Interview with CLAS Interns!
Our three lovely interns (from left to right): Hui Wen, Jun An, Sarhan
Feeling in the dark about the CLAS internships? Want to know more?
We gathered three Year 2 students, Hui Wen, Jun An, and Sarhan, who went through the summer CLAS internship, to shed some light on the experience.
Could you briefly tell us about what you did and how the experience was like?
Jun An: I worked on sentencing precedents and memo preparations during the internship. It was an eye-opening experience as I got to see the practical aspects of criminal law in contrast to only learning the theory in the classroom. I learnt what the appropriate sentences were for a particular offence and I feel that this was the biggest takeaway.
Sarhan: I was given a lot of research work but I also had the opportunity to do some legal drafting such as letter of representations (reps) and mitigation pleas. Naturally, the quality of my work may not have been as good as that of a lawyer’s which was why my mentor assisted me in vetting my work and gave me tips on how I could make better reps and mitigation pleas. The scope of my research work covered a wide variety of topics, from commonly seen drug offences to property offences as well.
The three of us collaborated at certain times. Jun An and I actually sat at the same court hearing together while Hui Wen and I did a massive research project together.
Hui Wen: That was really the highlight of the internship (everybody laughs).
Sarhan: (continued) I have always wanted to do criminal defence and the thing about criminal defence is that sometimes your client may do things that you have a personal issue with. But, it is important that you still do your best in defending them. I think one thing everyone should learn is being able to separate your feelings from work. I felt that the experience has allowed me to do better in this aspect as well.
Hui Wen: It was the same for me, in that I had to do a lot of research work but I didn’t do much drafting such as writing memorandums. What I did get was more on the ground experience. I actually had to go to court on the first day of my internship which lasted for the first week of the three-week internship. I also got to go to Changi Prison for the first time for a client interview. The experience helped me understand the practice of criminal law outside of theory as Jun An mentioned. It is not until you go for an internship like CLAS that you really see how you can impact other people.
Can you tell us a little about the cases you worked on, and what you learnt through your research and through going to Court?
Hui Wen: Sarhan and I were working on a really big case on rape and robbery that involved a lot of reading and research, especially about sentencing. It was important that we separated our emotions from the acts of our client. This isn’t always easy to do and it’s one of the reasons I feel that people are turned away from criminal law. But it’s something that we have to understand about being a criminal lawyer.
Sarhan: I did a few miscellaneous cases but the main cases were regarding drug offences, property offences and violence. When you meet your clients, you listen to their stories and it’s sometimes tragic to hear why they committed those offences. I felt that it humbled me to know that there are people going through so much and it made me feel blessed to be in the position that I’m in, which is why I had to at least try to help these people.
Jun An: Unlike Sarhan and Hui Wen, I did not get to handle such high profile cases. The most interesting case I handled was probably a cheating offence. I had cases from many clients of different characters, I learnt their stories and got to understand what their families were going through. The internship went beyond criminal law, it was about interpersonal relations as well. Learning how to communicate with the client, their families and reassuring them without guaranteeing them anything was a skill that was important.
What was your perception of criminal law before CLAS and how did it change?
Hui Wen: During one of our lunches with the lawyers I was asked if I wanted to do criminal law and the answer I gave was a resounding no. However, if you were to ask me now, I would say that it is a serious consideration. I really think it is meaningful work and very important for more lawyers to go into the criminal sector. Unfortunately, criminal law is admittedly emotionally taxing. There is a courtroom in the State Courts called Courtroom 26 where I saw loads of prisoners being sentenced at once. They barely had any contact with anyone and were speaking to the judge unrepresented with no idea of what defences they could raise, what a mitigation plea was and what they had to say to the judge. That is, for me, one aspect of criminal law that I would still need to overcome.
Jun An: Before CLAS, I did not realise how raw emotions could get and how emotionally intense the work was, as opposed to corporate law, which is basically a zero-sum game where the only thing at stake is whether a company gains or loses money. I don’t think I would be able to handle the emotions if I had to handle high profile cases. In the long run, it would definitely be tough for me.
Sarhan: It’s no secret that I’ve always wanted to do criminal law. I did criminal law for my polytechnic studies as well as during National Service in the Singapore Police Force. While I wasn’t unfamiliar with the practical aspects of criminal law, this internship helped me gain the perspective of a defence lawyer, as opposed to the perspective of someone from SPF. Elaborating on Jun An’s point, there isn’t a clear winner when it comes to criminal law. Someone committing a crime and getting a lower sentence than what the prosecution wanted doesn’t really indicate that anybody has won.
What was it like working with the CLAS lawyers?
Sarhan: I extended my internship by a week. All three of us interned together – I was the only one who extended, doing a 4-week internship while the rest did it for 3 weeks. My lawyer brought me out for lunch at the start and at the end of my internship. He spoke to me and gave me tips about life, how to be a lawyer: so sometimes, while we were sitting and waiting for the court proceedings to start, he would teach me about the structure and procedure of the proceedings, even highlighting certain parts about criminal law that I was not exposed to. Additionally, I want to stress that you will not be over-pressured by your mentors, but they do push you to do your best. I had a positive mentality to want to do things right, and put in my best effort into every case. Overall, I was very blessed to have my mentor and genuinely enjoyed the experience.
Hui Wen: For me, I had the pleasure of not only working with my mentor, but also, Shi Yang (Sarhan’s mentor). There was one day where I followed him to Court 26 and he was very meticulous in telling me who the relevant stakeholders were and explaining the relevant legal jargon and acronyms. It was a very good experience as I got the chance to work with the other CLAS lawyers – watching them in action in court or just following them to prison to interact with the clients. Since they know how to utilise their mentees, they do make sure you’re learn something from it.
Jun An: She (Marjorie) also brought me out to lunch on the second last day. During the lunch session, she shared with me about her life and advised me on how I can structure my law school studies to achieve what I want. It was helpful to me since it was general advice instead of just criminal law – I was quite grateful to have a mentor that was so willing to share. The mentors are understanding about your capabilities as a Y1 student so they do not just inundate you with work.
Were the responsibilities too heavy, just right or did you feel like you could have undertaken more?
Hui Wen: Some lawyers take on the mindset that if I don’t have work for you, then you (the intern) can just review projects, attend court hearings or go to the prison to interact with the clients. For me, I felt that I could have undertaken more work from home. I would love to have been more involved.
Jun An: Similar to Hui Wen’s experience, my mentor did not have much work to give so I could only do what was assigned to me – which was 4 to 5 pieces of work over a 3-week period. It was not so eventful for me at times but I did get my fair share of action.
Sarhan: I was given work daily. Unlike Hui Wen and Jun An, I stayed in the office from 9am – 5.30pm everyday. If you schedule your time properly, you will be able to manage internship work and your other commitments.
What was something you thought you could have done better? If so, how would you have done it?
Sarhan: The lawyers are definitely aware about the standard of our work as Y1 students. But I still wish that I could have improved the quality of my drafts so that the lawyers wouldn’t have to spend more time improving it. Plus, I wish that I had done my work more efficiently and effectively.
Hui Wen: Tying back to the previous question, I felt that I could have undertaken more responsibilities. But as Sarhan mentioned, the lawyers are definitely understanding of what a Y1 student can handle and made sure the work was not too much for us.
Jun An: I agree with Hui Wen in that I was not assigned that much work but Sarhan makes a good point about doing a proper job on the work that we were assigned so that the lawyers won’t have to spend too much time vetting our drafts.
How did you deal with unexpected circumstances during your internship?
Hui Wen: Be there for your trench mates and they will be there for you. It was really important that the 6 of us got to do research together.
Sarhan: Echoing Hui Wen, we were grateful for collaboration amongst ourselves as we could share the knowledge we had, and could help each other out. For example, when we were handling Trafficking cases, whenever someone had problems, we were ready to help – putting what we had read earlier to good use.
What advice do you have for future participants of CLAS (e.g. with regard to balancing your time, the right mindset to take, what they should prepare themselves for before the internship begins)?
Hui Wen: First off, it is important to appreciate your trench mates – I couldn’t have gone through the entire experience without them. The friends I made during this internship are the ones that formed my support network. Next, future participants should go in with open minds because this is definitely a very good experience for you to go through. Criminal law is not an area where you get to do a lot of internships and more often than not, you only get to learn from it through the textbook and readings in class. When you go for the internships, just be open to spending long hours doing work and research, to accepting everything that is thrown your way and to takeaway something valuable from the experience. Lastly, do not be afraid to ask seniors who have done the internship before for help or advice.
Sarhan: Adding on from what Hui Wen said, at the start, none of us were close to each other. But we bonded throughout the internship, to the extent that we still hang out with each other. One thing that is important for this internship is that you should never think that a client deserves punishment. You should go in with an open mind, regardless of your personal feelings or stance on the matter – refrain from judging the clients. Though I recognise that it is emotionally taxing when handling such cases, one piece of advice is to really care about your cases and your clients, regardless of the offence, and to go the extra mile to help them. For the Y1s going for the winter attachment, do read up on criminal law before the internship to get an idea of what it is about. During the internship, you will be expected to conduct research on issues not covered in the syllabus, so familiarise yourselves with the content and go in expecting to do work.
Jun An: You can ask seniors on what style your mentor prefers – for example, if they want their memo to be formatted a certain way. Additionally, you can also enquire about the temperament of your mentor as some do not like to be disturbed while working. So, as interns, you must wait for the right time to ask your questions.
Would you recommend this internship to your juniors? Why or why not?
Hui Wen: CLAS is not the typical internship that you will do at a firm. Here, you really get to see the effect on people, and this is something you don’t get to see in law all the time.
Sarhan: If you have an interest in criminal law, then you should definitely try CLAS.
Jun An: CLAS really teaches you something outside the classroom, and broadens your perspectives. On a side note, it gives you pro bono hours!
[Disclaimer for Y1s: You will only be able to earn your mandatory 20 hours after you finish your pro bono module in Sem 2. So if you’re doing the Winter/Semester attachments, you’ll only be getting non-mandatory hours.]
If you liked what you read, do consider joining CLAS!
Originally published on the previous CJC website on October 8 2019.
Scott Yap and Johanna Lim
*The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute legal advice and solely belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the NUS Criminal Justice Club or its affiliates.