District Court Associate or Supreme Court Tipstaff?

The Crim Law Committee is working on our Criminal Law Careers Guide for all you wonderful aspiring criminal lawyers. In the lead up to its release, Amicus will bring you interviews with a range of criminal law practitioners to give you a bit of an insight into the range of pathways into crime (wait, wha?).

Two particularly sought-after positions are Tipstaff – or ‘tippy’ in the NSWSC and Associate in the NSWDC (affectionately known as the “Dizzo”). These positions can be an excellent entry point into criminal law, which is a practice area that has a dearth of graduate positions.

Amicus chats to a few past and present tippies and Associates to bring you everything you wanted to know about these jobs, and the pathway from the court to practicing criminal law.

Susie Kim is a Senior Solicitor with the NSW ODPP and was tippy for her Honour, Justice Latham in 2013.

Tess Mulock is currently working as an Associate to his Honour, Judge Ingram SC.

Liam Cavell works as a Senior Federal Prosecutor at the Commonwealth DPP and is the Chair of the Young Lawyers Criminal Law Committee. He was Associate to her Honour, Judge Flannery SC in 2012-13.


How did you get a job as a tippy/Associate?

TM: I applied to the District Court. Jenifar Garvey is the go-to person. I sent my cover letter (generic, “Dear Judge”), CV and academic transcript to her via email. She keeps applications on file for approximately 6 months, and when judges are looking for a new Associate they contact her for potential applicants.

SK:  I submitted a few application letters, went to a couple of interviews and got the job with a judge.

LC: See TM above about the application process. Unlike the Supreme Court, for instance, Associate positions become available throughout the year, which means that there is not a specific date to submit applications.

How did you pick which judge to apply to? What did you put in your application?

TM: At the District Court you don’t apply for individual judges, so you only need to put in one generic application (for me, I emphasised that I wanted to work with a criminal judge).

SK: I focused on common law judges with a criminal law background as I was interested in criminal law.

I also managed to speak to someone who had worked at the courts a few years before me. They gave me a few pointers in terms of which judges they knew were great to work with.

LC: Like TM, I submitted a generic application and emphasised my interest in criminal law. However, I also explained what skills I had that the Judge might find desirable in an Associate, such as communication skills, organisational skills, and legal research skills.

What was the interview like? What kind of things did the Judge ask you?

TM: Really casual – my Judge just asked what my interests were, what did I know about the role, what were my longer-term goals etc.

SK: I went to two interviews. The first was with the Judge and the Judge’s Associate and was semi structured with a few set interview questions. The second was just with the Judge and was a long chat about me, my interests, hobbies and background.

LC: Very casual and conversational. We spoke about the role, why I was interested in criminal law, and our outside interests.

What did your Judge (or judges more generally) look for in Associates/tippies? (and do you need to have a HD average?)

TM: I do not have a HD average (I have a D average, but only just!). I think it basically comes down to personality. You need to be able to work closely together every day for 12+ months, so I think personality has to be a huge factor. Otherwise, research skills, general interest in the type of law they specialise in, attention to detail (I do a lot of editing) etc are important.

SK: Primarily, someone they get along with easily since they will be seeing you every day; interest in the area of law they practice or in advocacy. Good marks need to be balanced with interests outside of study (i.e. no you don’t need to have an HD average though it doesn’t hurt, as long you have maintained interests and activities beyond uni).

LC: I agree with TM and SK. I would also note that I think the Judge needs to feel that they can trust you. Trust is important for two reasons. First, rightly or wrongly, parties often view the Associate as the Judge’s representative. A judge needs to be able to trust that their Associate will not behave in a way that may reflect poorly upon them. Second, because the Associate and Judge work so closely together, it is not uncommon for a judge to express their views about matters that are before the Court. They need to be confident that their Associate will keep their views confidential.

What did the role involve? What was your average day like?

TM: I am in court every day with my Judge – usual in criminal trials, sentences or appeals. Most of the court room stuff is really interesting as you see advocacy in practice. In Court I have to arraign the accused, empanel the jury, take the verdict. Otherwise it’s mostly just observing and keeping track of exhibits.

In Chambers I mostly proof judgments or research, as well as general administrative tasks. I have fairly good hours as well (usually 8.30am – 5pm). Also, sometimes I can be on circuit – where I travel with my Judge for a period of a few weeks to regional courts – I’ve been to Gosford and Wagga Wagga.

SK: I did a range of things; the job was pretty varied. I did a lot of things like research tasks; drafting facts and summaries; and for appeals – collecting authorities.

I also proofread judgments and drafted catchwords for caselaw, and published judgments on case law and processing orders on the JusticeLink system

There was a lot of admin work too like managing court files, liaising with the court registry and legal practitioners about matters

I also ‘knocked the Judge on’ and got coffees and lunches from time to time

When we were in court, there was a lot of sitting and watching!

The best part of the role for me was watching court proceedings and then discussing the proceedings/advocacy with the judge afterwards. I learnt a lot about advocacy and what happens behind the scenes from the court’s perspective.

LC: TM has outlined many of the key tasks. More broadly, though, an Associate’s job is to assist a judge in whatever way they require. Different judges will have different expectations of their Associates. Some will ask them to perform more administrative tasks, whilst others will require their Associate to undertake legal tasks. You should try and gauge a judge’s preference by speaking to them about their expectations in your interview.

 Did you do mostly crime, or was there more civil law?

TM: We do pretty much exclusively crime.

SK: A few civil matters but almost all crime.

LC: A few weeks in civil, and the rest of the year in crime.

What did you learn? Did your time at the court teach you much substantive criminal law or criminal procedure?

TM: Yes – I have developed a good understanding of criminal law and procedure (as well as the do’s and don’ts in terms of formulating arguments, making submissions and interacting with the Bench). I definitely have a more solid understanding of the practicalities of criminal law as well, compared to when I started.

SK: I learnt some substantive criminal law and procedure mainly through listening to NSWCCA matters and murder trials, and then reading the judgments on those matters. I also got to see how criminal listings and bails lists worked, as well as judicial commission proceedings.

However, some of the most valuable lessons weren’t about substantive law and procedure, but rather we’re about advocacy and the various personalities of different judges (which also demystified the courts to a certain extent).

LC: Being an Associates teaches you a lot about practical criminal procedure, and to a lesser extent, aspects of substantive criminal law. However, the much more valuable lessons came from experiences that you are not necessarily able to glean from a textbook. For instance, I learnt what good advocacy looks like, and conversely, what bad advocacy looks like. I learnt how advocates can be of most assistance to the Bench. And I learnt how the Court operates at an administrative level, which is often just as important as understanding the substantive law.

Are you working in criminal law now? Did your time at the Court help you land a job in criminal law?

TM: I am still in my role until mid-year – but then hoping to get into criminal defence (ideally with Legal Aid or the ALS).

SK: Yes and yes. My exposure to criminal law at the Court definitely helped.

LC: Yes, it did. Coming from a background in commercial law, working as an Associate gave me an excellent practical introduction into criminal law from which I was able to pivot off when applying for a criminal law positions.

What was the best thing about working at the Court? And the worst?

TM: Interesting to observe advocacy in Court, interesting matters generally. I think being able to discuss all kinds of things with a Judge and pick their brain, as someone who is an expert in the field, is invaluable. In terms of the worst thing: often criminal procedures can be tedious (listening to hours and hours of telephone intercepts calls, for example).

SK: A bird’s eye view of everything happening in court and an opportunity to discuss it directly with the judge. A privileged position in this sense, with little responsibility.

Also, meeting a great group of tippies.

The worst – sitting through a civil matter and literally falling asleep from boredom(!).

LC: Observing a wonderful range of advocates in jury trials on a daily basis was a clear highlight. The worst part was relocating to the old Supreme Court at Darlinghurst for the day when there were no other courtrooms available (which, although there was no Registry or post 1980s-era technology, wasn’t even that bad).

Do you have any advice for those thinking about applying?

TM: Do it! It’s such a great way to get a deeper understanding of both criminal law and procedure- especially before you are thinking about going into a role where you will be on your feet in Court!

SK: Try and speak to someone who has worked at the relevant court to find out what different judges are like to work for and apply for those judges you think you would be suited to working for in terms of personality as well as the type of role you want.

Do some research on different judges to try and work this out for yourself. You can read their swearing in speeches or other talks they may have given to get a sense of whether you’d be well suited.

LC: Do not talk yourself out of applying simply because you graduated a few years ago. Some lawyers feel as though the time for being an Associate has past them by. However, having a couple of years’ experience can actually be used to benefit the Judge you work with, and enhance your time whilst at the Court.


If you’re interested in applying to the NSWSC, the judges’ contact details can be found here

The NSWDC contact is Jenifar Garvey




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