Amy Laura Sinclair

Are you thinking about applying for a 2016 associateship? It can be a hugely rewarding experience, as well as a stepping-stone to legal practice or further studies, but be warned – competition is tough!  The good news is that most judicial officers make their own hiring choices (rather than a corporate HR department algorithm), so there’s room to showcase your individual talents beyond what appears on your transcript. Here are some ideas you may wish to consider before hitting ‘send’ on that application email.

Published Monday 23 March 2015

What kind of associateship should I apply for?

Many institutions offer associate positions – not just the High Court! Expand your pool of opportunities by considering applying to

  • The State Supreme Courts (not necessarily in your home jurisdiction),
  • The Federal Court (positions available in every capital city),
  • The Family Court,
  • District/County Courts,
  • Magistrates/Local Courts, or
  • State and federal tribunals and commissions.

In some courts the role is referred to as ‘tipstaff’ or ‘judicial services officer’ (JSO). Workloads and job descriptions vary widely between institutions, so it’s crucial in making your application choices to have a clear idea of what it is you want to spend your next year actually doing. Common elements of most associate positions will be file management, proofing, research and correspondence. On top of that:

  • Do you want to help draft and proof judgments? You’re more likely to be expected to do this at the High Court, Courts of Appeal and Federal Court.
  • Do you want to observe criminal trial advocacy? The District Courts hear the vast majority of jury trials in each State, while the Supreme Court handles fewer but more serious cases.
  • Do you want to focus on research? Many courts offer dedicated ‘research associate’ positions.
  • Are you most interested in legal policy and speech-writing? Consider applying to the head judicial officer of the institution (eg the Chief Magistrate, or Tribunal President).
  • Do you eventually want to work in a community legal centre (CLC) or domestic violence clinic? Most of the workload of those organisations is heard at a very high rate of turnover in the Magistrates Courts.

How can I make my application stand out?

Contact the existing or previous associate

Beyond an impressive (and spell-checked!) CV and transcript, the key to a killer application and interview is to be proactive! Every judicial officer has different expectations of the exact role of their associate, most of which are not included in the generic job advertisements placed by the court on their behalf. Your best shot at finding out those nuances, and thus gain an advantage in the application process, is to contact the existing or previous associate. Emails tend to be listed on court websites, or you can get a bit creative and search LinkedIn.

Attend a court hearing

Another way to learn more about the work of the judicial officer and the role of his/her associate is to attend a court hearing or an academic event at which he/she is presenting a paper or sitting on a panel. Consider noting down some observations and raise one (briefly!) in your cover letter. This demonstrates your particular interest in the work of the court, as well as provides an opening for conversation at interview. For the higher courts, you might also research their recently published decisions on the court website, and how those decisions were reported in the media. For the inferior courts, keep an eye on the court report section of your local newspaper for interview ammunition.

Do not send out mass or generic email applications

In your cover letter, address the judicial officer by their title (eg ‘Dear Judge’, ‘Dear Chief Justice’) and maintain formal language and tone at all times. Whatever you do, do not send out mass or generic email applications. It is guaranteed to be noticed, and not in a good way! By all means, apply to multiple chambers – but tailoring even a few lines on your cover letter to the specific judicial officer goes a long way to making a good impression.

Where do I go for more information?

ALSA put out a Judges' Associates Guide every year, which is packed with excellent up-to-date practical tips. You can also put your networking skills to good use by attending events put on by your local young lawyers association - you’re almost guaranteed to meet former associates bursting with stories and advice.

Best of luck!

This week's guest post is written by Amy Sinclair. In 2014 Amy worked as the associate to a WA Supreme Court judge, and prior to that spent her final year of study working as the associate to a Magistrate at the ACT Magistrates Court. In 2015 she is pursuing her Masters in Law (Criminology) from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.