Janean Richards admits she didn't quite realise what she was getting herself into when she took up the role of general counsel of Comcare in 2006.
At the time she joined the organisation, the legal division comprised a fairly manageable 10-person team. But over the last three years the branch has ballooned to 55 staff and Richards' role now involves overseeing five separate legal divisions which deal with areas ranging from merits review in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, to occupational health & safety investigations and the management of all Commonwealth asbestos-related disease liabilities.
She has six directors reporting to her, including a practice manager, and in addition, she sits on the Comcare executive team.
Before moving to Comcare, Richards had worked in private practice for 10 years, working her way up to being a commercial dispute resolution partner at Deacons. At the time of her move, she thought that taking an in-house role within a government organisation might free up some more time to spend with her two young children. That belief, however, was quickly debunked.
"As I said - I had a perception that it would improve work/life balance - I think the reality has been very different to that," she laughs. "It's a large legal business and it's got diverse legal work and ... there's a lot of competing demands on your time."
That said, Richards has no regrets about her decision. "I guess one of my concerns was that I might wake up one day and think 'What have I done? Why did I walk out of private practice and come in-house?' But that's never happened," she says.
"Comcare is an interesting and very dynamic organisation ... and there's a very broad range of work to be involved in. It's certainly a broader range of legal work than you generally get the opportunity to participate in within the private sector."
Richards also points to the public interest element of her role as a highlight of the position. "It's the ability to think about the broader purpose behind the legislation, and to consider the extent to which that's being achieved in the implementation or the operation of the legislation. And it's the fact that you hopefully have the ability to influence that in the public interest," she says.
Though she still gets a chance to get her hands dirty in the technical legal work, during her three years at Comcare her role has evolved to become much more managerial, and that has been largely in response to the rapid growth of her team.
"In the early days my role was much more hands-on legal than it is now. During my first six months at Comcare I was able to deal with three matters before the High Court," she says. "I still do a lot of legal work, but it's more at the level of supervising, guiding and approving the work of others than being someone who has conduct of a file myself."
Having spent much of the past three years working to expand her team to meet increasing workflows, Richards says her next challenge will be to work with her team on issues such as career development and succession planning, to ensure engagement remains high.
"The challenge over the last few years has been to attract people to the branch," she says. "We now come to an end to that era of growth ... and now we need to move forward and look at maintaining people's engagement with that work and continue to find ways to contribute to their ... career development with Comcare so that they see the value of staying here," she says.
- Zoe Lyon
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