Why You Should Do a Legal Internship

Published by Eliza Salvatori on

Why You Should Do A
Legal Internship:
A Conversation With First Nations Lawyer, Ryan Whittard

Wiradjuri man and junior lawyer at Allens, Ryan Whittard, shares his experiences of participating in the Allens First Nations legal internship program and his legal career pathway since then.

Having completed the internship program together in 2017, Ryan and I (Ngalaya’s Project Officer) met via zoom this week to yarn about our time during the program and his life at Allens since then. It was great to reconnect with one another and talk about our different pathways and legal careers over the past few years. 

Our conversation couldn’t have come at a better time. Applications for the Allens First Nations Internship program have just opened for 2022!

If you’re looking into doing the Allens First Nations legal internship or any other legal internship, we hope that the conversation with Ryan Whittard (below) gives you a little more insight into what to expect during program and how an internship like this can help shape your legal career. 

Apply for any kind of opportunities and offers that come your way. Even if you're not 100% sure about what you want to do, it's always best to keep your options open.
Interview transcript

Eliza: Ryan, can you tell us about your pathway into law school and a little about your experiences at University?

Ryan: Yeah sure. So, I went to uni straight after high school. In year 12, I applied for Macquarie University’s alternative entry pathway for First Nations students and I was lucky enough to get an early entry offer into uni. This took a bit of the weight off my shoulders during the end of year 12 as well because I knew that I had a spot in uni ready to go.

So, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Laws with a Bachelor of International Studies at Macquarie Uni. I later enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and completed a Chinese Major and a Music Minor, which was a bit of a mixed bag. 

During my time at Macquarie, I was fully supported by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre Walanga Muru. In around my second or third year they set me up with an internship through the Indigenous Internship program at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). So, yeah, that was my first legal job.

That was fantastic. I worked there for three years in the strategic litigation team and worked on some amazing projects over the years, including their Children in Care project, Police Accountability, Disability and Sex Discrimination, Asylum Seeker Health Rights and Homeless Persons Legal Service.

I also had some really awesome mentors there that I’m still in touch with today and it kind of really set me up for later opportunities at Allens. So, PIAC was a huge part of my personal and professional development.

Eliza: Can you elaborate more on how you got into the PIAC program? 

Ryan: So, I went down to the National Indigenous Legal Conference and met a bunch of really driven First Nations law students down there, including Jason (Ngalaya’s Executive Director) and Kate (Ngalaya’s Chairperson), and they all had jobs already. I came back to Sydney and was like ‘I really need to get a job’. So, I walked into Walanga Muru and said what’s the go with this internship program, I think I need one. Within a few weeks, I was set up with a job and didn’t look back.

Eliza: Wow, that’s really nice to hear. Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying “Okay, I’m ready for this – what have you got for me?” It’s important for people to know that, as long as the support network is there, sometimes all they have to do is ask for help or guidance.

Ryan: Exactly. I think these kinds of groups and communities at uni are really helpful. Walanga Muru was particularly great and supported me all throughout uni. The internship thing was massive, but they also provided tutoring and a space to go and hang out at lunch or study in private computer rooms. This really helped me get through, particularly in the early years of uni for sure. 

Eliza: So, we’ve talked about your first legal job. Now, let’s talk about the Indigenous Legal Internship at Allens. That feels like a long time ago! How many years ago did we do that?

Ryan: Yeah, it does. It was in 2017, so some time ago. 

Eliza: How was the program for you? How did you hear about it? Can you talk us through it?

Ryan: So, it came to around 3rd year of uni. People were starting to talk about clerkships and working at these big law firms that I hadn’t heard of. I couldn’t even name one law firm at that point. 

I attended one of those career fairs at the Convention Centre in Sydney city and all the different law firms were there. Most of them said that they didn’t really have anything for third years at the moment. They were just looking for fourth year/penultimate students to do the clerkship programs. Then, I remember speaking to a lawyer at Allens who told me about the Indigenous Internship program, which was what it was called at the time. She recommended that I apply for it. 

I didn’t really expect to get in because people told me that Allens is like a big time law firm. But, again, it was a great opportunity, so I applied. I was lucky enough to get a spot with you in July 2017. 

I went in, not knowing anything about commercial law or about how commercial law firms operate. I didn’t really understand any of the practice areas. They were talking about areas like Banking and Finance, Mergers and Acquisitions, Capital Markets and I had not idea what any of that means. 

But, again, I’ll just keep going back to this. I think you just need to take on as many opportunities that come your way during uni, because you don’t know where they’re going to lead. 

During the program, I was in the Intellectual Property team. It was a great introduction into an area of law which, like I said, I had never heard of. This sparked my interest in IP which continues today.

I’ll just keep going back to this. I think you just need to take on as many opportunities that come your way during uni, because you don’t know where they’re going to lead.

Eliza: And it was also great because we were able to develop relationships with some incredible lawyers and network with people in the industry. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Ryan: Yes, it was really a great networking opportunity. My supervisor during the internship really made an effort to support me and stay in contact with after the internship. He offered to catch up for coffee and have a chat when I was applying for future roles and, you know, just checked in to see how I was going with my studies. 

The juniors I worked with were really friendly and always offered to help, and answered any stupid questions I had because there were plenty of them.

I think the best two things about the internship program were:

  1. exposure to the strange new world that is commercial law that I’d never understood before; and
  2. Meeting all these people and starting to build a bit of a network, which is an important thing to have in the legal industry. 

Eliza: What did you do after the internship? Allens had reached out to all of us after the program as they were looking for paralegals and you jumped on board. Can you talk us through this and how this led to where you are now? 

Ryan: After the internship and towards the end of 2017, Allens went into a pretty busy period and they needed new paralegals on the ground. Luckily enough, since we had just completed the internship, we were already up to scratch on the systems and the tech training. They asked us to apply for a paralegal position.

Again, another opportunity came my way. I thought, you know, sounds good and what can go wrong? I attended an interview and did well and within a few weeks, I was back at the firm.

It was great to be recognized by people who I had worked with or passed on the floors a few months earlier. 

I stayed at Allens as a paralegal until, I guess, last year. So, for a number of years, I had the chance to work in a number of the different teams at the firm, including Projects, Environment and Planning, Intellectual Property, Competition Consumer Law and various others as well. This set me up later down the track for when I was applying for the clerkship positions and the graduate position. It gave me a bit more knowledge about what each of the teams do. 

Eliza: And so, you applied for the clerkship position. How was that interview process? Did you know you were going to get a clerkship role given that you had been a paralegal for three years prior?

Ryan: Yeah, it was a strange one given I was already a paralegal. There were actually a number of paralegals applying for the clerkship. Many people from previous years told me like oh don’t worry about it, like you’ll get one. But I didn’t really believe it because you’re applying with every capable law student in the state, if not more, because people come from interstate. I mean, not everyone who is a paralegal gets the position. There was no guarantee.

Although it was a very stressful time for me, the whole clerkship process is definitely worth it. For students in their fourth or fifth year of law undergrad or second year of JD, I recommend that you reach out to anyone you know from uni or elsewhere that have done a clerkship program before and I’m sure they can offer some guidance.

Clerkships usually go over summer for about three months. At Allens, you rotate through two different practice areas, so you spend half the time in each one. It’s almost like a mini graduate program but in the grad program we do two rotations over two years. During the clerkship, I spent half the time in IP so I was able to link up again with my supervisor from the internship, who is a legend. 

He actually did like a mock interview with me before my clerkship interview, because I mean he knows it’s a stressful process, and he just he wanted me to do well. Again, this was one of the major benefits of the internship program.

Eliza: So, it’s funny how things work out. You started your internship in the Intellectual Property team. You worked as a paralegal in the team for a little while. You did your clerkship rotation there and now you are an IP graduate lawyer. Do you think it all started from the internship?

Ryan: Yeah that’s right. So, after I did the clerkship, I put IP as my top preference for the Graduate Program. I was very lucky to get my preference and this year, I was offered a job in the IP team. It’s generally very competitive and they only took two of us grads this year. 

Ryan Whittard: yeah yeah that’s right so starting in the IP team as an intern and then coming back and doing a little bit of paralegal work and then clerking there over the summer, it was my top preference coming into the Graduate program. So again, I’m very grateful. 

Eliza: Can you run us through what happened once you graduated from law school? Did you do your PLT at Allens? Had you already secured a job as a graduate lawyer?

Ryan: Yep, so I was offered a graduate position after doing the clerkship. I think all of the clerks were offered a grad position. 

Allens paid for our practical legal training. We did PLT through UNSW’s Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice. Once we completed that, we started the graduate program. A few months ago, I was admitted to the Supreme Court as a lawyer. 

Eliza: So, what is it like to be a lawyer? How were your first experiences?

Ryan: I love it. I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer. In the early years of uni, you know, you’re just focusing on the next essay and you don’t really know how it’s going to translate into a career necessarily. 

It can be tricky for sure, using your brain every day. We’re always problem solving and researching. But it is really engaging. It’s early days but so far so good. 

Eliza: To finish off, do you have any advice for First Nations law students who might be thinking about doing an internship or a clerkship or the like? 

My advice would definitely be to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way and never doubt yourself. Go for every opportunity and, while you're at it, make sure to ask anyone you know for help, whether it's someone a few years above you at uni or a family member or a friend that's been through similar things or someone you met at work. Make sure you reach out to them and ask questions if you have any. Most people are more than willing to show off how smart they are and help you, so definitely do that as much as you can.

Eliza: Thanks for sharing this all with us, Ryan. Your legal journey and career pathway is a reflection of how taking all opportunities can work out so well. 

 And that’s a wrap.

Ngalaya encourages First Nations law students to apply for the program. Not only is it a great first step into the world of corporate law, it is an invaluable opportunity to network with those in the legal industry and develop the skills for your future legal career. 

Having participated in the program myself, I know first hand how invaluable a program like this is. For me (and for many interns), this was the first step into the real world of commercial law and law practice generally. Interns get the opportunity to work on real life matters with the support of junior lawyers and partners, and can develop skills that will help them apply for clerkships and grad programs down the track. Ryan’s legal career pathway is testimony to this. 

Even if you are not sure about what you want to do or the kind of law you’d like to practice, this program will put you in a better position to decide which (legal) career pathway is right for you.

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