Life in the shoes of a judge’s associate (Part 1)

7 mins

There is a lot of mystery about what it means to be a judge’s associate—that is—until you become one. Being a judge’s associate is like being a mini barrister, lawyer, legal researcher and executive assistant, all rolled up into one.

Every associate’s job description, apart from some commonalities, is different. Any associate would say that it is fluid and dependent on the judge’s preferences and style.

Before applying to be a judge’s associate, I travelled through the Google Universe to find out as much as I could. I foraged for personal interviews with former judges’ associates. There are a couple out there, but you can count them off on one hand. To compensate, I will take you through the journey through the life of the judge’s associate.

(Reader’s note: I can only speak from my own experience as an associate at the Supreme Court of Victoria. There are similarities that you can draw on.)

The mechanics of it

A judge’s associate is the mouthpiece (or messenger) of the judge outside of the courtroom. They play an important role in separating the decision maker (the judge) and the parties. This is so that the judge will not be unduly influenced by the parties or accused of judicial bias.

As an intermediary, you have the privilege of observing two worlds. You interact with the litigation parties, as well as the judge. As the go-between, you are ever conscious of being impartial and fair.

This might mean maintaining a poker face during cross-examinations. Or ensuring that the parties follow the court communications protocols. There is a sacrosanct rule that all parties in litigation MUST copy in all other parties in written communications with the Court.

Often, parties have lawyers. They will be the ones on emails, not the actual parties themselves. As you can imagine, things can get a little bit hairy with self-represented litigants. Especially when their email is something like ‘hot-sox-Carlo’ at hotmail.

Ye olde court hierarchy

Unfortunately for equal opportunity types, the legal profession and tradition are inseparable. The ‘H’ word is also implicated—yes, hierarchy. You can feel it permeating through the walls of any court. The history of the place is all over the walls, the woodwork, the plaques and the portraits. It is inescapable.

It is here that you have a strange dichotomy of people who are in equal measure driven to individualism, but bound by hierarchy. The hierarchy is as follows—the High Court trumps all. Followed by the Court of Appeal (at least in Victoria and equivalents in other States). Followed by the trial division of the Supreme Court, and so on. Everyone accepts the decisions of higher courts as correct law. There is no argument about that.

The written hierarchy works this way:

  1. Higher courts trump lower courts;
  2. Seniority trumps all (subject to the above rule #1).

The unwritten hierarchy works this way, even though they are all legal practitioners:

  1. Judges;
  2. Barristers;
  3. Lawyers.

Funnily enough, there is also an unspoken hierarchy (although imminently silly) between associates. This depends on the judge they work for and where they sit on the hierarchy.

This strange dichotomy that I described to you can work in funny ways. Some associates thrive in history and tradition. Others think it is all too stifling. In any event, it is a great place for nerds to hang out without being judged.

The basics

Let’s get cracking on what being an associate is like. Most judges at the Victorian County Court and Supreme Court have two associates. Judges in the Court of Appeal have one associate, or alternatively share one associate between themselves (e.g. 1 associate to 3 judges). If you are in the trial division, you will get to know your co-associate pretty well over the course of the year.

Your surroundings

If you are at any of the Supreme Courts, you will be in beautiful surroundings. The Victorian Supreme Court Library has an amazing collection of books. You will start your first week as an associate with your induction and a tour of the library facilities.

For me, the Library was a highlight and an excursion through history. Some of the oldest legal texts are in this Library. Few people know that the Library is open to the public and that you can climb up to the dome.

These days, you can do legal research online with a few essential textbooks without resorting to a physical library. So the Library has become a quiet place for associates to escape and think deeply.

That fancy word called ‘Chambers’

Associates are housed in offices which we call ‘Chambers’. Judges also each have their own Chambers. It’s a fancy word for saying that we have individual offices separate from the public area of the court.

Chambers are the final bastion in a world that is becoming open plan. I predict that the law courts are the last places on Earth where individuals can work in almost hermetically sealed workspaces. They are essential for the kind of deep concentration judges need to write judgments. Not so much the associates, who are the hangers-on.

On this note, I should also say that ‘Chambers’ is also a reference to the judge and their associates. When you send an email to ‘the Chambers of Justice X’, you are referring to the collective judge and associate team. The associates manage the email inbox, of course.

Not-so-21st century technology

Associates also work closely with the court registry. This is to ensure a smooth procession of files to Chambers and back.

This year, the Victorian Supreme Court finally shifted to electronic filing. Despite this technological leap, judges and lawyers still have an inordinate love for paper. The legal profession will continue to move at a glacial pace towards becoming paper free.

Be there, or be square

Life at the Court revolves around hearing days. This should be no great mystery or surprise to anyone. A big part of being an associate is ensuring that your judge is in the right place at the right time. You don’t ever want to be that associate who forgot to book in a courtroom on the morning of a trial. But believe me, it happens.

For all the glamour of court, these small administrative matters can trip up the aspiring barrister. But they are good practice habits to develop as ‘admin’ never really goes away.

The courtroom

Your daily schedule is as varied as the cases before the Court.

I can only speak for the trial division of the commercial list in the Victorian Supreme Court. I expect that the criminal division of the Court will have their own way of scheduling things. The Court of Appeal is altogether different.

Fridays are for directions hearings. Other days of the week are for applications and trials. (I promise to write a separate piece on the difference between all these sorts of hearings.) Of course, a judge needs to find time in the calendar to write a judgment. Calendar scheduling is the domain of the associate. Here, you are the Master or Mistress of The Important Calendar.

TGIF

Let’s take a walk through a typical court hearing for commercial disputes—called ‘directions hearings’ or ‘directions’. As you know, they happen on Fridays.

Directions hearings are where the judge managing the matter sets a timetable in the lead up to trial. There are up to 10-12 different matters listed on any directions hearing day. In the days before a directions hearing day, you will prepare files for your judge to peruse. It’s like doing your homework before class starts.

During the week, you will receive emails from lawyers about the orders they propose to seek. The flurry of communications reaches its peak on Thursday afternoons. The prospect of fronting up before a judge at 10am on a Friday morning is a great kickstarter for action. Sometimes parties reach an agreement outside of court on proposed orders. In this case, they will send in what we call a ‘minute of proposed consent orders’.

Most proposed consent orders ask for the judge to adjourn the directions hearing to a later date. It is the associates’ job to collate these documents and prepare them for signing by the judge. Once signed, these orders become the orders of the Court and the parties no longer need to appear on the day.

How your Friday morning looks will depend on the number of matters listed for hearing. Associates get in early on the day to prepare a trolley of folders (these days tempered by the fact that many files are electronic) to bring down to court. Towards 10 a.m., the barristers and lawyers will stream into court. Some mornings, the court will seem more like a bustling fish market. Associates are to maintain some semblance of order while noting barristers’ appearances.

Once the parties are in court and the Bar table filled, it’s time to get the judge. One associate races out of court to get their judge. The other associate remains in court to maintain order. The etiquette is that there must be at least one barrister sitting at the Bar table when the judge is in court.

If you were a fly on the wall, check out this opening of court:

Knock Knock Knock!

[Judge enters]

Associate in court:
‘Silence! All stand and remain standing.
All persons having business before this Honourable Court are commanded to give their attendance and they shall be heard.
Please be seated.’


(Or similar variants, inclusion of ‘God save the Queen’ is optional and depends on whether your judge is a Republican or Monarchist.)

[All bow to Judge, Judge bows and sits, everyone sits]

Associate entering court behind the judge:
‘Calling the matter of AB and XY!’

One associate will call through the listed matters over the course of the morning. Barristers will speedily proceed to the Bar table to make their client’s case. A barrister for the plaintiff might argue for a quicker timetable towards trial. A barrister for the defendant might argue that they needed more time.

At the end of the hearing, your judge will make orders on the matter. Associates type up these orders up in real time so that the judge can sign them.

No one day is the same

By now, you should get some idea of what being an associate is like. Aside from the basic elements, no one day is the same.

You might have rowdy parties in court, or parties that pose a security risk. Some facts are so ridiculous or ironic that you have to stop yourself from laughing out loud in court. It can be slapstick when barristers colour their beards blue with pen ink during submissions. Other times, you might have to deal with journalists on the prowl. The list goes on. All of this adds an interesting dimension to the day.

The best part of associate life is having a rare opportunity to be an impartial observer at the centre of it all. It’s like being a fly on the wall, except more fun.

In my next post, I’ll write about the reasons why you would want to be a judge’s associate.

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