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Year in Asia: lessons learnt in commercial law in Jakarta

20 March 2019

Sophie Hewitt is a final-year Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies (Year in Asia) / Bachelor of Laws (Honours) student at The Australian National University (ANU) College of Asia and the Pacific. Sophie recently returned from Indonesia, where she completed the Year in Asia program with the support of a New Colombo Plan Scholarship. We asked Sophie to share her experiences interning at a law firm, and why this has been important as a prospective law graduate in Australia.

Last year I completed a three-month internship at Ali Budiardjo, Nugroho, Reksodiputro (ABNR), a commercial law firm based in Jakarta. This experience was  part of my Year in Asia program, and  the internship was also accredited as a course by the ANU College of Law. I’m often asked if there are legitimate professional opportunities for Australian lawyers in Indonesia. The answer is “absolutely”, but perhaps in different ways than what you’d expect. Here are some of the lessons I learnt from my internship.

Firstly, there is an opening in the Indonesian legal market for lawyers who have the skills to bridge the gap between Indonesian law and culture with potential foreign investors. Interning at ABNR offered a valuable insight into this, as the firm was unique because it practiced Indonesian law, but only acted for foreign clients. This meant that all internal and external communication was conducted in English, and lawyers were required to have an understanding of both Indonesian law and of each client’s foreign jurisdiction. The lawyers at ABNR were thus not only skilled at translating Indonesian law into other languages, but also were able to translate legal requirements into terms that would be understood by clients from foreign jurisdictions. The type of lawyers employed in the firm also reflected the international nature of ABNR’s work, with Indonesian, Dutch and Australian lawyers filling the floors. Accordingly, my skills as a native English speaker with an (almost completed!) Australian law degree, combined with my Indonesian language skills and intercultural competencies were a valuable asset, even in my capacity as an intern. This meant I was given a wider breadth of experience and greater responsibilities than I would have been given at a firm in Australia.

The second valuable thing I gained from the internship was a deeper understanding as to what motivates young Indonesians in the workforce. With Indonesia’s burgeoning middle class and the improving educational outcomes for younger generations, young professionals are a growing voice (and now make up the vast majority of my Indonesian friends).  I remember asking one young lawyer why he wanted to work in a private commercial law firm. He mentioned that he used to work as in-house legal counsel for a large corporation but moved to a private firm as he was sick of “cleaning up messes”. The subtext of this conversation was that he was tired of using his legal skills to solve problems caused by corruption, and preferred to think more creatively and productively in a ‘clean’ firm. Not something you would expect to hear from a young lawyer in Australia!

A third lesson I learnt was how to navigate instances of corruption and unprofessionalism in the Indonesian legal system - not something I’d come across as a legal research assistant in Australia. A number of times when I was reading a case in Bahasa Indonesia, I thought the case outcome was so unlikely and illogical that it must have been my Indonesian language ability at fault. But after checking with my colleagues, I discovered that the judges in question had later been found to be corrupt, meaning my comprehension had unfortunately been correct. In one particularly memorable case, a judge was caught ‘red-handed’ by the police while receiving a large bundle of money nicely fit into in a bright red suitcase.

As a result of the unique placement of the firm and the reality of the Indonesian legal system, I was exposed to my fourth lesson: foreign expectations of transparency and expediency of legal processes may be in stark contrast to the Indonesian reality. In Australia, for example, any member of the public can search online to discover the applicable Act or Regulation over a particular matter. In Indonesia, however, there may be multiple versions of the Act published by different ministries, or sometimes not even published at all. In one instance, in order for me to find the applicable law, I was required to speak to another lawyer in the firm, get the mobile number of someone who worked in the relevant ministry and physically visit them in their office to be given a copy of the Act. From my perspective, and from the perspective of foreign clients, these legal processes are perhaps not the most efficient. But as this is the reality in Indonesia, flexibility, creativity and patience must be coupled with sound legal skills in order to succeed in most tasks. Helpfully, the skills I acquired from these experiences could later be indirectly translated to an Australian context.

A final and unexpected thing I learnt was the value of this experience when applying for legal jobs in Australia. When I returned from Indonesia late last year, I undertook a clerkship at a commercial law firm in Sydney. Surprisingly, my internship in Jakarta was frequently talked about during my interviews and informal chats with lawyers. Working in a different legal jurisdiction and language will always be a valuable asset for a hopeful graduate.  

Sophie’s Year in Asia program was completed in Indonesia through the Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) and was funded by a New Colombo Plan Scholarship. Sophie is passionate about food diplomacy and in her spare time writes a blog about Indonesian food, The Lonely Bule.

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