It's time to put your preconceptions about the public sector to one side. Government legal organisations are now offering vibrant career opportunities - and they're giving private sector firms a run for their money in the talent chase, Zoe Lyon reports.
If the words "public sector" drum up images of nine-to-five working days, endless layers of red tape and bored, unmotivated paper-pushers - it's time to re-evaluate.
In the past, the public sector as an employer has been the subject of some bad press and some equally bad jokes and it has often been overlooked - and underestimated - by lawyers considering their employment options. However, times have changed, and both state and federal government organisations can now provide lawyers with a range of rewarding and unique career opportunities, often every bit as attractive as the private sector. The changes haven't gone unnoticed, and the public sector is now successfully competing with the very best of the private sector for top legal talent.
Take your marks...
A mistaken belief about government organisations in general is that they don't have the same competitive drivers behind them as private sector law firms, drivers which help promote technical excellence and innovation. However - as any lawyer working at the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) can attest to - those days are well in the past. The AGS still only handles Commonwealth Government and Government agency work, however, for nearly 10 years it has operated as a fully competitive government business enterprise and has had to compete just as fiercely as private sector law firms to earn its keep.
"AGS has to competitively tender for all of its government work just as any private firm does and we have to work just as hard to attract and retain the work. We absolutely have the same pressures about file loads, supervising people, budgets and time recording, so the practice in itself runs in a very similar manner," she says. "What AGS is very proud of is that after 10 years it has been able to maintain a competitive place in the Commonwealth legal market - and the expertise has remained here."
It's a similar structure at the Victorian Government Solicitor's Office (VGSO) explains Sue Nolen, an assistant Victorian Government solicitor in the commercial and property branch.
"More and more, government legal practice has adopted many of the requirements of private practice," she says. "We're a business. We don't get any government funding - we're only funded by the revenue that we earn from providing legal services on a fee-for-service basis. We're in a very contestable market so we have to be very good at what we do [because] clients can use any of the private firms that are on the government legal panel."
As a result, Nolen says, the VGSO office environment is similar to that of a private law firm. "We might not be quite as flash in terms of some of our fit-outs and so on, but we operate like a modern legal practice and we have similar business systems. We have time recording, budgeting and our software platforms are probably very much the same."
For the public good
Of course not all government legal organsiations compete head-to-head with the private sector. In fact, some government organisations - such as state legal aid centres - exist precisely because there's a significant legal need in the community that would otherwise be left unmet.
This fact in itself can prove to be a strong drawcard for quality lawyers. Paul Holmes, a senior solicitor and consumer advocate at Queensland Legal Aid, was working with Clayton Utz in Brisbane when he got an inkling that he wasn't truly melding with the corporate law environment. "Clayton Utz has a very successful pro bono practice and I found I was getting the most profession fulfilment out of the work I was doing through that, rather than where I was. That said to me 'Maybe I'm in the wrong job'," he says.
He's now one of the three lawyers in the Queensland Legal Aid's consumer protection unit, and he says the satisfaction he gets from helping vulnerable individuals means his legal career has never looked brighter.
"I get up and go to work smiling. I'm quite literally one of the happiest lawyers in the state and that's a good position to be in," he says.
"The smallest things you can do for people make a real difference. Often all you can do is roll back some fees that are being charged on a loan so that [your client] is only paying $50 less a fortnight. But for some of our clients, that can be the difference between surviving for the next six months and going under and not being able to feed their kids."
Holmes explains that a flow-on advantage of having this direct personal involvement with problems in the community is that it puts him in a strong position to push for beneficial law reform.
"You can use their stories to lobby and effect policy change because you've got the front-line experience to know how the law is actually affecting vulnerable people," he says.
The pleasure of being able to use the law to assist vulnerable people is something that Tanya Smith, a crown prosecutor with the NSW Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), can relate to.
Smith was a two-year banking and finance lawyer when, in 1998, she gave up her comfortable, scenic office at Mallesons Stephens Jaques in Sydney to join the DPP in Parramatta - a move she readily admits was at first "a shock". But she quickly found her feet and has flourished in a career which she feels both challenges her intellectually and allows her to use her legal skills for the public good.
She explains that as a crown prosecutor - in contrast to a private litigator or barrister - she is briefed by the DPP to appear in cases as a representative of the community, rather than the interests of a fee-paying individual or company. "In the [DPP's prosecution guidelines] it talks about the prosecutor being a minister of justice [meaning] that you have to do justice between the community and the accused," she says.
"So what I'm doing is completely different to what I was doing previously. We're not representing a private person's interests ... where you're doing everything to represent that interest and charging the client for it. I am representing the community and being paid as a government employee."
This clear distinction between the underlying premise of an organisation such as the DPP, and that of a profit-driven law firm, means the personal motivators and the measures of performance for the lawyers involved are very different.
"I liked the idea of not being money-based, in terms of not everything being about charging clients for services. There's no time sheets and it's not about what you've billed at the end of the month - the focus is very different. The focus is on representing the community ... doing your job and doing it to the best of your ability," she says.
The spice of life
Another common misconception about government legal work is that - due to limits that often exist on the range of clients that government organisations can service - it lacks the variety of work that the largely unrestrained private sector can offer.
Shaun Le Grand, a managing principal solicitor at the Victorian Police Branch of the VGSO, would beg to differ. Le Grand manages a team of five lawyers who provide a full spectrum of legal services for the Victorian Police, and he says there's never a dull moment.
"Because this particular client is so large - it has 14,000 staff members who have, in their own various ways, roles enforcing laws across the entire state - it's hard to conceive of a job with more variety," he says. "I'm surprised every day at the subject matter and the areas of law that I have to pick up and look at, and I think that's true of all government agencies."
The often unpredictable and high-profile nature of police work adds an extra element of excitement to Le Grand's role. "There's a lot of genuine interest for me in the fact that so much of the legal work we do is of great public interest. It might be in the newspapers tomorrow but we were advising on it today," he says. "The other thing that's a real buzz is the fact that we have an enormous amount of urgent work ... we're constantly dropping one thing to go to another."
The DPP's Smith can also vouch for the diversity of work a public sector role can provide. "It's always an interesting exercise - you finish a trial then you begin to look at your next trial, and there's that feeling of opening your brief and thinking: 'What's it going to be this time? Is it going to be matter involving a stabbing? A shooting? A sexual assault? A matter involving children?' The diversity is so great," she says.
Similarly to corporates, government bodies can also provide opportunities for lawyers to work in an in-house capacity, and in some aspects, these roles can throw up even more challenges than their private-sector counterparts.
Michael Kingston, a former Mallesons partner and barrister, took up the role of chief legal officer at ASIC last year. Kingston says he wasn't actively looking to leave the bar at the time, but the role at ASIC particularly appealed because of the unique and influential role the commission has within society and the diversity of work the position offered.
"It's an interesting time to be working for a corporate regulator - given what's going on in the broader economy and the challenges being faced by markets and some companies," he says. "[ASIC] has the potential to have influence, and it does a broad range of work if you think about it from the policy perspective, the regulatory perspective, [its role] in assisting the law to operate in an efficient way, and in deterrence and enforcement - there's a really big range of work on offer."
Kingston says that an additional challenge of his role - one not faced to the same degree in the private sector - is the level of accountability and transparency safeguards that ASIC is exposed to. "As a government agency we have responsibilities in terms of the way we behave which are different to those which apply in a private company - be it the rules about being a model litigant or just standards of behaviour that are expected of a government entity," he says.
"But in addition to that, there is the fact that various decisions are subject to administrative law challenges, and also that we're the subject of freedom of information requests, and people can complain about aspects of our decisions to the Commonwealth Ombudsman ... So you're always conscious of the fact that you're accountable in a different way to a public company, and in some ways more accountable."
Kingston says another upside of working in an in-house capacity at ASIC - particularly for junior lawyers - is the organisation's emphasis on professional development. "Working at ASIC should be a credential-building experience for lawyers. So whether you see yourself being here for 15 years or just three or four, it should be something that adds considerably to your CV," he says. "We're aiming to get to a position where future employers will respect and value the time [lawyers] have had at ASIC".
One, two, three o'clock
The government lawyers Lawyers Weekly spoke to agreed that, overall, working hours in the public sector pulled up favourably compared to those in the private sector. The general consensus was that because the private sector is less profit-driven, there is less pressure on lawyers to pull in fees at all costs.
However, as ASIC's Kingston summed it up: "I don't think it would be fair to say that this is a nine-to-five workplace - it isn't. People work hard and they're committed to the work."
While work/life balance might be within closer reach in the public sector, it was also conceded by most that remuneration at the senior levels generally doesn't reach the dizzy heights of senior private sector practitioners. The DPP's Smith summed it up: "Obviously when I first came to the DPP I didn't come for the money - it's just not the driving force in doing your job".
That being said, there were also no complaints. As VGSO's Le Grand put it: "It's a package ... when you weigh up all of the benefits I think it's fair remuneration for a rewarding job".