Are you unsure of which pathway to take upon graduating? A judge’s associateship role may be just what you’re looking for. This is a role that is often overlooked by law students and may not be well-known or advertised in the face of the strong focus on commercial clerkships.
A judge’s associateship is an amazing opportunity to gain firsthand experience in the administration of justice and offers the invaluable opportunity to gain exposure to the internal management and functions of our court system. It is an alternative pathway to gaining a graduate role within a firm, which allows you to gain unique practical experiences that will foster the building of key skills you can take forward with you in your career. A judge’s associateship is also a common career move of aspiring barristers because of the opportunity to observe trials, court processes and oral advocacy.
We sat down with current judge’s associate Jack Trainor to learn about his experiences, and to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the role.
Jack Trainor is the associate to the Hon. Justice Melanie Sloss. He works in the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and prior to gaining his role as a judges’ associate worked at Russell Kennedy Lawyers in their litigation team. Jack studied the Juris Doctor of Law at Melbourne University.
We would like to thank Jack at the outset for his valuable contributions to this blog, and for taking the time to share his experiences with Deakin Law Students.
What is a judges’ associateship?
Judge’s associates are responsible exclusively to a judge to do a variety of work at the judge’s discretion. The specific work undertaken by an associate will differ according to the judge they are working for. Broadly, the role allows you to gain knowledge of court rules, processes, and procedures and to enhance your research skills while assisting your judge.
Judge’s associateship roles will often be short-term roles which run on 12 or 18-month contracts. You will often be able to search for Judge’s Associateship roles at the Supreme and County Court through Careers Vic. Some roles, however, are advertised through word of mouth rather than public forums.
An amazing opportunity to gain exposure to the court system
“Something a lot of people may not be aware of in relation to the court and associateship positions is the significant difference between different divisions. You will have quite a diverse experience in the different areas of the court in relation to the work you undertake and the matters you will come across” – Jack
If you are considering a Judge’s Associateship, it is helpful to have a general idea of what area of law interests you. The Supreme Court is divided into two divisions: the Trial Division and the Court of Appeal. The Trial Division has three separate divisions: Common Law Division, the Criminal Division and the Commercial Court. Each division (and subdivision) has its own practices and procedures, so by extension the role of an associate may vary. For example, the Commercial Court is what’s known as a “judge-managed list”, which means you will be exposed to a lot of case management including interlocutory applications and contested directions hearings regarding pleadings, subpoenas, discovery etc. In the Common Law Division, often a matter will proceed to trial stage with a judicial registrar performing most of the case management, leaving the judges open to hear more trials, more often.
Applying for a judge’s associateship
The application process generally involves sending a resume, cover letter and an academic transcript. Your academic transcript is an important part of the application process and is taken into consideration by the judge. If you have been practising law for a few years before applying, your transcript will still be a relevant part of the application process.
Judges will often hire associates who have not yet gained a lot of practical experience. The experiences that you will have within your role as a judge’s associate are vastly different from those in private practice, so don’t be discouraged from applying if you don’t have a lot of practical legal experience behind you. You can apply straight out of law school. The only pre-requisite is obtaining a law degree.
The application process will vary from judge to judge. You may meet with the current associate of the judge you are applying to before a more formal interview, and this is an opportunity to understand whether the role is a good fit for you. Overall, the process could be quite unique to the judge you are applying to, so make sure you keep an open mind throughout the process and be adaptable to the preferences of the judge.
“My best advice would be to have something that makes you stand out. Have something that can separate you from other applicants in the application process, which allows your personality to shine through. It’s important for the judge to see a bit of your personality. You will be working so closely with your judge that they will value getting to know you and the person that you are during the application process” – Jack
Day-to-day tasks and responsibilities
Judges’ associates are exposed to a wide range of work, both inside and out of the courtroom. They perform both administrative and legal tasks, as well as communication with legal practitioners to inform them what the judge requires in advance of an upcoming hearing.
In court, the associate will set up the logistics and tech to make sure that everything is ready to go before a hearing. This will also involve booking courtrooms, arranging transcripts, testing the equipment, swearing in witnesses, and ensuring that recordings are being made during the hearing.
From an academic perspective, a key task/responsibility within the role is assisting in the preparation of judgments. The contribution and role of the associate in this process varies from judge to judge. Some judges may ask the associate to provide their analysis of the issues in dispute or seek their input at specific points/paragraphs in the writing process. Alternatively, the judge may prefer to do the bulk of the work and drafting themselves and use the associate as a sounding board to sense-check their reasons. All associates must have attention to detail when it comes to research, referencing and proof-reading judgments.
“Essentially, the associate will facilitate all kinds of matters that are essential to the running of a trial. Think of it as working to make the judge’s role easier and ensuring that things run smoothly so judge can focus solely on the hearing at hand” – Jack
We asked Jack about his day-to-day tasks and experiences in the Commercial Court.
“Day-to-day tasks will really depend on the judge you are working for and the types of cases they hear. A lot of the matters my Judge hears are contractual disputes, matters brought pursuant to the Corporations Act, insolvency and liquidation matters, and partnership and franchise disputes. These disputes are often factually complicated, so I will often prepare documents that help to organise and synthesise the large volume of material that comes before the Court. Other proceedings may call for further research on a difficult point of law that arises on the facts. Drafting research memos is an important part of the role of any associate.
Outside of hearings, the associate is the conduit for information between the judge and the parties/legal practitioners. Associates are required to communicate to the parties what is expected by the judge.
Associates are also responsible for some of the admin work that ensures the Court keeps matters progressing. This includes drafting orders, uploading documents to court portal, handling emails, and corresponding directly on the judge’s behalf with parties and legal practitioners, as well as other support staff within the Court” – Jack
Jack gave us an example of a work week as an associate in the commercial court:
“The hours can allow quite a bit of flexibility and balance. Some associates who have come from a few years of busy private practice find that working at the Court provides a great opportunity to learn on the job at the same time as undertaking further study at post-graduate or masters level, or even to prepare for the bar exam.
Taking you through an average week: each day can be quite different to the last in terms of the priorities for that day and then of course the tasks that take up most of the day. So, I will give you an example of a week that I might experience as an associate and mention some tasks that I might perform each day.
Weeks are generally set up so that Monday to Thursday are open for interlocutory applications or trials, and Fridays are generally kept for directions hearings. If there is a trial running you may be sitting in Court from 10am-4:30pm each day. On those days, keeping a comprehensive file note of the trial is imperative. Otherwise, on a Monday I will email practitioners to confirm whether the directions hearings later in the week are going ahead and, if so, what orders the parties want the Court to make.
On a Tuesday I may be working on a judgment. This would include researching particular legal issues or collating and analysing the evidence of a particular witness in a meaningful way.
If there is no trial listed in a week, you may still be in Court with some form of interlocutory application for a day or half a day in the middle of the week. Recent examples in our chambers include applications for freezing orders and an application for an injunction to require the production of certain financial records.
In advance of directions hearings, the parties should inform the Court whether they have agreed to consent orders and are requesting the judge to make certain orders ‘on the papers’. In this scenario, the associate must analyse the orders provided by the parties and consider whether they have accounted for all issues or if they give effect to the most efficient way to move the case forward. This involves using your discretion and judgment to predict what the judge would do and, if you’re unsure, then discussing it with the judge”
Fridays are when the directions hearings will typically occur for matters that have not been resolved on the papers. It might surprise people to know that there may be 10, 15 or even 20 directions hearings in a matter before a matter it is listed for trial‑ though that should be avoided if possible, as it can be a costly exercise. Essentially, they occur as often as the parties need them to occur. The goal of these hearings is, with the assistance of the judge, to narrow down the issues in dispute so that by the time you get to trial, you know the case you have to answer if you are the defendant, and if you are the plaintiff, the evidence you intend to rely on is clear” – Jack
Past experiences that may assist you in your role as an associate
We asked Jack for his advice on any past experiences that he believes may assist an associate with their role. Although prior practical experience is not essential to gaining a role as an associate, there are still things you can do that will assist you to prepare yourself for success.
“There’s no substitute for seeing it for yourself. Going to court and watching a matter gives you a great opportunity to learn so much about the court process. It also puts into context a lot of what you have read in case law in your studies.
A lot of hearings are also live-streamed, and each day the Supreme Court will publish a daily list for the next day. To obtain a link to watch a live-streamed hearing you simply email the relevant associate.
If your goal is to work in litigation, my advice is to familiarise yourself with court processes and procedures. Knowing your way around procedural issues is a vital skill of a litigation lawyer and the best way to gain that skill is through experience. That could be working in litigation role or simply going to or observing court hearings.
Another great resource to gain some exposure to the Court and its processes is the Gertie’s Law podcast. The podcast interviews judges and is a great way for you to get some insight into the work they do and the environment they work in” – Jack
A judge’s associateship is an amazing opportunity to gain exposure to the court system, and it provides you with outstanding practical experiences that you take forth in your legal career. The opportunity to work so closely with a judge allows you to be mentored and guided. Jack’s insights demonstrate the opportunity the role presents for personal and professional growth, as well as the development of a varied set of valuable skills. We thank Jack again for his contributions to this article and encourage all our readers to consider applying for a judge’s associateship position.