Michael Waterhouse, the director of legal services at the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), certainly hasn't trodden the well-worn career path of many lawyers. In fact, Waterhouse made the switch to law relatively late in life, after a diverse and successful career in the political arena.
Having studied government and public administration as an undergraduate (he later also obtained a Graduate Diploma in Business Administration), Waterhouse spent around 12 years building experience as a political adviser, working at various times for the government and opposition. On the side, he studied law part-time through what was then known as the Barristers and Solicitors Admission Board.
Waterhouse's position involves managing a team of 32 lawyers and he says the variety of work is extensive. "To the best of my knowledge, the DET remains one of Australia's largest - if not the largest - employer. We have a million students in schools and TAFE and many tens of thousands of employees - that brings a diverse range of work," he says.
Issues the team deals with include commercial contracting, discrimination, FOI, privacy, child protection, industrial relations, OH&S, family law and debt recovery, but Waterhouse says that a particular highlight has been the opportunity to be involved in recommending and helping to carry through sustained and beneficial law reform in the education sphere.
Waterhouse says his attraction to working in the area of education sprang from a belief in the importance of a quality education system.
"Perhaps it's a cliché, but the solutions to so many of the social problems we witness in the world seem to rely on education," he says. "Maybe society's expectations on schools are too high, but there are some positive surprises emerging from schools every day. I look forward to my weekly phone duty and helping [school] principals through what are sometimes very difficult issues to manage."
One of the challenges of the role, Waterhouse says, is being confronted with novel situations and having to think outside the square to come up with creative legal solutions. This, he says, then has to be balanced with the need to provide accurate, frank and independent legal advice - which may not always be warmly received.
"We are always conscious of the need to give frank and independent legal advice about the legal implications of policies. Sometimes, as for any lawyer, the advice may not interpreted as pleasant news, [but] over the years I have developed the sense that internal clients would much rather hear the bad news upfront," he says. "[However,] they also want a capacity to identify lawful solutions to their problems. That may be difficult, but it is also part of the challenge."
>> For the latest news, views and analysis of issues affecting in-house lawyers, check out Lawyers Weekly's dedicated in-house site www.lawyersinhouse.com.au