Graduate Profile: Christine Ernst

Christine Ernst

Name: Christine Ernst

What degree/s did you study (and year of completion)?
Bachelor of Laws (2011) and Bachelor of Economic and Social Sciences (2008)

Where do you currently work (sector/organisation) and what is your position title?
I work as a Judge’s Associate to the Honourable Justice Susan Kiefel AC, a Justice of the High Court of Australia. Each of the seven judges of the High Court – Australia’s highest court – hires two associates, usually for a one-year term. Associates provide research assistance, edit draft judgments, sit in court and help with the day-to-day running of the judges’ chambers. I am presently based in Brisbane, where the Judge has her home chambers.

Describe a typical day/week in your role. What do you enjoy most about your work?
During sitting weeks, I travel with the Judge to Canberra, where the High Court hears most of its cases. Sitting weeks are always a flurry of activity. A typical day starts at 7.45am, when I begin by checking that I have everything ready for the day’s oral hearing. Once Court begins, I head down with the Judge to sit with her in Court. I take notes, and provide the Judge with copies of the relevant authorities or written submissions as the barristers refer to them. Court days are my favourite days. I enjoy listening to the varied ways in which the barristers present their arguments, and to observing how those arguments are received. The interaction between the barristers and the judges – and sometimes between the barristers themselves – is fascinating to watch.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your current role?
The diverse nature of the work is both rewarding and challenging. The High Court hears appeals on a whole range of matters, from the State Supreme Courts, the Federal Court, and the Family Court. It also has original jurisdiction over matters involving the Commonwealth Constitution. In a single sitting week, Justice Kiefel might sit on three different cases: one on criminal law, one on migration law, and another on the law of defamation. Juggling various sets of facts, legislation and case law in my head at one and the same time can be quite a feat, but it makes for fascinating work. I am constantly learning new things and have drawn upon just about every subject I studied at law school.

Can you give a summary of your career journey so far? How did you get started in your career? What recruitment processes did you go through? What has been the highlight of your career to date?
For the last few years of my law degree, I worked as a research assistant at the Sydney Law School, which gave me an unparalleled opportunity to work under some outstanding and inspiring professors. It also sharpened my research and analytical skills, making my transition into full-time work at the High Court a smooth one. I applied for my High Court associateship two and a half years in advance. This seemed like an eternity at the time, but was well worth the wait. Even after twelve months, working at the High Court still feels surreal.

Which skills are highly valued by employers in your field? In your experience, what are the qualities of successful candidates eg relevant work experience, specific degree or industry qualification, specific skills, networks, extracurricular involvement?
Strong academic performance is a pre-requisite. But interpersonal skills are important too. Judges work very closely with their associates and so, at least based on my experience of my colleagues at the Court this year, judges tend to hire people who are not only hard-working but also interesting and pleasant to work with.

What are your top three tips for university students wishing to enter your field of work? eg networking, postgraduate study
There is no formula for success when it comes to applying for associateships. Different judges hire on different bases, although strong academic performance is generally a requirement of all judges, and having some interesting work or extracurricular experience can be a good talking point in your interview. The main piece of advice I would give is: apply! I initially assumed a High Court associateship to be beyond my reach. But, inspired by a few other Sydney Law School students who had gone there before me, I decided to throw my hat into the ring. And I am very glad I did.

Are there any myths associated with your industry that you would like to debunk?
There is a lot of jargon and tradition surrounding the practice of the law, not least in the courtroom. This year has been not so much about debunking myths as learning to navigate a system steeped in etiquette. For example, there are complex rules governing when a barrister wears a wig in court; in NSW, it is influenced by whether he or she is appearing in a criminal or a civil matter. Another is the etiquette involved in addressing a Judge: in court, barristers say, “Your Honour”, but outside court, one addresses him or her as “Judge” (except for the Chief Justice, who is addressed as “Chief Justice”).

How do you manage the balance in your life?
Balance is quite tricky to attain, given the constant travel back and forth between Brisbane and Canberra. Where possible, I try to keep weekends free from work, so that I can spend some quality time with my husband, family and friends. I also try to eat healthily and exercise often. I never thought I would be one of those people who attended 5.30am gym classes, but they turn out to be incredibly energising (although admittedly challenging in the sub-zero degree Canberra winter).

How do you keep current in your field? (eg professional development, membership of professional associations, conferences, networks)
I will also be admitted to practice as a lawyer next month. In order to maintain their practising certificates, all solicitors participate in continuing legal education. I have also maintained my interest in international law through affiliation with the Sydney Centre for International Law, and I will soon be judging the national rounds of an international law mooting competition in Canberra. My connections with staff and former students of the Sydney Law School have proved an invaluable way of staying in touch with the latest developments in the legal profession.