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Good government in practice

Good government in practice

DLA Phillips Fox partner Anthony Willis speaks to Kate Gibbs about his work as a Government law firm partner in a changing economy and political world.

DLA Phillips Fox partner Anthony Willis speaks to Kate Gibbs about his work as a Government law firm partner in a changing economy and political world.

You work in Canberra as head of the firm's Australian Government practice group. What does your average work day involve?

While there is probably no such thing as an average work day, it would probably average out at about two hours meeting with clients and writing tenders, that is two hours of trying to win work, two hours of managing people and other management issues. About two hours of reading and responding to the miscellaneous emails that come in through the day, and about six hours of work on client matters. I'm not an early starter, because I like to go bike riding in the morning. So I tend to get at about 9 o'clock. I work through until the work is done, which can be anywhere between 8 o'clock and midnight. Sometimes I go home to have some dinner, relax and then do a bit more work. 

How has the work you do changed since the appointment of the current federal government?

For me and my personal practice, there has not really been much change at all. But initially there was a big dip in work as all the departments and agencies tried to work out what all the government programs were. Then over a period there was some growth in government work. But in the course of this year, whilst work is up in a couple of areas like infrastructure and some other areas where government programs are being implemented, there is less traditional litigation and bread and butter work across the field because the government is actually increasing the size of a number of its in-house legal departments and is adopting a different attitude. So it is trying to settle more matters rather than litigate them. It is thought to be a way to save money. 

What are your views on that? 

Sometimes the short term and measurable reductions in legal fees doesn't accurately reflect the long term cost of the non-involvement of lawyers in various areas of activity. Whether it's litigation or commercial transactions or whatever. Our view is that early and appropriate involvement of legal advice actually can save the tax payer very large sums of money down the track as things are better structured to achieve the best outcomes. 

As a government lawyer, would in-house work or private practice work be more interesting? 

I think it depends very much on personal preference as to work type or work style. I prefer private practice because of the diversity of work that I do for a very wide range of clients, with different problems and situations. As a commercial lawyer I am involved in commercial work ranging from some of the commonwealths biggest procurements, right across the spectrum to the establishment of cooperative research centres and multi-party research and development programs. The fact that our client is government doesn't limit the range of work we do. Others may wish to focus on one area as you do in-house, and be more centrally involved in the delivery of particular programs, where you can spend years working on one thing. 

How has government work fared in the global economic downturn?

Work is probably a little down on where it was before, but I don't think that is entirely due to the global financial crisis. I think it's as much due to the shift in government policy and attitude towards the use of external lawyers, as it is to do with the GFC itself. 

Do you see a major shift in the way lawyers are used by government departments? 

I think there has been a shift, not so much as a result of the economy, but because of government policy. So the policy of the Attorney General is to seek to mediate claims rather than litigate them. I think that is a factor that will have an influence on litigation work for quite a period of time, and maybe forever. In the commercial space I see a significant amount of pent up demand within agencies and I suspect that if concern about budget is relaxed a little, then there is likely to be a significant amount of work which becomes available and indeed needs to be done urgently in order to make up for lost time. 

Is government advice one of the only safe bets for law firms in the current economy?

Government work has its own challenges. One of those is the need to tender to get on government panels, and then tender to do work when you're on the panel, which means you spend your whole life tendering. There is no doubt there is some security in the fact that government is not going to go broke and out of business, but I think you can't rely on government work any more than you can rely on work in any other sector. There is very much more work in the non government sector. 

What the biggest challenges facing lawyers in your practice area?

One is the changes in government policy. Every time government policy changes that has the possibility of significantly increasing or decreasing areas of legal activity. Also there is the never ending round of tenders that we spend a significant part of our life writing. Tendering is becoming more prevalent in the private sector as well as corporations seek better value for money, they are doing the unthinkable and not just going back to the same big ticket law firms year in and year out. They are testing the market and seeing what it has to offer. But you deal with this to a degree by working longer hours. You still need to do the client work in the course of the day. Around that you need to find the time to write the tenders, which need to be good enough to win the job in a very competitive market. 

What did you do before you joined DLA Phillips Fox?

I have been here for 10 years. Before that I set up the Canberra office of a firm called Dunhill Madden Butler and ran that for four years until 2000. Before that I was in Blake Dawson in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Before that I was associate to Michael Kirby, that was a really interesting year. But probably the best year I had was when I worked as a windsurfing instructor in St Tropez. Someone's got to do it. Foolishly, I thought I had better come back and finish my law degree. 

What would you do if you were not a lawyer?

St Tropez is an option. I would like to be a horticulturalist, creating formal gardens in the Provincial French style. Maybe in a year or two I'll retire and move there. I speak French fluently and I have a European passport, so that's not an issue. 

Your weekends involve?

Obviously I spend some time with the family, catching up on work, and more interestingly riding both road and mountain bikes around Canberra. And, of course, gardening. I have my own, mini French Provincial garden. 

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