Judge's Associate Seminar

On the 2nd of September, the Justice and the Law society, in conjunction with the UQ Law Society, held a seminar about becoming a judge's associate. The guest speakers were:

  • Patrick O’Brien – Associate to Justice Greenwood (Federal Court)
  • Rebekah Oldfield – Associate to Justice Applegarth (Supreme Court) 
  • Hugh Hadgraft – Associate to Senior Member Peter McDermott (Administrative Appeals Tribunal)
  • Anna Hede - Associate to Justice Forrest (Family Court)

Elizabeth: Hi everyone! Welcome to our Judge’s Associate seminar. I’m Elizabeth from the UQLS, and we are also joined by Jill from JATL; we have combined forces to organise this event. We have four Judge’s Associates here today: Pat, Rebekah, Anna, and Hugh, and they are each going to start by talking a bit about their experience, the application process, the interview process, any tips they have, and then we’ll hand it over to you for a Q&A.

Pat: Hi everyone, I’m Pat O’Brien. I am an associate of Justice Greenwood in the Federal Court. The application process, firstly, is wildly different for everyone. It is not like going to a firm where there is a start and finish date, a round of interviews, etc. I literally wrote a letter, and got a letter back with an invitation to an interview. The timing depends on the judge; I know my judge has appointed for next year, and he has got a stack for the year after. There’s another judge who has not yet appointed for next year, or I think he’s just appointed. 

The application process is kind of odd because the nature of the work: you are working very closely with a person. When people ask what it’s like… has anyone seen West Wing? I tell people my job is kind of a mash between Leo, the chief of staff, and Charlie, the body man, as I am telling the judge what he needs to know, what we’ve got on today, and organising his calendar, and also picking up his glasses when he leaves them in a café. It is not necessarily the person with the best GPA who is the most attractive candidate; the most attractive candidate is the one about whom the judge can say, “I can sit next to you on a flight for five hours to Perth with. I’m happy to have coffee with you, I’m happy to have dinner with you in Sydney.” It is as much about a personality thing as anything else. 

The nature of the work is not what I expected. It is not hours of research, which is what some people expect – I see a lot of relieved faces! A lot of it is administrative because no one speaks to a judge directly, for obvious reasons. You don’t want parties contacting a judge with their opinion. All the contact with the court comes through the associate. It is a bizarre situation to come straight out of law school, to have senior partners emailing you saying, “Mr. Associate, if it’s not too much trouble, can you ask the judge this?” There is a lot of admin and organising, there is research involved, but it is usually more procedural things – I am getting very good at the Federal Court rules. I’m not going and finding reams and reams of cases for the judge because that is what the parties are there for. They are coming and bringing the cases to the judge. 

One of the biggest parts of my job is, unfortunately, editing. In the Federal Court, over the time the judge goes to court, he will write something. It is not like in the State Courts where there’s criminal matters in which the judge is almost referee – before sentencing anyway. Aside from five minute directions hearings, where the parties have come with agreed orders, every time he goes to court, he writes something. Because of the nature of the areas of law and the Federal Court, you’re talking Commonwealth legislation, corporations, tax, and administrative law. You have got some judgments that are five- to ten-page Refugee Review Tribunal appeals. I’ve proofed a 300-page judgment this year, which was sort of all-consuming. It’s not as daunting as you think… afterwards. 

I love the Federal Court because there is no criminal law. There is Commonwealth criminal law, but everything that is criminal law goes to the States. The closest we’ve had is the ACCC pursuing someone on civil penalties for not disclosing documents they were compelled to, and that is absolutely the closest and it’s not even really criminal. A large body of the work is admin, a lot of admin law, because often things that seem like another area of law, are actually administrative law; for example, a tax matter might be admin, since it’s reviewing a Tribunal. A lot of corporate, or maritime law, which is something I knew nothing about coming out of university, but now I know a lot about. 

It also differs depending on the judge, because in the Federal Court they have a docket system whereby they try and direct cases to an appropriate judge. My judge, Justice Greenwood, is on the maritime law panel, so we get a lot of shipping cases coming through. The work is good, I think it’s very enjoyable. I think it’s the best working year I’ll have for a long time because it’s a good mix between having a lot of interesting work, and different work. I’m not going through and reading and doing discovery, for example. There’s a lot of exposure to different areas of law, and it’s very dynamic; also it’s not as time-consuming as some grad spots may be. I live with a couple of lawyers who are doing grad spots and they’re coming home at 10 and 11 o’clock at night, and it’s not usually that bad, sometimes it is, but often it’s not. 

One of the perks of the Federal Court, that the other courts miss out on a bit, is the Federal Court is obviously a national court. Something I didn’t realise coming out of university, that you never think to look up because it’s not a useful thing, is that the Federal Court appeals to itself in the full Federal Court. There’s no different judges like there are in the States. There are a series of windows through the year that are set down for Full Court periods, and all the judges just move around the country and hear appeals. I’ve been to Sydney three times, Melbourne twice, Cairns, we’ve had associates go to Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, and there’s been four trips to Papua New Guinea as well, because two of the federal judges in Brisbane sit on the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court. Travel is a great opportunity with the Full Court; in fact, there have been people out all over Queensland doing native title. 

I would say: don’t limit which judge you would apply to based on your perceptions of the judge, because, firstly, they’re often wrong: the court persona is often very different to out-of-court persona. Some of the judges in court who are some of the meanest, toughest judges, are the most lovely, kind people out of court. The work is enjoyable whether you have got someone who is a good judge or a bad judge – not that there are any bad judges in the Federal Court, there’s only seven of us in Brisbane, so we’re quite lucky in that sense. Most Judge’s Associates are for a year, we’ve had a few odd JA’s who’ve stayed on a bit longer when there is a particularly long judgment they’re proofing or something like that, but it’s pretty standard — a year. In Brisbane it’s the first week of February to the first week of February. Other States they do it a bit differently, they stagger it, but in Brisbane it’s pretty set. You can’t apply early enough, because as I said, my judge had appointed next year before I started, and he’s looking at 2017 now, and I know some of the judges have appointed that far out, so there’s not a too-early time to send your resume in and put on a stack. I literally just wrote a letter, “Here’s my resume, I’d love to be a Judge’s Associate”. 

Rebekah: My name’s Rebekah Oldfield, I’m the associate to Justice Applegarth on the Supreme Court, but I think that given everyone else here is Federal, I’ll also speak a bit about the District Court and the Court of Appeal because they’re obviously very different experiences for the associates. First of all, in terms of the application process, it’s standardised, unlike the Federal Court, so there is an opening date, which is typically the 1st of December, but you can go on the Court’s website and check that closer to the date. This year they extended it so that you had 3 months in which to put in an application, but that was kind of an error because most judges still just appointed within the regular 2 months because they didn’t realise they had longer to consider applicants. A whole bunch of people sent their resumes in late February, and they simply didn’t even get a look in. I’d say that if they continue to have an extended time frame, even though it technically doesn’t close until February, still get your applications in early, be ready to put them in in December, rather than start writing them in December. One judge hired in the first week of December, others still haven’t hired at all; there’s no end date by which they have to stop considering applications. 

Also, it wouldn’t be a surprise to any of you, but there’s been lots of turnover in the State Courts. It has actually opened up doors for people to start mid-year, which is quite beneficial, as I imagine most of you are doing dual degrees, and typically you end up finishing in July, which can be an awkward time to be applying for things. Don’t let that be a deterrent – watch the news and whenever they make a next Supreme Court appointment, have your resumes ready to go and put them in. Just flood their inbox. Our email addresses are not hard to find out, they’re all standardised. Applications are quite similar to what Pat was saying. You write a cover letter and you attach a resume. A lot of it is common sense: don’t use scented paper, don’t use gold paper, don’t use black envelopes and pretty little starred paper clips. Just write a professional letter. It’s always good to make your cover letters personalised to the judge, even if you are sending out 25 applications or something. The reality is they do go down the hallway and say “I’ve just got this application, have you seen it?” “Oh yeah, I’ve just got pretty much the same one sitting in my inbox as well”. It’s not that they expect you to write completely different cover letters. 

The general approach is you have a few standardised paragraphs and you change the first one around based on whether or not your judge that you’re applying to does, for example, some P&E work so you talk about planning and environment experience, you might have or your love of property law or something. And then you finish it off with some little quip about, “I find it very impressive that you’ve done blah blah blah”, so that you can at least show that you’ve taken the initiative to read their judicial profile on the library website, and maybe their swearing in speech or something like that. Don’t go overboard. Judges do get creeped out if they think you’ve been stalking them at every event that they’ve gone to. I’ve listened to enough chats in the UQ library to know that’s what some people do – don’t do that, it doesn’t come off well. 

At the end of the day, it really is a personality thing. If you’ve got, I don’t know, a 5.3 GPA and above I’d probably say you’re capable of doing the job. It is really a lot of administrative work. That is partially because the judge doesn’t really have a staff, they have a secretary who does dictation and manages their diary, and that’s about it, and keeps track of their kilometres on their government car, but that’s really all they do, and then there’s them. Unless you have a very proactive judge, they’re probably not going to want to sit down and write a whole stack of what are essentially administrative emails to people in the court or this sort of thing, so you’re there to fill that gap. If you don’t like admin work or if you think that you are above admin work, or that you’d just not be very good at it, or you’d rather spend your time doing other things, that’s perfectly fine, but just realise that this job is probably not the job for you. That is the way that you’re most beneficial to your judge, not whether you can correct them on the law. They are pretty bright. Most times they know the law once they have read the submissions. 

At the very least, you want to be able to do that part of your job very well, similarly assisting them in court with that procedural aspect of your job. The chance to do research, and those sort of more typically legal tasks, really depend on which judge you are with. Some judges really load their associates up with that stuff and want an outline of the whole matter before they start writing a judgment. Other judges have probably got half of it sitting in their head while they are in court, so there is really no way for you to find out what judge does it which way unless you know someone who’s worked for them previously; it’s a bit of a guessing game. 

Whatever method or way that they choose to adopt, it’s still very beneficial for you obviously observing their working practices. Especially if your judge, which a lot on the Supreme Court have, extra duties. Rather than simply sitting on the normal court calendar, they’ll also be on the Mental Health Court for example. My judge, he’s a supervised case list judge, of which there are three. That means that we have got carriage of about an extra 45 or so matters, twenty of which involve self-represented litigants. Every day I’m dealing with self-represented litigants sort of coming to me and saying, “I don’t know how the court process works” and this sort of stuff; it can be a minefield to try and navigate that. It also means that as an associate you’ve got just an added opportunity to observe a niche area of the courts which is really great. 
The District Court: obviously it is a lot of crime, so if you don’t like watching a lot of sex offence cases, don’t go to the District Court. Having said that, the work load is less because you basically sit in trials the whole time, so you don’t have as much to do before court, you don’t have as much to do after court, because you don’t have editing to do. Proofing of judgments, like Pat said, is what takes a lot of time. It’s often a really fun crowd, less work, have more social events; it’s really good. It is still really challenging. If you do want to go into crime, it’s enormously beneficial, you will get to know all the regular players from the criminal law firms, the defence council, this sort of thing, and you go on circuit a lot. If you manage to save up all your circuit allowance, you are probably earning more than the Court of Appeal associates as well, which is good. 

Supreme Court: you’ve got diversity. If you do get crime, you pretty much only get murder or drug offences, mostly drug offences – very light on crime, and there’s not been much crime around this year either (I don’t know if that’s a new trend or not). It’s a lot of civil stuff. Be prepared for most trials to fall over: you’d be surprised, I’ve only seen one or two trials through to completion in the seven months that I’ve been in this job, one of which was a two day easement case – not the most interesting thing you could watch. However, being in the Supreme Court is a good opportunity to see some really fantastic litigation, and also the reality of what a multi-million dollar case looks like from within the court when it doesn’t settle, and it gets that far. You see what all the disclosure amounts to, what is actually taken into consideration, and this sort of thing. It’s very nice to view that, particularly if you know that you’ll probably end up doing a graduate stint in a commercial law firm or something. It is nice to know what the judge hates, in cases with a lot of paper, and this sort of thing. 

The Court of Appeal is very different again. It’s probably quite well-balanced between crime and civil. You have three judges typically sitting on the bench, so it means that from an associate’s perspective, only the senior-most judge’s associate actually does anything during court. They’ll do things like marking exhibits and keeping an electronic log of what’s going on procedurally in that hearing. The other two associates basically just have to sit there and attend to their judge if they need to, so your in-court duties are not as onerous, but it means that you have a lot of judgments being churned out by your judge constantly, so there’s a lot more proofing. Everyone encounters the same sort of duties, but it is more a question of to what extent they need to do those duties, and how often. 

Anna: I’m currently working as a legal associate in the Family Court. As I’ll explain to you tonight, the legal associate at the Family Court works differently to other Courts. I started working at the beginning of 2014 while I was in my final year here at UQ, and I decided to stay on with the position this year, so this is my second year. I was initially working for Justice Bell, but within a few months His Honour took long leave, and then ultimately retired at the beginning of this year, so after 39 years on the bench, His Honour decided to retire soon after I was employed as his associate. I tell myself that was just a coincidence. In about August last year, I then started working for Justice Forrest and have continued in that role since.
To explain how the Family Court works: the judges are either in the Trial Division or in the Appeals Division, and each judge has two associates: a judicial associate and a legal associate. The judicial associate, they work full-time and perform an administrative role. They generally have no legal qualification, and they are the ones who go to court with the judge, and they perform other duties like managing the judge’s diary, typing up orders, listing mail matters, and general running of chambers. The legal associate, on the other hand, as which I am employed, has a law degree. Each appeals judge is entitled to a full-time legal associate, whereas the trial judges are entitled to a half-time associate each, so you would either work full-time for two judges for two judges in the Trial Division, or you would work full-time for one judge in the Appeals Division. I should actually mention that in the Appeals Division, the associates are the ones who attend Court with the judge, and they also do quite a bit of interstate travel. As Pat said before, they travel to places like Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth, which is one of the benefits of being in a federal jurisdiction. The role of the legal associate varies very differently between chambers, so it depends on the particular judge and how he or she likes things to work. 

My role involves preparing a summary of each matter for His Honour. Generally the matters we see in the Family Court were commenced in the Federal Circuit Court and have been transferred to the Family Court because of the complexity of the case, so by the time the matter comes before His Honour, the parties have been litigating for many years and the file is quite large. In the summaries I have to prepare, I just look at what application is being heard, what order each of the party is seeking, the witnesses, the material. I summarise the procedural history which is often quite long. I summarise the facts and try to identify the issues that will need to be determined, and look at what the expert opinions say, and raise any issues that might come up at the hearing. I also do any research that His Honour might require, and this is really good because you have the benefit of the court library, and we are given really good research training there too, which has been really helpful. I do other things like proofreading, doing catchwords, editing, and you do the citations and check all of those things. We sometimes draft parts of judgments, and really just do any task that might assist His Honour. You actually get to do a lot of legal work. 

The amount of time the associate spends in court really varies depending on which judge you work for. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been able to spend a lot of time in court, and during that time I will take notes and perform just general associate duties. I should also highlight though that the Family Court doesn’t have jury trials and it is an affidavit-based Court, so counsel rarely has to lead evidence from the witnesses. In child-related proceedings the rules of evidence don’t apply, unless the Court decides, so unlike the other courts you have limited exposure to those sort of processes. 

I really can’t speak more highly of being an associate. I absolutely love the job, I’ve learnt so much and met so many wonderful people. I would really urge you all to apply for these positions in the court where your interest lies. I have always been interested in family law, and it was actually Anne-Marie Rice, who’s the family law course coordinator here at UQ, who recommended that I apply for the position. Being an associate has taught me so much, not only about the law, but about the court processes, and about how a case is run. You get great experience because of the diversity of the matters and also the different applications that you see. You see behind-the-scenes, gain an understanding of how the cases are decided, and you experience different firms and barristers as Rebekah outlined, and have the benefit of seeing how different practitioners advocate. 

I feel extremely lucky actually to have worked for Justice Forrest, because His Honour goes out of his way to explain the law to me, and he will often come up from court and he’ll discuss with me what just happened in the courtroom, the different strategies the barristers used, strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, how they dealt with difficult witnesses and things like that. He also points out different techniques that the barristers have used in cross-examination that were really effective or not so effective, and they are things that I would never have noticed otherwise. It is invaluable experience and I don’t think that you can get it in any other job. The judges are all so intelligent and have such a wealth of knowledge and experience, and if you open yourself up to the experience you can learn so much. Justice Forrest, who I work for, manages the Magellan case list, and so that’s matters that involve a lot of family violence and a lot of sexual abuse; the nature of the work can be quite confronting and it isn’t for everyone. In the Family Court you also get a lot of self-represented litigants, and there are people going through some of the most stressful and difficult times of their lives, so everything is on the line when their children are involved and it’s really important to be respectful towards everyone you deal with. Discretion in both the courtroom and the chambers is really important for the job. 

In terms of the application process, I’d encourage you to apply not only in Queensland for the Brisbane Registry, but also the Registries interstate because it is a federal jurisdiction. Legal associates are a non-ongoing position with the federal government. The positions are generally only for a year and they are advertised when they become available, so unlike the State Courts, there’s not one time of year that the positions come up, the positions come up at any time throughout the year. You can see when positions are available via the government Gazette which you can find on the APS website. The APS is the Australian Public Service website, or alternatively you can register your interest for legal associates nationally on the template register which is on the Family Court website. There is no one intake period, the positions come up throughout the year. The process is from those advertisements the applicants are shortlisted and invited to attend an interview with the team leader at the court. From there you are shortlisted again and recommendations are made, and there is a possibility then that you get invited to meet with the judge for a further interview and then the offer is made from there. If you do have an opportunity to be interviewed, my biggest tip is to show that you are passionate about the area of law that the position is in. I’ve heard this comment being made following interviews for a number of positions: that the applicant was really good, however they just didn’t seem that keen on family law, they just wanted to be an associate. Months after I began working at the court, my supervisor told me that was the reason I was offered my position over another applicant. That was the difference for me, and that’s the tip that I would pass onto you all. 

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working as an associate. I have learnt so much and gained a great deal of confidence in my abilities and the knowledge in the area. Justice Forrest often tells me that I’m one of his top five associates, which brings me great confidence considering he’s only had four. If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to chat with you. Thanks for having me.

Hugh: I’ll pull out my notes because if I allow myself to speak at length without any sort of constraint you could be extremely bored. I would have to echo the sentiments of my friends, and that is: there is an extremely close professional relationship between you and your relevant judge, or in my case, member of the Tribunal. It’s a unique position, it’s a position which causes a significant amount of trust to be reposed in you. It is a position in which you may well have to attend to a variety of personal matters. 

I think the principal quality in any of the professional matters or personal matters that you attend to is discretion. Has anybody done administrative law? Okay, quite a few of you. You’ve probably heard about the AAT before. Which is surprising because I used to work for a barrister and sometimes I’d be fortunate enough to be taken out for lunch and people would say, “Hugh, what are you doing next year? You must have something lined up.” And I’d say, “Oh yeah, I’m really excited, I’m going to be an associate in the AAT”. And they said, “Oh, what’s that?” And I said, “The Administrative Appeals Tribunal”. Perhaps they weren’t used to the abbreviation. It’s the peak merit review Tribunal in Australia. I’m sure you’re all adequately familiar with what the AAT is. It’s nothing like a court, and you probably know about that because it can determine its own procedure, it’s not bound by those rules. It’s not bound by the rules of evidence either.

What I will say is that the Tribunal has a lot of eminent members. Some of them are professors of law, a lot of them are silks, some of them are Justices of the Federal Court. It’s by no means an inferior opportunity just because it’s called a Tribunal instead of a Court. In fact you get a lot of the same experiences, and in fact I should say that you may even get more litigation time as well, because I would sit in the Tribunal on hearings for about 3 out of 5 days every working week. You go on circuits as well, you can go to Cairns, Townsville, you can go to rural NSW, and I think that that’s important, it’s nice to have some diversity and see some different things. The Tribunal deals with some fairly diverse matters: tax, freedom of information, Commonwealth compensation cases, which are fairly interesting, some matters with restricted security clearance, and civil aviation matters as well. 

I think I’d also echo the sentiments of Pat, in that it’s not about the graduate with the highest grades garnering a job in the Tribunal, I think it’s about a passion for administrative law. I don’t know if that seems like an oxymoron. You know, how could you possibly be passionate about administrative law? I can assure you that some people are, as unique and curious as that may be. If you don’t have marvellous grades, then I think it’s necessary to put that in context. Perhaps you might have a GPA that’s at the lower end, but you know if you’re working full-time and you’re part of a university society, and you might have done really well in individual assignments, well, I think you need to put that in context because some people are able to achieve wonderful grades – and I take nothing away from that – by doing university at a slow pace, and perhaps not having to support themselves, or perhaps not having to work or to do other things, whereas other people of course have much different circumstances. I don’t think it’s any excuse to say, “Well, I had to support myself at university, and I had to do this and that”, but you may well be able to put your grades in context and say, “I actually did really well on my civil procedure assignment, and I think if I didn’t have the distractions of all these other things, I may have been able to replicate that success more consistently”. 

In terms of what you’ll need for your application, I think to talk about that in isolation is really quite artificial. I think that the application process really begins in your first year of university. You really need to be involved as much as possible. You should probably be out there attempting to gain work experience at a very early stage. I mean you don’t need me to tell you that the legal profession now, more than ever, is extremely competitive. I don’t want to dissuade you, or I don’t want to demotivate you in any way, but if you can get some experience early on, that obviously will work in your favour. 

I think one thing I would say is that working for barristers can be an untapped resource. A lot of people think that they need to work for a firm, or they need to go down to clerk on Eagle Street. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that there is a huge resource of barristers, many of whom require support staff, and a lot of which, given the collegiate nature of the bar, would be more than happy and capable of assisting you in any way, even if the work for some period was unpaid. That’s certainly something that I did from an early stage, and I think it has been a tremendous benefit to me. Keep in mind too that the people that you’ll be applying to, that is, judges of the Supreme and District Courts, and indeed members of the Tribunals too, come from the bar for the most part. That’s worth thinking about. 

If you’re stuck on firms, if you really want to work for them but don’t succeed in Brisbane, why don’t you try somewhere regional? I think that might be worthwhile. Certainly some members of the judiciary have said that too. There are firms outside of Brisbane that would like to have some work experience students or people working in a paralegal capacity over the university holidays. I think a lot of university societies and skills competitions are worthwhile as well. 

I think, in terms of your application, if you know that you’re bad at writing cover letters, and you know someone who has got a good one, you could benefit from reading it. Don’t copy it, but people make good points and they put things in an interesting way. Obviously you need to have an interest in the field, and you need to get your applications in on time. The important thing about the Tribunal is that there’s a thing called The Australian Public Service values, and it’s a document about how we should all be honest and have integrity, and a lot of those other fairly human things, but you need to read that duty statement because you’ll need to answer a number of criteria, certain questions, in your application, as an adjunct to your cover letter, and it’s helpful if you are familiar with the material. 

I think in terms of formalities of the AAT process, it’s generally advertised through universities, it’s available on the website. I think that there was approximately 10 others that were interviewed with me, and about 3 of us were chosen. The AAT also compiles a merit list, so if you don’t make the first cut, you may well be called upon later to take up a position. That was certainly the case six months after I was interviewed. Another member was appointed and one of my colleagues was called out of the blue, for what I’m sure was a very pleasant surprise for her. It’s not “all over red rover” if you don’t get the job at first instance. And I think that’s about it.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for our speakers, for giving us an overview, we’re actually going to open it up to you guys if you have specific questions for Pat, Bec, Anna, or Hugh, so if you have any questions just stick your hand up and I will come to you with the mic. If you have a question for a specific JA, if you can direct it to them, that would be great.

Question 1: This is not to a specific person, but I think this was a general idea, that you should show passion for what you’re applying for. Obviously a lot of people are going to hear that and say “Yeah, I’m interested”, so how do you show them the difference that you’re actually particularly interested, and show them that you’re different? Do you show them through previous work experience that is in that field?
Anna: Actually, that’s actually a really good point. That’s one thing that I think is really good, especially with family law, I had done work experience with a few different firms and barrister who did family law. Even things, like, I went along with a barrister to just a couple of trials that he was doing. I did some work experience actually with Anne-Marie Rice for a week at her firm, and just little things like that show that you’re really keen and you’re really interested. I think also when you show you really have an interest in something, it will come across in the interview. You might want to talk about where you want to go with your career, what you want to achieve, and then talk about how this job will help you to achieve that. Often for Judge’s Associate positions, it’s really good experience if you want to go to the bar, because you are just getting all of that exposure to the courtroom and processes, and if you genuinely are interested you say, “I want to go to the bar and this would help me so much. I want to get an idea of cross-examination, and the applications, arguments, how to manage difficult witnesses, all of those things would just help me so much”. If you actually say that, they can see that you’ve thought about it and you have a goal. This is where you want to start so that you can work to achieve that.

Pat: With the Federal Court, and I imagine with the Supreme and District as well, because it’s a bit broader, obviously there’s not a specific area. I can’t show a passion for just law, that would be a bit silly. In my interview, my judge at the time was writing a competition law case, and I was studying competition law at the time, and I actually really like competition law, and so half of my interview turned into a chat about this particular facet of a case. I’d say showing a passion for admin or family law, in the AAT or Family Court is important, but in the broader courts, showing you’re just engaged generally, showing that I am obviously not going to be in love with every facet of Commonwealth law, in fact admin law is my least favourite area, which is annoying because we have a lot of it. But having some engagement and showing that I’m not just doing this as a one-year goal to move on. I’m not doing law just so I can make the big bucks, even though you can fake it, showing you’re actually engaged in what you’re doing.

Rebekah: Yeah, if you’re after the big bucks don’t become an associate at the State level, it doesn’t pay well at all. In terms of showing a passion, Pat’s right, it’s very broad, so unless you’re applying to one of those judges who has some sort of extra thing on their plate, like Mental Health Court, like P&E, that you’re really passionate about, so you’ve applied to them for a particular reason, it can be really difficult to decide what about your resume you want to emphasise in your cover letter, what experiences you’ve had that they might be interested in. That’s why we’re doing a bit of extra digging around and seeing, “Oh well, Justice Applegarth does a stint teaching media law at UQ, and I loved media law, so why don’t I talk about that?” – which I hadn’t done, and I didn’t realise at the time of the interview. I think that, certainly for the judges that I know on the Supreme Court, going to the bar is, for some of them, actually a prerequisite they look for in their associates because they feel as though it’s almost a bit of a wasted opportunity on some other people, which it’s not, but it’s that the benefit of someone who wants to go to the bar is just that much greater. Definitely at least having an interest, you don’t need to commit yourself to anything, but I’m still a bit uncertain about the bar, but I made it clear that that was one of the top things that I was considering, so I think adding something like that in your resume shows that you’re thinking about the longer term goals as well and how your year as an associate would help you achieve those goals.

Question 2: I’ve got 2 questions. One that’s puzzled me for many years: why do associates only last for a year and what is the philosophy behind the 12-month thing? And the second question is what happens to associates at the end of 12 months? Where do they go, what do they do?

Rebekah: There’s a notorious Brisbane barrister who spent 12 years an associate on the District Court with the same judge. That really doesn’t happen that often. That judge was quite stubborn. I don’t know historically why that’s been the case. I imagine because that’s clearly a mentoring role, that there becomes a limit on how much you can get from a mentoring relationship, so it’s more beneficial for you to move on. They should have mentioned earlier that within the State Courts that it’s quite common for someone to do a year on the District Court, and then do a year on the Supreme or Court of Appeal or go to the Federal Court or something. Similarly when there was a Supreme Court associate from last year who’s now a research officer at the High Court. I think it’s not the fact that you cannot do two years as an associate, it’s just that there’s very limited utility in doing two years on the same court, and I think the judges are quite conscious that there are a lot of worthy people out there and they wouldn’t want others to be missing out on the benefits of that year. In terms of where people go, as I said, they can go to other courts, if you’ve been on the District Court and you have a love of crime, and you start to know the people from the DPP very well, then a lot of District Court people end up going into the DPP which is still a tough gig, but they’ve simply got a head-start because they know the profession, which is one of the benefits of being an associate. Some associates don’t have anything lined up next year and they’re looking on the open market like everyone else.

Pat: In terms of the first question, I would agree, that from the associate’s point of view, there’s no way to progress in a sense. I personally think it’s a shame it’s only a year, I think I’m only just getting good at the job now, and I think Melbourne they do a year and a half… maybe? And obviously some judges keep them longer. You can only grow in the role for so long, and then you are just marking time. In terms of what to do next, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m going through the open market. But one of the things I’ve discovered this year, and I say genuinely discovered, is that there’s more than like six firms in Brisbane. Because, in all seriousness, you go to university, you know the top tier firms, and that’s the be all and end all. Clerkship day is the most stressful days you’ll ever have and you think there’s no progression if you don’t get a clerkship or an offer. That’s absolute rubbish. One of the top tiers are top tiers purely because they are very big. Particularly in the Federal Court where the law is slightly different, we have a lot of mid-tier firms and even what you’d call boutique firms, firms that are only in commercial litigation or in solvency that are fantastic and would be perfect if you have an interest in that area. You have to do some work and find them because there’s no classifieds for law jobs, but don’t be disheartened if you’re GPA is not a 6.9 and you’re getting an offer at Freehills. There are plenty of firms out there, it’s not as dire as everyone thinks it is. You just have to do some leg work and find them.

Anna: Just on that point, one thing that I think is really great way to get jobs is to email partners directly, just bypass the HR process. I have many friends who have done that, and it’s really just easier to talk straight to the partners, and if they see you are passionate they’re very happy to meet with you and even if there’s not a position then, they keep you in mind for a position later on. I would really encourage you to do that. If there’s a firm that you’re really keen to work at and it just hasn’t quite worked out, see if you can meet someone and have a coffee or something and you never know through meeting people where you might end up. 

Pat: A great tip I got: up until you’re admitted, it’s all HR. As soon as you’re admitted, the lawyers want nothing to do with HR. They’ll say, “You,” (the lawyer), “I want you”. Of the associates in the Federal Court, four of us are admitted, and the rest of us are doing PLT, and the second half of the year, the ones who are admitted, they are going and having coffee with people who are saying “I’m moving out of my role, I want you to replace me”. Once you get admitted you can bypass the HR circus.

Question 3: Hi, I’ve just got some questions about the application process, so I’m sure this will be different for each, but it’s for all of you. One: can you do a Skype interview? Is that possible if you happen to be overseas during the time of the interviews? 

Rebekah: Yes definitely, several of next year’s associates have been hired via Skype. 

Question 4: Thanks. And my second question is: obviously most people apply for the year after they graduate. But do you think there’s a market for applying the year after? Do judges look negatively on that, or do you have any thoughts on that? 

Anna: Actually one of the girls that’s working in the Family Court at the moment, she was actually a commercial lawyer and decided that it wasn’t for her, and she wanted to know whether she was interested in family law and she is sort of interested in going to the bar. She became an associate later on, and she’s really loved it, and now she is enrolled for the bar practice course and she’s going to pursue that. In terms of the Family Court, there’s no restriction, but I don’t know if it is different for the other courts or tribunals.

Pat: Of the seven associates in Brisbane, one is two years out I think. And another interesting thing is that in Melbourne, while it is a Federal Court, it’s not totally federal. In Melbourne they actually pick people who have been out for 3 or 4 years. Melbourne has no one who is just out of university, I’m not sure why they do it that way, but they’ll pick people who’ve gone to a firm for a couple of years and then they will want to transition out to the bar, they’ll want to grab someone like that. Then they will go as a JA and then they’ll do the bar practice course and go out. I would say it is not necessary, no.

Rebekah: I should just mention that in South Australia they have just started something that is designed to help women transition to the bar. It is intend for women to go into after they have had several years of practice, and then they come and do a specified associateship role with more active mentoring. That’s meant to be a way of overcoming certain barriers that women face in going to the bar. I think the courts have been a lot more conscious of the fact that these days it’s not a simple progression from a straight law degree into an associateship, into the bar. They are certainly not opposed to taking some people who have some life experience behind them.

Question 5: I understand that there’s a shared pool at least in the Supreme and District Courts of applicants that all the judges can access. First of all, is there a similar system in the Federal Court and Tribunals and what not amongst applicants? And for all of you, would you say that applying to that is worthwhile, or is it realistically better just to go directly to a judge?

Pat: In Brisbane there’s seven judges, so when you talk about a pool… the seven judges are in a corridor, and their offices are all beside each other. They do chat and have coffee, etc. I’d say apply to all the judges, as I said before. I’d apply individually, I wouldn’t go through a Federal Court application, I’d apply to each judge individually, there’s only seven. Even if it is a similar application, different judges are looking for different things. And even in the style they work; for example, there are some judges who don’t want to see anything before they go into court. They sit down and say, “Right, what’s this about?” That’s a different skill set from my judge who wants to know absolutely everything beforehand. He has read everything, he’s heard me summarise it, etc. And you can’t know those things beforehand. As I said before, it’s as much a personality thing as it is a grades thing. In the Federal Court, there’s not a formalised pool, but I wouldn’t say no to writing to everyone – in fact I would encourage writing to everyone. 

Rebekah: Yes, there is a pool for the State Courts. Should you apply to it? All it takes is for you to upload it online, you may as well just put it in there. Do the judges look at it? Whether the judge sees what goes on that pool is basically dependent on one associate who has the responsibility for checking that Dropbox, and I think in this last seven months we had about 180 applications sitting there, and you are usually hiring your successor within the first two weeks of your job, you frankly have a lot bigger concerns than checking that Dropbox: it’s not the most fool-proof way of making sure the judge sees that application. I would certainly hand it in in hard copy as well. Having said that, some people did get hired for next year simply on the basis of submitting it to that pool. I think they were typically by judges who hired later in the year after the initial flurry of hiring.

Hugh: Yeah, there’s certainly a pool. There are also plenty of associates in the Tribunal, which is interesting because some of the part-time members have extremely interesting and diverse backgrounds. I think it’s worth submitting an application at any time and in fact if you don’t submit one during the period in which everybody else is submitting one, you may well stand a better chance because people might take notice of your application more than they would otherwise. 

Question 6: Just a bit of an obscure question on providing an updated resume or application as the case may be, for example too early and they’ve written back and said, “I’m not considering it until later in the year”, I know that’s particularly a concern with the Federal Court, is there a manner in which you should go about that and is there any traps to avoid in doing that?

Pat: When resumes are submitted to the Federal Court they either get emailed directly to my inbox, which is the associate inbox, or it goes to the registry and they email it up and the really technical HR-approved process is: I print them and then put them on a stack. In answer to your question, yes, I would send through a more recent one and say, “I applied a couple of months ago and in the meantime I won the Rhodes scholarship and cured cancer so I’m going to update my resume”. Personally I’d say sure and find your old one and stick the new one in.

Question 7: I just wanted to know whether you find your roles quite individual or if there’s sort of a team environment where you can associate with other associates?

Rebekah: That’s where the Supreme Court is definitely the best. Being in that building and having the benefit of being in District Court, and Supreme Court, and Court of Appeal, it’s kind of known for being a bit more of a social hub. I’ve got no doubt that everyone at the other courts gets along well, but we often have dinners and social events and we have social sport teams and this sort of thing. There’s a lot going on that the associates organise. In terms of doing work collaboratively though, it’s not really the case. The Court of Appeal may be a bit more collaborative in the sense that the judges, when they finish a hearing, they’ll go up and share a pot of tea together and they’ll probably have a little bit of a chat and some of that might filter down to the associates and there might be a bit of discussion as to how they’re going to formulate the orders precisely and something like that and it might involve a bit more interaction between the associates. Socially: really great; work wise: it is just individual work, but it’s not isolating, which is the most important thing.

Anna: We definitely do a lot of collaboration with each other in the Family Court because often, like for example today we got a case and I’d never seen this sort of matter before, it’s a special medical procedure, and the child of the applicants has gender dysphoria. It’s a matter that you don’t often see and you have to get leave of the court to undergo a medical procedure. It’s a closed court when that sort of application comes up, so it is really hard to research previous judgments; it’s just a matter of going around to the other associates, and seeing if any of their judges had heard a matter like this before, and then finding out where I should go from there. We do a lot of that sort of thing. It’s really good actually: one of the girls I was working with last year, she was just the most amazing, you’ve never seen anyone research like it, and she used to teach me so much, and she’s gone on to do a Masters at Cambridge and now she’s teaching there and the end of the year. The people you meet and you teach each other little skills along the way; those things are really good.

Hugh: I think there’s plenty of collaboration and the associates sort of stick together, so it’s a great social event too. There’s often an Associates’ Ball at the end of the year, and fortunately the Tribunal was invited this year. The first year ever! It’s really social, it’s good.

Pat: In terms of social, yes, there’s seven of us – we have lunch together every day, we’ve been away on trips together, go out for drinks on Friday, etc. There’s plenty of social and we do talk to the State associates sometimes. We go over to the Coffee Club and have drinks with them. Near them, at least. They don’t like us. Work wise it’s a bit different. Each chamber is an almost entirely autonomous unit. It’s kind of like a team at a firm. Often people will walk in and say, “Pat, what are your thoughts on this? I don’t know how to research this.” In fact, I had a question about Parliamentary procedure. Where would you go for that? And I said, “Oh, I don’t know, ask the librarian”. A lot of things don’t translate because the procedures in each chamber are actually really surprisingly different. The split of work between the EA and the associate is different within each chamber. As I said before, I do a lot of leg work before my judge goes to court. A lot of associates do nothing and then do a lot afterwards. My judge never has me draft any judgments but some judges do. Socially, there’s no isolation. Always up for a chat or a coffee. Work wise it’s unique to chambers.

Rebekah: I should say that something that’s really common on the State Courts because there’s quite a lot of judges, when a judge takes leave, then that associate is the associate who is available to the judge whose associate is taking leave, you do get the opportunity to sit with other judges; for example, my judge goes on two months’ leave from next Monday so I’ll be the first port of call for any judge who’s associate is away, ill, or on holidays, or whatever else. Even though you’ve applied to your judge, you have to be willing to work with any judge. It’s fantastic because then you get the benefit of you know actually having them remembering your name around the corridors; there’s such a high turnover of associates it can be hard to establish a personal relationship with anyone other than the judge who hired you. That is one way where it can be a bit more collaborative.

Elizabeth: Alright, we’re probably going to end it there for questions for now. Before everyone gets up, we just wanted to thank our wonderful JA’s for coming along.