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Planning your law career path in courts and tribunals

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator


Graduates may pursue three main career paths within the judicial system.

First, as a solicitor, you can help to prepare clients for court appearances and occasionally represent them in court when dealing with relatively straightforward cases. Second, a barrister is an expert on court appearances, and well acquainted with the rules of evidence and other court procedures. Finally, there are roles within the courts and tribunals system itself, which include judge, judge’s associate, tipstaff, magistrate and court support staff.

Entering the courts and tribunals sector

Solicitors generally follow a consistent career path that involves practical legal training followed by movement up the hierarchy of their firms, eventually becoming a partner. A solicitor may represent clients in court at any stage throughout this progression.

One common way to enter the courts and tribunals sector is by becoming a tipstaff or associate to a judge. Judges will normally hire recent graduates for these roles and will often only hire them on a full-time contract basis for a year (this is subject to extension). During the year, these positions allow graduates to experience the day-to-day professional life of a judge. The work undertaken is often in support of the judge and can include administrative duties, editing judgments, note-taking and other duties as they may arise. Following this, many tipstaves and associates will progress further in the courts and tribunals sector, with many going to the Bar.

To become a barrister, it is necessary to graduate from university with a recognised law degree, complete your practical legal training, gain admission to practise law from the Supreme Court of your state or territory, undertake further examinations and apply for registration as a barrister from the relevant bar association.

It becomes more complex if you would like to work within the courts in a permanent capacity. Magistrates and judges are appointed by the governor of each state and territory, acting as the governor-in-council, and following the recommendations of the appropriate attorney-general.

What’s involved?

The judicial system employs people in a number of roles, each of which has distinct functions and responsibilities. A judge hears matters in the higher courts, interprets precedents and relevant legislation, enforces the rules of evidence, and decides on appropriate sentences for those found guilty of a crime. A judge’s associate assists the judge by preparing paperwork, managing evidence, researching cases, and liaising with court staff. Magistrates hear cases in a local or Magistrate’s Court (or local court). Finally, courts also employ a range of support staff that perform various administrative functions. This category includes registrars, legal assistants, law clerks, and legal executives.

Career progression

The process whereby one becomes a magistrate or judge is complicated and changes from state to state.

In New South Wales, they are appointed by the governor in accordance with recommendations from the state attorney-general. The attorney-general, in turn, relies upon the advice of a selection committee. This committee reviews the applications of suitable candidates who have expressed interest in an advertised vacancy or been nominated to fill it. The selection committee usually includes the relevant head of jurisdiction, a respected legal professional, a representative of the local community and the secretary of the Department of Justice. 

The selection process is rigorous, involving background checks, interviews and consideration of each candidate’s personal and professional qualities. Successful candidates must possess a strong command of the law, an extensive amount of practical experience and qualities such as patience, courtesy and equanimity. 

Positions in higher courts are filled by judicial appointment, with the attorney-general deferring to the recommendations of a selection committee. Vacancies on the High Court are filled by the governor-general, who in principle, selects from a list of nominees submitted by the prime minister. 

As you would expect, judges earn a competitive salary. In Western Australia, magistrates earn just over $320,000 per year, while District Court judges and Supreme Court judges earn around $390,000 per year. High Court judges earn approximately $500,000 per year, while also enjoying benefits such as a car and driver, a lifelong pension, and first-class travel.

Many judges will also have started their professional careers as a tipstaff or associate to a judge. Tipstaves and associates will complete a year in the role, which allows them to acquire the professional connections they need to further their career. The application process for these positions is extremely competitive, with judges only taking on applicants who have shown outstanding academic performance, relevant legal experience and involvement in extracurricular activities.

Applications are to be sent directly to the judges themselves. Often one of the final tasks of a judge’s tipstaff or associate is to hire their own replacement for the coming year, with applications generally opening at the beginning of each calendar year. The salary for tipstaves and associates varies between the states, ranging from $50,000 to $75,000.

Best and worst

By working in the judicial sector, you will have the opportunity to participate in the administration of justice. Judges are directly responsible for the creation and re-interpretation of case law and statute. This means they have the ability to create new laws and have the final call for how existing laws are to be read. Working in this sector is ideal for law graduates with a strong sense of justice who want to work to improve the justice system directly.

The judicial sector offers excellent job stability, with the exception of tipstaves and judge’s associates, who work on a contract basis. The salaries of professionals working in this sector are decent and work-life balance is considered achievable, especially compared to private practise, making it an attractive area to work in, especially for people interested in policy and administrative law.

Employer examples:

  • judiciary
  • local court
  • magistrate’s court
  • district court
  • supreme court
  • Federal Court of Australia
  • High Court of Australia
  • courts of appeal
  • children’s court
  • family court
  • coroner’s court
  • tribunals
  • royal commission.

Job title examples:

  • judge
  • judge’s associate
  • tipstaff
  • law Clerk
  • magistrate
  • registrar
  • legal management executive
  • court reporter
  • mediator/arbitrator
  • legal administrative assistant.

Choose this if:

  • You are passionate about courts and tribunals and have some experience of working within them.
  • You are a confident presenter with a solid grasp of courtroom procedures and rules of evidence.
  • You are a fair-minded and contemplative graduate committed to achieving justice through the court system.