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Legal internships and volunary work in Africa: a career move

Date added: Thursday 23rd May 2013

Ryan Corey volunteered and enjoyed law internships in Tanzania arranged with The LeapObtaining a training contract with a law firm is, perhaps, more difficult than it has ever been, says law graduate Ryan Corey.

Not since the abolition of scale fees in the mid-1980s has there been so much hysteria about the state of the legal profession. Ask any criminal lawyer today about legal aid and some may shrug their shoulders and mutter something about it being "gone and never coming back". Not even the "big firms" are safe. Consider Semple Fraser's misfortune in March 2013. For anyone currently considering taking those first few tentative steps into the profession there may be some serious doubts harboured about "doing the right thing".

There is a check-list: LLB, check; Diploma, check; Work experience, check; Previous degree a bonus - check. So what is it that employers want? Well, careers advisers at university drone on and on about being a well-rounded person. And practitioners, quite rightly, want a trainee who can produce the goods from the word go. So I took heed of the advice given when I was on my Diploma at Glasgow and went looking to see what I could find. Some "outside-of-the-box" thinking later led me to the door of a Wiltshire-based charity called The Leap Overseas Ltd.

After some browsing and a few ‘phone calls, I had signed up to a law internship which combined some volunteering activities. I was sent itineraries of the projects I'd be working on and, more importantly, the law firms whose door I would darken; ‘Star Attorneys', ‘Law Access Advocates'. This sounded promising.

My destination was Arusha, a small city of 300,000 inhabitants in the East African country of Tanzania. The group I found myself in was a group of English 19-year-olds who had embarked upon a gap-year before heading off to university. The firms were civil firms. Ideal, I thought, as my experience at home had been predominantly criminal work.

My time in Tanzania was divided into two parts. Legal work experience and helping with community projects.

The raison d'etre of the trip was the law placements. From the outset I must make it clear that the experience gained of actual substantive law was not massive. For example, around 35 per cent of any evidential material such as newspapers or even client correspondence was in Swahili. The remainder was in English and the legal system itself was largely borrowed from English law. Indeed on many occasions, House of Lords cases were a ‘very persuasive' precedent. Phraseology such as "plaintiff" and "defendant" was a feature. The Tanzanian Law Reports read like a Scots Law Times.

The volunteering projects were varied, but were broadly centred on carrying out aid work in various schools. I shovelled cement. I laid bricks. I installed panes of glass in windows. Most remarkably, I was genuinely amazed at the sense of making do with what little resources were available. Such scant availability of materials (which had been paid for by my fellow volunteers and I) really did lead to some phenomenal team-work. For example sand had to be carried in plastic buckets uphill. Going the whole way exhausted everyone. So, we put our heads together and formed a chain the length of the hill. A continuous supply of sand and happy, energetic volunteers ensued.

My supervisor at Star Attorneys, Mr Aikida, gave me and the two other law interns some live cases to read. He was aware that I had completed my legal studies. In a tongue-in-cheek manner he asked me to give a précis of my thoughts on the case. I read all the precedents and considered the evidence. He represented the plaintiffs in a representative suit against the local authority. His clients were the descendents of a travelling community who had occupied their land "openly, peaceably and without judicial interruption" for 80 years. The defendants wished to destroy their homes to construct a new Chinese-built highway, but without the courtesy of compensation required under the Roads Act (Tanzania) 2007. Under the local limitation laws, the magic number was 12 years. The case continues.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the time in Star was the way that a Tanzanian law firm is run. Power shortages in the Third World are common. Rolling black-outs are a feature of everyday life in Tanzania. But the lawyers work in the dark on battery-powered laptops without so much as a twitch when the plugs stop working.

Itching for some court experience, we asked Mr Aikida for a trip to court. He was unfortunately too busy so we headed over to the International Criminal Tribunals of Rwanda. Being almost 20 years since the first proceedings began into the atrocious genocide, the courts were quiet. Instead of witnessing the advocates first hand, I was led to a library to watch some cases on video. However, it was still remarkable to consider that this dark year in African history is still being played out in Appeals to this day.

The conclusion of my time was served in Law Access Advocates. Some days there would be little to do which was disappointing. The highlight was a Friday morning attendance at the Resident Magistrates Court. The court itself was little more than a largish office where the Resident Magistrate sat like a stern headmaster while the advocates meekly presented their preliminary pleas, whilst sitting. Far removed, then, from the confident, eye-contact filled, advocacy which is required to do well on the Diploma in Legal Practice, never mind the Court of Session. Rather perplexingly, both sides of the adversarial procedure sit aside each other on a long wooden bench.

There were some similarities. Agents bowed as they entered the court - respect for the bench is universal. Agents for both parties speaking hurriedly to each other before proceedings, eager to eke out any advantage while trying furiously to avoid wasting time in court. But there were no wigs or even gowns. The clerk's office was more akin to Rumpole of the Bailey, shelves groaning under the weight of dusty folders. And my mentor, a young woman who had only just qualified last year, had already represented clients in murder trials in the High Court of Tanzania.

She was rather amazed when I told her that there are two branches of the Scottish legal profession. Her title was Advocate - her role not too dissimilar to a Solicitor Advocate. But it was strange that an NQ was charged with protecting the rights of an alleged killer. Unsurprisingly, her firm Law Access - a multi-discipline practice - tended to shy away from criminal work. Appearances in High Court criminal trials are more valuable to the advocates' status than for any pecuniary gain.

Realistically, the trip was not as legally labour intensive as six weeks with Shepherd and Wedderburn. Nor is any criminal advocate in Scotland expected to represent a client who will face the death penalty for murder. Pinsent Masons do not have rolling-blackouts. It would be legitimate to wonder what the value of a trip to another jurisdiction is. Perhaps it was the camel ride through a Maasai market or maybe the day I slaughtered a goat for dinner or quite simply, that it is 'invaluable' to take a step back to look at your own jurisdiction through the eyes of another. And there's something to "name a time when" in interviews.

Ryan studied his undergraduate degree, accelerated law degree and Diploma at the University of Glasgow. He is currently on a law internship in Arusha, Tanzania. His contact details are: Twitter: @RyanJamesCorey and E-mail: [email protected]

This article first appeared online from Scottish Legal News on 8th May 2013.

Ryan's law internship and volunteering projects were arranged with Year Out Group member The Leap.



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