpful.  Pretty much everyone in that room is an undergrad combined degree student.  That means that they’re studying law as part of their undergraduate degree– the majority of these people have never held a part-time job in their life, much less worked full time in administration.  As a result, some of the things that they talk about are just… boring.


I mean, really: “They give me more work than I can do in a day!”  Seriously?  Welcome to the real world, children.

Whenever the meetings to discuss come up, it’s clear that one of my peers (who is also a postgraduate Juris Doctor student) and I are doing most of the real ‘suggestions.’  I don’t say we’re doing any mentoring, because frankly, the class only takes place 1 hour per two weeks, and there’s only so much we can suggest when these kinds of discussions come up.  And, as all of you out there who have worked in beaureucracy for long enough know, there are a lot of these situations which are simply unanswerable– the only course of action is just to suck it up, because that’s how the real world works outside of a classroom.


Nonethless, some of the suggestions I’ve made are along the following lines.


First of all, whenever you’re a volunteer, yes, you’re getting some experience out of it from the organisation.  But you’re not dogmeat.  (Dogmeat is the exact word I used in that class.)  No organisation has the right to treat you like shit (Shit is another word I used in that class) just because you’re paid less than anyone else, or because you know less than the people there.


Secondly, a lot of the situations are solvable with a bit of communication.  If a bit of communication doesn’t work, try a lot of communication.  And if a lot of communication doesn’t work? Try filing a complaint somewhere– if that doesn’t work, either quit, or suck it up.

The way that we navigate organisational beaureucracies should be in the form of a flow chart, with emphasis on flow.  There should always be some sort of direction to what’s going on.  If you’re frustrated with something, you need to insert a choice there to see if there can be attempts to resolve the situation.  It’s just like life– if there’s a problem, you don’t just eat it unless you’re really, really sure that it’s worth it to you because it’s just some component of a larger puzzle.  If not? Fix the situation, or GTFO.


It’s not that I think I’m beyond these peers of mine or that I look down on them… I’m happy to trade stories with them.  In fact, it’s really nice to see the spark of idealism in their hearts when they talk about the world, untainted by common sense or reality.  For example: there was one of my peers who is working on this case of a person who has been essentially in solitary confinement for over a decade, with just 1 hour of exercise time per day.  Pretty rough, huh?  He’s not displayed any aggression in a decade. So, she’s helping to campaign to get that guy released.

I asked: that sounds pretty serious.  What’s he in there for?

“Oh, well, actually… that was pretty bad.  He was locked up because he went on a killing rampage, and killed 6 people or something.”


Or something.  So… in a way, it’s nice to see people with their ideals of justice, and civil liberties and all that, in a pure form, without regard for reality.  That’s a bit of an extreme example and I’m quoting her slightly out of context, but the point is that I’m in a situation where I’m in a class full of kids. 


I don’t mind that in itself.  Like I said, their energy is invigorating, even if their ideas sometimes are just retarded.  They’re trying though.  It’s just that, where I’m paying for an education at ridiculous international student rates, why am I being placed in a situation where I have more to teach or refute than I do to learn about certain things? That bothers me.



Observations from the actual work I’m doing at my internship:


The NSW Law Reform Commission report, People with Cognitive and Mental Health Impairments in the Criminal Justice System, tied in to the research that I’ve been conducting for my CLC. My research project involves an examination law enforcement usage of Tasers in NSW.


In the course of research, it was recommended in several jurisdictions’ model practices that law enforcement required more training on how to evaluate situations to see if Taser usage is warranted. A 2010 NSW Ombudsman’s report on the subject revealed that training for special types of targets, including youths, the elderly, physically impaired, and mental health impaired targets, is severely lacking. The statistics concur with the NSWLRC report in pointing out that mental health impaired people are overrepresented.


In our criminal law classes, one of the trends I’ve noticed is that it’s easy to point at law enforcement and accuse them of constantly abusing their powers and not exercising enough sound judgement. I’m not doubting that this does happen. But the NSWLRC report pointed out something important, which speaks to one of the roots of this problem— there is a distinction between “offending” and “being violent.” Often, being violent is misunderstood for offending.


I’m aware that this is a huge over generalisation, but it’s one of the lessons I take from my previous work experience in health care. One of the most common ways that mentally impaired people are notable is through their ability to communicate when stressed. Complicated questions can often lead to responses of “I don’t understand,” “I don’t care,” or “I don’t like this.” Sometimes, as part of their attempts to communicate their response, many patients respond very physically, which makes unaccustomed bystanders uncomfortable. In retrospect, I’ve often been surprised at a long-time care-giver’s ability to clam someone who is mentally impaired, from what seems like a particularly “violent” fit.


Which brings me to a simple point– even as a trained healthcare worker, who has done several rotations with the mental health department, I’ve found myself uneasy dealing with mentally impaired patients that I didn’t personally have a long familiarity with. So what kind of situation is the typical police officer thrown in, when on the scene with someone who he or she never met, and simply appears to be violent?


The typical criminal law class discussions that suggest being more aware, or to be better trained, are too simplistic. When an officer responds to a situation, there are no familiar friends and family of the suspect to help to diffuse the situation. There isn’t a team of orderlies and medical staff trained for this kind of situation. Nobody knows that accused’s history. The officer’s training states that he should be aware of the special circumstances of the accused, but doesn’t offer much more help than that, except to take a step back and re-emphasise that the safety of the officer is paramount. The problem solving tools the officer has been provided are a gun, a baton, a Taser, some gloves and handcuffs.


It’s no surprise to me that, as a result, Tasers often come out in these sorts of scenarios. I imagine that police officers have enough legitimate experiences with violent offenders to make this the default position. It’s the broad solution to situations with too many unknown variables.


It seems to me that if people with mental impairments slip through the cracks of our medical institutions, its inevitable that they will be treated even worse by our criminal justice system, both on the streets at the law enforcement stage, and in the courtrooms. Discussions in criminal law classes, especially debates about mens rea, reveal that it is incredibly difficult to standardise criteria for evaluating just what is going in an accused’s mind. If the courtroom has difficulty evaluating mental states with the benefit of retrospect, far removed from the passion of the moment, how much can realistically expect of an officer on the scene?


I have been struggling with the idea for some time. The literature seems to suggest no solutions. It seems to mostly reveal increased awareness of the problems, which I suppose is the first step.