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7 April, 2010  
Of dirt and dishes

The artifice of the judicial tipstaff … Affirmations of brilliance keep the fantasy alive … But there is a dirty little secret … No wonder ‘staves get turned over each year

image”The dirty little secret of foreign correspondents”, Geraldine Brooks once said, “is that 90 per cent of it is showing up”.

So it is with tipstaves.

A fungible workforce razed and replaced with ruthless regularity, most of our duties are discharged not by deploying particular skill – should we possess it – but by stirring ourselves from bed and remaining upright on the bench during sitting hours.

Were it otherwise, a yearly turnover of tippies would be unwise.

This is both a confronting and liberating realisation for graduate lawyers of the Y generation.

Our egos fattened on a diet rich in affirmations of our inimitable brilliance, fed to us by Frankensteins in the form of parents and pedagogues, we incline to the view that there is none so qualified to perform a task as ourselves.

And yet here is a position in which our obsolescence is inbuilt, as though any dolt who showed up could do it.

Well. Almost any dolt.

Already I have compiled an immodest dirt file on my colleagues, recording conduct ranging from such minor displays of domestic ineptitude as using the rough side of a scourer sponge on the Judicial China (surely a glob of marmalade yields to a less abrasive touch), to diverting exhibitions of buffoonery, like running over the Judicial Foot with a trolley, to the capital offence of trawling Wikipedia for commentary on the Corporations Act.

It was my chamber’s neighbour Angus whom I caught in the throes of the latter.

Gus is by far my floormate of choice: wordy, wary of shoptalk and unashamedly catty, he dresses like a dandy and disdains all ‘staves but me (says he).

“Are you googling yourself again?” I inquire, leaning against the doorframe of the chamber’s anteroom one afternoon.

My suspicions were aroused when my appearance in the doorway prompted him to hastily minimise a browser window and maximise a LexisNexis search screen, a defensive reflex perfected by embryonic eagles in their clerkship year.

My own dexterity in clicking between professional and recreational content is the stuff of firm folklore.

“Yes!” he says over-eagerly, giving the lie to his assent.

“Gis a look, then”, I press.

Sliding the mouse from his reluctant grasp, I flick between screens to reveal a Wikipedia entry on the Corporate Law Economic Reform Program.

“I just want you to know,” I say gravely, “that if you are called to the bench, I will recount this incident to the Bar Association president for your swearing-in speech.”

“Says the legal brain who wrote a research note on ‘Bollock orders’,” he retorts acidly.

“That was a typo,” I huff, recalling that unfortunate memo on costs.

Gus raises his hands behind his head and reclines in his swivel chair with a self-satisfied sigh.

“You and me, mate,” he smirks. “What a couple of google-mad, Wikipedia-fishing frauds.”

We lapse into contemplative silence.

“Still,” Gus continues, “it’s mostly about showing up, this lark, isn’t it? Showing up …”

He eyes a stack of dishes on a bench. “And washing up.”

Dubious research skills aside, that’s our dirty little secret.


Reader Comments

Posted by: Anonymous
Date: April 7, 2010, 7:36 pm

I don't think it's any secret tippies have to do some pretty mundane things. And obviously how much legal work one does varies depending on the judge. But there are several significant things even the most lightly-loaded tiptstaff does, even the author! Sitting in court and being exposed to advocacy, legal argument, practice and procedure for a year is actually pretty stimulating. And all tippies proofread jusgments to give substantive comments as well as feedback on form. So they are sounding boards in that respect, albeit not major ones. To do that task you have to be on top of the case and the law. So even if a tippy doesn't get loads of research, they effectively have to come to grips with a lot of law anyway. That said, there are the personal tasks like washing dishes. But it's just part and parcel of an (overall) worthwhile experience. The article was great though. Certainly made me chuckle!
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: April 8, 2010, 9:55 pm

"Proofread jusgments" - intended or humour? JK