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‘Most clients know they’ve done wrong’

Criminal lawyer Kristy Bell confirms there is nothing dull about her working life. Photo and Video: Geoff McLeod

Movies and TV shows often focus on crime – scenarios are portrayed as high-pressure, glamourous, exciting and sometimes grisly.

There is always plenty of drama in the courtroom in these plots. But is that what it’s like in real-life?

Criminal lawyer Kristy Bell confirms there is nothing dull about her working life. She is often racing the clock and firmly puts herself in the driver’s seat for clients.

The Queensland Law Society accredited specialist from Bell Criminal Lawyers sat down with Proctor to share a snapshot of what her day looks like; the best parts of the job, some challenges that come with the role, and looking back, the advice she’d give herself when she first started practising.

What’s a typical day on the job?

A typical day as a criminal lawyer, never a dull moment. So every single day starts with being in court. So, we try to allocate our court appearances kind of a week ahead of time, so everyone comes in knowing where they’re going to be.

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On a typical day, I think today we’re covering nine different courts across South East Queensland, but we can be anywhere from between, say, seven to 14 on a really busy day. So we need to spread ourselves quite thin sometimes. 

So we start off in court, usually we’re done by about midday. We come back to the office and then our conferences in the afternoon start from about one o’clock. So sometimes that’s at the jail, sometimes it’s here in the office – it just depends on where the clients are. 

Since COVID, a lot of things are by video link or telephone now, which does save us a bit of time on the commute out to Arthur Gorrie (Correctional Centre). So, it might be that or reading briefs of evidence, getting ready for a sentence or a bail application tomorrow – just depends on the day. 

So how does the function of your role fit within the broader legal profession?

So as a criminal lawyer in the broader legal profession, we sort of are, I guess, firmly in the engine room. We are either doing our own advocacy in court, maybe a bail application or a sentence.

Last week I had an application for bail pending appeal. So it might be our own advocacy or it might be preparing material for counsel to instruct on sentences or trials in the higher courts.

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So we can sort of do as little or as much advocacy as we like, which is great. Or we can sit behind the wheel or in the passenger seat next to counsel and try to assist them in preparing the best case possible for the client.

What are the regular challenges you face each day?

There’s never enough time in a day, is probably the number one challenge. It’s busy; you’ve got to be on call all the time. Nine o’clock last night on a Sunday night, I had a client calling me panicking because he forgot to report on bail on Saturday. So managing that, giving them some direction – no matter where you are or what you’re doing, everything kind of has to hit pause, especially when you’ve got a silent number – it’s either the police or the watch house calling, and that’s usually priority number one. So that’s a challenge.

Otherwise, client expectations are always a challenge to manage. People come into these really serious situations with, sometimes, having no perspective on how much trouble they’re actually in or what the consequences of that might be. So trying to manage that with the ordinary course of the legal system is difficult sometimes.

Management brings a whole other challenge into the spectrum. We’re very lucky here. Everyone in our office gets along really, really well. But, there are still challenges managing individual personalities and needs and how each individual solicitor works best is always a learning curve. So finding time for all of that is probably number one. 

What are the common misconceptions about criminal lawyers?

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Gosh, if I had a dollar for every time someone says, ‘how do you defend a guilty person?’, I’d be not working anymore, so that’s probably the most common misconception. I would say nine times out of 10, the clients come in knowing that what they’ve done is the wrong thing, and having some level of genuine remorse for that.

And if they don’t immediately, usually after having it explained to them – how the law applies and what the situation they found themselves in and how that fits into that, they do find some ability to accept that they have done the wrong thing. 

And the other 1%, there’s usually a genuine argument about whether they have done what they’re accused of doing, or whether a defence is available to them.

So it’s not always about defending the guilty. Sometimes it’s about damage control and mitigation of penalty, negotiating with the prosecution and trying to find an outcome that everybody can live with. So I’d say that’s probably the most common misconception. 

What would you do with an extra hour in the work day:

Everything. Every morning I have a to-do list that I write and I sometimes feel like more things get added than are ever crossed off on the to-do list. But I’d say that our greatest, most important skill is triage and working out what’s most urgent, and what to prioritise.

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So I think my extra hour of the day would be trying to cross those things off the top of the to-do list. 

Where would you rather be or what would you rather be doing right now?

Honestly, I love coming to work. I’m a bit of a loser, but I can honestly say there’s not been a day since I became admitted that I’ve woken up and not wanted to come to work. I love my job, I know that’s not the norm – I’m very fortunate about that. But if I wasn’t at work, I would probably be on a beach somewhere with my dog and my partner.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to her first day on the job, or as a lawyer:

Take a breath and control the controllable, and trust in your own preparation. And that will stand you in good stead.

I think realising as a young lawyer that you don’t have to know everything all of the time, that’s probably the biggest piece of advice. I remember getting some calls very early on in my career from clients who were getting arrested, and going into panic mode, going, ‘oh my God, this person’s not getting bail. It’s a Sunday. What am I going to do?’ Little did I know they were probably already on five bail undertakings and had done something really bad and were justifiably being taken into custody. And there’s no court on a Sunday.

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So I think instead of all that panic, I would have just taken a breath and gone, ‘all right, well, there’s not a lot we can do about it today, but tomorrow morning we’ll reassess and find out where we go from there’.

Is criminal law is as ‘exciting’ as many perceive it to be?

I think so. I love it. We just get to do so much more than other parts of the profession. We get such interesting work. I’ve had a lot of really, you know, we get not only defendants, but people who are complainants in criminal matters that come in and want advice about what it’s like being cross-examined, and what the process is going to be.

This week, I’ve got…  well, at the moment, I’ve got three work experience kids lined up for this year, which I really love. Some are in high school, some are in uni. My old high school comes down every year – the Kingaroy State High (School) kids… they’re here on Thursday this week doing their court visit, and they come in to the office and we have a chat about what it’s like moving to the city, and what kinds of things they can do to get themselves into the best position after uni and things like that.

It’s great; we are very fortunate. And I’ve got… my work experience kid from Kingaroy’s coming in September this year – we have one (legal studies student) every year. The deal is if they’ve got their own accommodation, they come down for a week. One of the (Kingaroy) teachers is still there from when I was in high school, which is now some time ago.

On going back to school to talk to legal studies students:

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Yeah, I went back last year. I haven’t been for a long time because my family don’t live there anymore. They’re in Toowoomba now. So, the teachers sort of weed out the ones who are more serious about actually studying law, and then they make them email me themselves and set it all up.

And yeah, it’s really good. They have a great time. And my clerk Lydia that you met this morning was one of those kids from Kingaroy. And when she moved down to go to uni, she came in to start work and she’s doing really well.

…later that day after Kristy appeared in court.

How do criminal lawyers cope with facing traumatic matters every day?

Honestly, I think it’s a practised skill. Some really never get easy. Like today, it’s an outcome that no one would ever be happy with.What has been done can’t be undone. And there’s no kind of sentence that a court can impose to rectify that. I guess it’s something that we learn over time, just focusing on doing our best for our clients, trying to get the best outcome for the client in really difficult circumstances.

Sometimes the client won’t help themselves and that’s probably the most frustrating part about it. We can give them a list of things to do, recommendations that we think will help make a difference, but at the end of the day, we can only do so much. So, if they don’t follow through on those things, that’s probably the most frustrating part of the job.

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On the nature of the criminal lawyer community?

Criminal law community is very supportive and we’re big de-briefers. So, thankfully, it’s very collegiate, even between the prosecution and defence. We will often come back to the office and just unload about what’s happened in court, or what happened in conference or on, you know, during a trial, things like that. But in addition to that, we try to encourage all of our friends and colleagues to get help if they need it. We’re very supportive in our office of everyone getting help when they need it, and staff are allowed to take time to go and see psychologists or get some external assistance if they need to as well. We’re just conscious of that burden and needing to just keep an eye on each other.

Sometimes cases strike a chord with an individual and we try to accommodate that in the office. If someone has a particular sensitivity to a type of matter, we might give that to another solicitor or try to relieve that burden where we can.

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