working as volunteer lawyer for prisoners on death row
October 10, 2008 5:51 AM   Subscribe

How can an Australian law student work in the USA (maybe California) for prisoners on death row?

Hi there!

I am just finishing my last semester at law school here in Sydney, Australia. I would like to do something different in the year I am taking off before I start working full time at a commercial law firm here.

I saw a story here on tv of lawyers in the USA working with prisoners on death row. From memory it was Texas. The lawyers were going through cases where they thought there was evidence of wrongful convictions and we bringing them for trial.

This is something that I would like to do but have no idea how to go about it.

I imagine the work is volunteer so I would have to find work elsewhere to support myself. How likely is that? i.e. getting paid work with some sort of a law firm a few days a week so that I can do the volunteer work on the other days.

I guess I wouldn't mind doing it in say California or maybe Texas – I haven’t spent a lot of time in the USA so I don't know where the demand for volunteers is.

The only other problem is that I haven’t sat our equivalent of the 'bar exam' here yet. I will be sitting it during the first half of the year so if I need to be admitted (in Australia) I can come to the US after that.

I realise that I probably would have to sit the bar exam in the USA before I could do any court room work. That's ok. I just would like the experience of doing something completely different – whether that was collecting statements, writing affidavits, interviews etc...

posted by inlimbo to Work & Money (9 answers total)
The TV show may have been about The Innocence Project.

I'm afraid I have no constructive advice, since I am not a lawyer. Good luck with your endeavors.
posted by Fairchild at 6:02 AM on October 10, 2008

I expect it's no problem to go do this in the USA if nobody in the USA is paying you to do it (you could at least come on the standard 6-month tourist visa). Could you do some fundraising in Australia to get Australian sponsors to pay your way?
posted by winston at 6:12 AM on October 10, 2008

To be eligible to sit for the bar in most states, (but not California) you'll need an LLM degree from an ABA-accredited school.
posted by ewiar at 8:17 AM on October 10, 2008

As long as you're not earning money in the U.S. as an employee, you are not "working" and have broken no laws.
So here are a couple of ideas: contact the Federal Public Defender's office in the jurisdiction where you would like to work. U.S. magistrates typically review 2254 petitions; they can (and do) appoint counsel to represent prisoners. You could find out if there have been any recent appointments, contact the attorneys appointed, and offer to help them.
Some states have conflict counsel to represent prisoners where the public defender's office is conflicted. In Florida this used to be called the Collateral Counsel ( I think) but the name has changed several times.
You need to have a basic understanding of the dual-track nature of the U.S. legal system, i.e., state and federal, but since Australia has states you should not have too much difficulty.
There is a lot of work for you to do. Even though you are not admitted, you can interview witnesses, summarize transcripts, do legal research, etc. Those who have primary responsibility on these cases are always underfunded and can use an extra set of hands.
You could contact any of the U.S. Courts of Appeal. There are eleven that handle this kind of work-to my lawyer friends, the Federal Circuit doesn't get death penalty cases. Each of these courts has an executive office that manages the court's CJA or Criminal Justice Act program. Call the office and tell them you want to help lawyers who are handling such cases.
Good luck.
posted by tesseract420 at 8:19 AM on October 10, 2008

INlimbo, there is a barrister in Melbourne who has done some death row work over recent years. Send me a mefimail and I'll get you his contact details. He might be able to steer you in the right direction.
posted by tim_in_oz at 2:28 PM on October 10, 2008

Ewiar, you can't sit for the bar with an LLM, you need a JD from an ABA accredited school. I have seen that some states make an accommodation for lawyers from common law countries, but the types of activity outlined here do not require bar admission.
posted by tesseract420 at 3:08 PM on October 10, 2008

Get in touch with Reprieve Australia. I know a few people who have gone through them to work on death penalty cases in the US (on a voluntary basis) - this page has information about their international internship program and you can read about other people's experiences. The work is generally in the southern states; I have heard of people going to Louisiana and Georgia.

If you are taking a year off, you might be better placed to just do some full time work in Australia (of any variety - call centres, whatever) and just save, save, save. That way you'll have the money to fund yourself, as you might find it difficult to find any paid work over there. If you want it to be legally based, look for a company that does document management and discovery for litigation cases. They will often take on law graduates and temps, and you will probably learn some useful skills too.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:21 PM on October 10, 2008

Ewiar, you can't sit for the bar with an LLM, you need a JD from an ABA accredited school.

Not to get all off-topic, but you can sit for the NY bar with an LLM. (And waive in to various states thereafter, if you so choose)

Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law, Sec. 520.6(b)(2)
posted by diggerroo at 6:59 PM on October 10, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the quick replies!

@tesseract420 - thanks for all that information.

@time_in_oz - I will send you a mefilemail. That looks very promising!

@AnnaRat - thanks for the link! I had no idea about Reprieve Australia.
posted by inlimbo at 11:41 PM on October 13, 2008

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