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Interview with 2024 John Koowarta Scholarship Winner, Mr Corey Blyth

What does it mean to you to be awarded the 2024 John Koowarta Reconciliation Law Scholarship?

It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that my receipt of the 2024 John Koowarta Reconciliation Law Scholarship is the result of any special brilliance on my part because, put simply, it is not. During my studies, I have met so many capable and motivated Indigenous law students that are excelling at university and are making impactful strides in the legal profession, who also would have been deserving recipients of this scholarship. I must acknowledge these students as I have had the great benefit of their advice and support over the years but I admit that I have occasionally suffered from their terrible comedic quips.

It should, however, go without saying that I am absolutely delighted to have been awarded this scholarship because it stands for so much more than me. It represents the incredible legacy of John Koowarta and demonstrates the growing support for Indigenous law students at university and in the workplace.

John Koowarta could not possibly have anticipated that he, a Winychanam man from Cape York, would be the plaintiff in a case which would ascend to the High Court of Australia and would provide the legal foundation for later landmark native title cases. By bearing Koowarta’s name, this scholarship reminds us that ambition, a strong sense of justice, future-focused thinking and a hint of naivety are good traits to have in the face of adversity.

What this scholarship also proves though is that Indigenous law students are succeeding, and that universities and workplaces are partly responsible for that. A law degree is not easy – it never will be, nor should it be – however, universities’ growing support for Indigenous law students and employees’ willingness to take a chance on us in the early stages of our degrees is having a positive effect. Many of the esteemed previous recipients of this award have gone on to achieve great things.

It follows that I extend my thanks to the University of New South Wales and my current employer, the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

What areas of law are you most passionate about?

I am most passionate about criminal law, notably principles of sentencing.

I am fascinated by in-court debate, the skill of building a case before a jury and the art of properly articulating that case, all whilst remaining fair, principled and courteous. I assure you that this fascination is intrinsic and has not derived from any Netflix dramas or miniseries, as appears to be the case for so many.

As you come to the completion of your university studies in the new year, what career aspirations do you have after graduation?

I do not want to pigeonhole myself into a specific career path, as I believe that is counterproductive. Most of the good lawyers I have read about have worked in many different positions or in particularly novel roles. That breadth of experience appears to be what makes them so successful. I do have two ambitions though.

In 2025, I would love to become an associate or tipstaff. I have heard universally good things about either of those roles and believe that they would provide the perfect chance for me to test my mettle as a fresh-faced, full-time lawyer. I have begun looking for those opportunities in the NSW District and NSW Supreme Courts.

Thereafter, I have considered either spending a year or so as a solicitor in the public legal sector or making the bold ‘leap of faith’ to the NSW Bar. Which path I choose depends on how I perform at advocacy. I have not yet had the opportunity to test myself, but plan on taking some advocacy subjects at university in the new year to develop my skills.

Who is one person who inspires you and why?

I have always been inspired by Judge Robert ‘Bob’ Bellear, Australia’s first Indigenous judge.

He inspires me both because of his aptitude as a judge and barrister, but also because of his widely reported commitment to helping students. It would have taken immense courage to choose an entirely new and unfamiliar career path at the age of 28.

I am pleased that a photograph of him is still prominently displayed on level three of the Sydney Downing Centre.

From your perspective, what are some of the key legal issues and challenges the legal profession needs to focus on?

I am under no disillusion that I have been very lucky and that my path to and in the law has not faced many barriers. The legal issues and challenges that I have been taught about at university are those which this readership would already be aware of, so there is no use describing them again here. However, one challenge stands out to me.

The law is aflush with graduate opportunities, but I have generally observed that there are fewer opportunities available for students in the early stages of their degree. This is especially true in the public legal sector, which interests many students, but which they struggle to build experience in whilst studying. Volunteering opportunities are plentiful, but the reality is that students need to pay bills too. I know several students who would love to contribute to public legal institutions throughout the year and who could ably do so.

I encourage public legal institutions to introduce or expand internship or paralegal programs for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and to consider all applicants, even those who might not have the strongest qualifications on paper. Coupled with effective mentoring, those programs will provide wonderful opportunities to learn. I have already opined that I believe the internship and paralegal programs I have observed (and am a part of) have had and will continue to have a positive effect on the quality of graduates.

Any advice to applicants for next year?

I am probably not the best person to be imparting wisdom on future applicants (law students) as I am still figuring much out for myself. I am hardly an oracle on all things law school. Nonetheless, I do have two pieces of advice to offer.

When I was in my first year of studies, I was fortunate to spend two days in court with the late Judge Zahra SC. He was an incredibly kind man. I spoke to him about my career ambitions and my reluctance to take up clerkship opportunities in the commercial law space, given I thought my interest was in the criminal law. He offered some simple advice in reply: ‘you have to be on the boat before you can steer it.’ Put differently, he encouraged me to take any opportunities that came my way and to then begin charting my course in the law. I took that advice and undertook two valuable commercial clerkships in my summer holidays. I then used my experiences there to substantiate my application for the criminal law role that I am in now. Take opportunities as they come, rather than wait for the perfect job at the perfect time.

My second piece of advice is a paradox, as it relates to seeking advice. None of my family have anything to do with the law so, when I began my studies, I had very little idea what I was doing. I did not like the concept of networking either as I did not want to burden people who were much more qualified than I. I have learnt though that most lawyers, firstly, love to talk and, secondly, are quite happy to give advice or pass on advice from others. If you are in doubt about something, just ask someone.

Once again, I sincerely thank the Law Council of Australia for this award.

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