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Why young lawyers should ‘jump in feet first’ to government work

Government work can require a proactive and responsive skill set in order to adapt to fast-changing external and internal influences from both policy and public opinion as well as business and ESG considerations.

user iconLauren Croft 18 July 2022 Big Law
Jessica Nile
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That’s something Jessica Nile, principal lawyer at the NSW Department of Planning and Environment and recent winner in the government category at the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Awards, said was a challenge for those in the government space.  

“Providing legal advice in this space definitely comes with its challenges but adopting a creative rather reactive mindset is what I do to tackle these challenges. One challenge in the government space is being able to add value to the strategic direction of the business without being a roadblock. The department or agency you work for is effectively its own business. To add value, you need to immerse yourself in the business, understand the way government operates and the policy goals of your clients. You need to move away from black and white legal answers and provide solutions. You should always remember that your ultimate clients are the people of NSW and in bringing value to your clients, you are bringing public value to the people of NSW,” she told Lawyers Weekly.  

“Another challenge is to hold yourself to a high standard of accountability and provide ‘frank and fearless’ advice to government ministers and senior executives. This means providing ministers with the information they need and solutions for what they might want. Other simple ways to ensure accountability are to act like an adult, own your mistakes and remind yourself you are there to deliver value to the people of NSW.”


For Ms Nile, she has found that providing solutions-focused advice on a “full suite of considerations” has been valuable in combating these challenges.

“In my job, I provide this advice by wearing different hats and applying a range of lenses to my advice — policy, finance, operational and reputational. To do this effectively, you need to invest yourself in the business, understand the policy landscape and the inner workings of government and come up with strategic legal solutions. Sometimes you have to get into the weeds, untangle some really tricky and complex questions so you can form a big picture view on the issue.

“In government, no two days are the same. Just last week, I advised on public lighting under energy law, economic issues on biodiversity offsets and environmental issues relating to wildlife rehabilitation. It’s the same across every legal team in the department. I think it’s a worn fallacy that government is a slow-paced business. We are constantly faced with a tsunami of work, delivering a range of complex legal advice in a fast-paced environment,” she explained.

“Another way to overcome challenges in the government space is to tailor your communication to the clients you’re advising. In a normal week, I speak to rangers from the National Parks and Wildlife Services, executives from the department, policy advisors, economics managers, scientists and the list goes on. Having one style of communication will limit your ability to provide helpful, practical and frank advice.”

These types of issues are particularly important to be aware of following the federal election, according to Ms Nile.

“Changes at any level of government can filter through and affect other levels of government. Government lawyers should keep up to date with news and current affairs to understand where different levels of government are focusing their priorities. This can give you a good idea of what challenges might be coming your way,” she added.

“Government lawyers should also be aware of ‘machinery of government’ changes. This relates to the reorganisation of government structures. For example, an incoming government could create a new agency and redirect resources to different areas. As a lawyer, this might mean you have to do more with less, automate your processes and train your clients on how to address simple, recurring legal issues.”

And for younger lawyers looking into a career in the government space, Ms Nile advised them to “jump in feet first” into the industry.

“I think there is a common misconception that government law is limited to public and administrative law, which is not true. At the Department of Planning and Environment, we have over 10 different legal teams filled with experienced commercial, finance, IP, property, environmental, energy and planning lawyers. You can get a wide range of experience in the public sector whilst working on complex and purposeful work. In the last 12 months, I have worked on a variety of complex matters, including saving an endangered whale, protecting threatened wallabies and setting up renewable energy zones,” she said.  

“You get to witness firsthand the outcomes from the work you do, which is a motivating reason to show up to work every day.  I think it’s easy to forget the breadth of public sector work available to young lawyers at all levels of government from federal to state and local government. There’s opportunity to gain advisory, litigation and transaction experience and actually create and draft laws. The opportunities are endless, the pay is competitive, and the flexibility is up there with the best you will find in the legal industry.”