The pull of the public sector
Can the public sector really compete for top legal talent? Zoe Lyon speaks to three lawyers who traded in coveted positions at top private practice law firms to take up government legal roles.<
The media is currently awash with stories about the high level of pressure on Canberra's senior public servants, including government lawyers. But despite a hint of scepticism from some members of the private sector, according to Jonathan Beaumont, director of Canberra-based recruitment consultancy Gillian Beaumont, this time the media isn't exaggerating.
"Very senior people work every bit as hard whatever [sector] they're in," Beaumont said. "Particularly at the moment there's some noises floating around town about senior public servants and the [long] hours they're working and that's very true," he said.
So what then is the drawcard of the public sector, in Canberra or elsewhere, for lawyers with successful, well paid careers in private practice law firms? The answer, it seems, is that that the public sector can offer some very competitive career alternatives to private practice law firms.
Cecilia Curtis had been a solicitor at Clayton Utz in Sydney for about three years when she left to join the New South Wales Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
For Curtis, who has now been with DPP for six years and is currently a professional assistant in the directors chambers, the decision to make the switch came down to the type of work the DPP offered. "I really wanted to do criminal law, and the DPP seemed like the best place to go," she said.
"I guess I was hoping that the lifestyle would be a bit better, but I didn't make the change for lifestyle reasons - I made the change purely because I wanted to do the sort of work [offered by the DPP]."
In fact far from offering a leisurely nine-to-five lifestyle, Curtis found that her first position at the DPP, which was based in Campbelltown in Sydney's southwest, brought with it a very considerable workload. "I was just so busy. There was so much work and I think I probably worked more hours there than I did at Clayton Utz - I worked every weekend," she said.
However, after moving back to a position based in the Sydney CBD, Curtis found that the hours eased up a bit. "I had my weekends back and the hours during that period of time were much better than they'd been at either Clayton Utz or the Campbelltown [position]. I rarely worked on weekends and I generally left by 6pm every day," she said.
For Ross Fox, a senior legal officer at the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC) and a former solicitor at Deacons, the type of work offered by DECC was the primary motivation for the shift - but the lifestyle factor was a welcome bonus.
"The benefits include a work/life balance that is not possible in private practice," he said. "It's much more flexible in the public sector.
"Without the internal corporate pressure that exists within law firms for billing hours, it means the workplace is much more relaxed," he said. "The flexibility and [the opportunities] to travel to great locations around NSW far outweigh any fancy pens or nice views of the harbour."
Fox believes one of the biggest misconceptions about public sector lawyers concerns the quality of the talent taking up these positions.
"I think [the public sector] does sometimes get a bad reputation in terms of the calibre of people that work [there]. But I must say that I've found everyone that I've worked with to be highly professional and excellent solicitors, notwithstanding that they work in the public sector and choose to have a life in addition to their work," he said.
Christopher Behrens had worked for Malleson Stephen Jaques in Canberra in the area of litigation for 15 years before he made the switch to the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS). He's now been at the AGS for about 18 months and holds the position of senior executive lawyer.
"My change was probably just due to a mid career point I'd got to. I'd been working in an excellent office for a long time, but I got to the point where I'd done what I wanted to do there and I was getting a bit stale," he said.
"I also had a number of colleagues who had made the same move and they were trying to entice me across. They made all sorts of ridiculously positive statements - most of which have turned out to be true."
For the most part, Behrens has found the culture of the AGS is quite similar to private practice law firms. As with private sector law firms, the AGS has to return a profit each year and Behrens estimates that around 85 per cent of their work is won on a competitive basis. "So if our clients don't like what we deliver, then they leave -fundamentally it's not so very different," he said.
One difference Behrens has noticed, however, is that the AGS places a greater emphasis on following set procedures. "Now, that might be seen as being bureaucratic, but I don't think that's really a fair comment," he said.
"There is a slight cultural different in a firm that acts only for government because the business of government is different to the business of commercial enterprise and it's not appropriate that we necessarily would have exactly the same approach. So there is a little bit more emphasis on making sure that the right thing is done - and always done."
Though he believes the workload at AGS is at times more relaxed than at a top-tier law firm, Behrens says that it's certainly not a laidback culture.
"Our culture here is that the hours that are needed to be worked are the hours that will be worked.
"Some of my team at the moment are involved in a big hearing and they are working ferociously long hours and all weekends. They're working as hard as any lawyers anywhere in the country," he said. "Government these days expect that their lawyers will provide the service that's required."
Similarly to Fox, one of the biggest surprises for Behrens about the AGS was the calibre of legal talent, noting in particular the AGS' Office of General Counsel that "the government turns to when they're really in a pickle".
"Even having practiced for nearly 20 years and acted for government clients in private practice, I didn't really have a good appreciation of just how much knowledge there is in specialist government work," he said.
Beaumont believes that this misconception is not uncommon among private sector lawyers. "I think that in some quarters, particularly outside of Canberra, there's a view that all the interesting work is done by the private sector and all the less attractive work is done in-house," he said.
"That's not always the case and I think more people are now realising the quality and sophistication of the work that gets done [in the public sector]."
In terms of salary, Beaumont believes that the public sector is also looking pretty good, especially for junior to mid-level lawyers.
"The public sector terms and conditions are by and large more competitive that the private sector," Beaumont said. "At the junior level - though it's probably stating to equalise now - for quite some time you'd start off doing better in government than you would in the private sector. And at the mid level, you're definitely better off in government."
However at the senior level, Beaumont said, the prospect of gaining equity in private law firms puts them in front salary-wise. "There's an absolute ceiling you can reach [in the public sector] and the opportunities for advancement are probably less in the public sector," he said.
Fox also noted that the procedures for pay rises are far more transparent and predictable in the public sector, and according to Behrens, it's a similar situation for bonuses. "[At the AGS] there's a formula," Behrens said.
"That's different to what happens with employees in private firms where ... bonuses are really discretionary and it's all done on a bit of a nod and a wink," he said. "At AGS it's all out in the open," he said.
Another very welcome benefit of the public sector for many lawyers is the shift away from time recording, Beaumont explained.
"We do get a lot of people who have decided that they no longer want to be shackled to a timesheet," Beaumont said. "Whilst there are some departments who do still record time and do cost their work out very accurately, the focus on billing for commercial reasons is something that people are quite happy to move away from."
That's certainly something that Curtis can relate to: "Not having to bill every six minutes of my time - that was a nice change," she said.