Lessons learned at the High Court of Australia

By Liz Banks-Anderson

A former High Court Justice once said that working at the High Court of Australia you get to witness the whole spectrum of human behaviour. Accompanied by the variety of legal issues and factual scenarios that are discussed before the Court, it is a fascinating schooling in the law from some of the greatest legal minds in the country.

While much attention is given to the Justices on the High Court of Australia, Associates to these legal luminaries are a constant presence behind the scenes.

This year, seven MLS alumni are working as Associates to Justices at the High Court of Australia. Each has the privileged opportunity of observing the judicial process from behind the bench.

Associate to the Hon Justice Geoffrey Nettle, Tom Bland (Juris Doctor 2012), chose a career in the law due to his belief a fair society needs a well-functioning justice system. He says he has learned a great deal from observing the day-to-day work of the judge.

(Working with) a lawyer at the peak of the profession is an incredible privilege.

Aspiring to work at the Bar in future, Mr Bland sees value in taking the road less travelled when developing your career. 

"Some of the best opportunities are away from the mainstream career paths. One of the most rewarding things I have done in my life and career is to work as an Associate in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory – the smallest (and most remote) superior court in the country," he says.

David Foster (BA Media & Comm/LLB 2011) is Senior Associate to the Hon. Justice Michelle Gordon and was formerly an Associate to the Hon. Justice Kenneth Madison Hayne AC QC. He says it is important to do things outside of your comfort zone.

"You rarely (if ever) lose anything from putting in an application for a job or scholarship. You never know where it might take you."

He also says it is important to enjoy what you do.

"Justice Hayne has spoken of advice he received from the late Neil McPhee QC, in relation to judging, about the importance of finding the fun in what you do. That strikes me as pretty sound advice for a legal career more broadly," he says.

Simon Frauenfelder (BA/ LLB 2011) is also an Associate to Justice Gordon and says the role appealed because it meant an opportunity to work in close quarters with someone who is at the top of the legal field.

"The most interesting and rewarding aspect has been the opportunity to consider complicated legal issues with diverse areas of law," he says.

All Associates emphasise the importance of living a diverse life outside the law, when seeking a career in the profession.

Mr Frauenfelder says he would advise young graduates seeking a legal career "not to treat their law degree as simply the degree you need to get a job. Get involved with it, enjoy the mythology of it, and find a part that interests you.

"Do not spend all your time with other lawyers, or even with other professionals. You can lose perspective on what a balanced life looks like," he says.

Associate to the Hon Justice Patrick Keane AC, Tom Dreyfus (LLB 2012/ BA (Hons) 2013), says learning from the Judges and co-Associates is the most rewarding part of the job.

The variety of law to which Associates are exposed (and required to understand) means that every day you learn something new.

Associate to the Hon Justice Susan Kiefel AC, Tim Lau (BCom/LLB 2011), transitioned to the High Court from a commercial law firm in London. 

"I found the transition from a commercial law firm to the High Court very exciting. It is a unique opportunity to see the action from the other side of the Bench and be exposed to very intellectually challenging and topical questions of law across a diverse area."

Mr Lau is also hoping his time at the High Court will be a springboard for him to develop a career at the Bar. "It is a real privilege to be able to come into work every day and engage with vexing issues of law and watch advocates present their submissions in court," he says.

Colleagues Hannah Douglas (Juris Doctor, 2014), also an Associate to Justice Keane, and Sarah Zeleznikow (BA/LLB and Dip in Mod. Lang – French, 2010), Associate to the Hon Justice Stephen Gageler, say the strong intellectual foundation built at MLS, has served them well at the High Court.

"My MLS education provided me with strong research skills and a high-level understanding across many areas of the law, as well as instilling an intellectual curiosity with respect to, and beyond, the law,"

Ms Zeleznikow says. This is something Ms Douglas agrees with. "The teachers at MLS conveyed a real enthusiasm for the law and its development. That sense of curiosity is a real benefit in this job – no matter how exhausting and mind-bending some of the issues can be, I still get excited to see what's coming next," she says.

Associate Professor Kristen Walker QC (LLB(Hons) / BSc(Hons) 1991; LLM 1996) is a Barrister at the Victorian Bar and Principal Fellow at Melbourne Law School. She served as Associate to Sir Anthony Mason, then Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, from February 1993 to May 1994.

The main component of her role was working in chambers preparing research memoranda on cases, assisting the judge in writing speeches and proofreading judgments.

Working with a judge of Sir Anthony's calibre, she says, was the greatest opportunity of the role, which also allowed her to see many advocates before the Court – both good and bad.

"I learned a great deal from discussing cases with the Judge and watching him work. I worked across many legal fields and saw connections between fields that were not necessarily apparent at Law School.

Working with one of Australia's finest legal minds, who had such extensive experience, she admits, was not without its challenges. 

"I was fresh out of law school with very little experience. It was a very daunting prospect to write a research memo and present it to the judge. I remember I worked for weeks – possibly months – on my first memo, until the judge's PA told me I just had to bite the bullet and give it to him," Associate Professor Walker says.

The self-belief required is something that Melbourne Law School Professor Adrienne Stone can also relate to. The constitutional law expert was an Associate to Justice Michael McHugh in 1993.

"Being a junior person in the profession and then working directly and personally with the most senior people is quite a challenging thing to do.

"Justice McHugh was very explicit that he didn't want people to just agree with him. He encouraged you to take a run at his arguments and he was extremely patient with his argumentative young Associates," she says.

"One thing I learned from working with very senior people is that most of them want you to be respectfully straightforward. That was an excellent lesson."

Professor Stone describes her time at the High Court as a fascinating whirlwind at a time of intense media interest in the role of the High Court, following the landmark Mabo Judgment, which recognised Native Title in Australia for the first time.

She says the experience of being enmeshed in the Court at a "constitutionally-critical time" was a turning point in determining her future career direction.

"In a way, it provided the intellectual foundation for my academic career. During the course of that year, the High Court heard and decided to work on two very important free speech cases. I was just instantly captivated by the importance and intricacy of those issues," she says.

Both former Associates say the diversity of their individual careers is testament to the variety of opportunities it can open up in the future.

Professor Stone says working at the High Court of Australia opened up a world of possibilities that she wouldn't otherwise have seen.

"I partly got that from seeing the Court in action, but I also got it from the remarkable group of my peers that I worked with. I came away with a much different and broader perspective on the kind of career I could have," she says.

Banner Image: (from left to right): Associates Sarah Zeleznikow, Tom Dreyfus, Hannah Douglas, Tim Lau and Tom Bland
Photographer: Penny Bradfield

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 14, October 2015.