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Government lawyers – passion for the public interest


Cite as: (2003) 77(8) LIJ, p.23

Government relies on lawyers to fulfil a range of roles.

Every government lawyer has to, at some stage, come to terms with the fact they will not get the kind of financial rewards enjoyed by their colleagues in the private sector.

But for government solicitors including Andrew Walker and Greg Byrne, the rewards are found in a varied and challenging workload that draws on their legal skills as well as their desire to work for the community.

Mr Walker, who is part of Melbourne City Council’s in-house legal team, said a passion for working “for the public interest” was part of the attraction of government work.

“It’s important to me to do something in the public interest, not just work for big dollars,” he said. “Also, here I have an opportunity to conduct big planning cases I wouldn’t necessarily have access to in a big firm. That’s also a plus.”

Mr Byrne, who works for the Victorian Department of Justice’s legal policy unit, said he enjoyed the nature of his job and support of his colleagues.

“It’s a very cooperative environment,” he said. “The people are friends with each other and work closely on issues and enjoy discussing issues with each other ... It makes it a really enjoyable atmosphere to work in.”

Victorian Government Solicitor James Syme said the public sector had a lot to offer solicitors who wanted to work on high-profile, challenging cases in a stable working environment with lifestyle benefits.

Mr Syme said the typical government lawyer was someone who was “looking for quality of work as opposed to the highest financial rewards”.

“It’s probably true to say that one of the attractions of government work is the great variety of work that you are called on to do.”

Mr Syme, who was Law Institute president in 1996/97, worked for almost 30 years in the private sector, before retiring as a partner of Corrs Chambers Westgarth in 1997.

He said he was attracted to the public sector by the quality of the people and the “stimulating and important work” they were involved in.

The Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office (VGSO) consists of 40 lawyers and five articled clerks with a client base of government agencies and departments.

Its work varies from providing advice to government on legislation to high-profile litigation work in the Supreme and County Courts.

“One of the functions is to be principal legal adviser to the Chief Commissioner of Police,” he said. “So, I have nine lawyers working full-time at police headquarters.”

Mr Syme said the VGSO also had a large constitutional law practice, which few private sector firms could offer.

Lawyers interested in joining the 1935 solicitors and barristers working for the public sector in Australia will find opportunities by scanning government websites and checking the employment guides of the major newspapers.

At the state government level, solicitors can join the VGSO or work for legal teams in government departments, where their role is close to that of a corporate lawyer. Other lawyers, such as Mr Byrne, are involved in policy development in the government departments.

Mr Byrne is one of 28 solicitors in the Department of Justice’s legal policy unit, which gives advice to Attorney-General Rob Hulls on a wide range of law reform initiatives.

The unit provides advice on civil and criminal matters, such as reforms to the legal profession, privacy issues, inspection powers for police and other government workers, and sentencing.

“A lot of decisions he’s [the Attorney-General] involved with involve Cabinet so we need to make sure that he’s well-briefed so he understands the range of issues, the potential options and consequences of what could occur,” Mr Byrne said. “Part of that process is about consulting with key stakeholders in the legal profession to include their views.”

The Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) – an independent statutory authority – is also a major government employer of lawyers.

A team of 120 solicitors and 20 Crown prosecutors prepare and carry out criminal prosecutions in the High Court and Supreme and County Courts of Victoria. Solicitors have the opportunity to work in specialist divisions, including sexual offences, drug offences and commercial crime.

Mr Byrne, who worked at the OPP for eight years before joining the Department of Justice, said it was a good place to hone legal skills.

“They’re such interesting issues that you are dealing with, really high-profile, interesting issues,” he said.

“I learned a lot about court systems and the law because the issues were so contested in criminal matters.”

There are also opportunities for solicitors to work at the local government level. Melbourne City Council, for example, has an in-house legal team of two full-time and two part-time solicitors. But many councils, such as the City of Yarra, contract out much of their legal work to private firms.

Mr Walker said his team advised Melbourne City Council’s councillors, directors and officers on everything from complicated planning appeals and statutory interpretation to lease agreements and dog prosecutions.

“We seem to be involved in a lot of complicated planning appeals at the moment,” he said. “It’s not your normal position, really. You have to deal with the council officers, councillors, local residents and developers. Ultimately, you act on the instructions of the councillors but there’s often a conflict between the different parties so you have to thread your way through that.”

Mr Walker, who worked for a private firm in Warrnambool for three-and-a-half years before starting at the council, said there were some cultural differences between the private and public sectors.

He said one difference was that he did not have the same level of authority with clients within the Council that he would have with his own clients in private practice.

“When you are in private practice people come to see you as a solicitor, not necessarily as an employee,” he said.

“I’m an employee of the organisation so there’s not quite that distance and sometimes you have to struggle to get your view known.

“You have to deal with politics too, in this organisation, not just commercial interests. It adds a different dimension to it.”

Salaries for lawyers working across the Victorian public sector range from about $40,000 to $92,000, depending on the solicitor’s level of experience and responsibilities. A solicitor could work for three or four years at the entry level before getting promoted to the next pay level.

Solicitors working for federal government departments are on similar salaries. A solicitor in the federal Attorney-General’s Department, for example, can expect to be paid from $38,268 to $91,282.

The Department’s solicitors provide advice to the federal government on a range of issues including national security, emergency management, human rights, international law, and crime prevention. Solicitors could also be called on to give advice on drafting and interpreting legislation.

Community and Public Sector Union Victorian branch secretary Karen Batt said state public service employees had a pay structure with five VPS (Victorian Public Service) bands or classifications.

The entry level for solicitors – who are classified as legal officers – is VPS2 or VPS3.

The problem is that under the existing salary structure there is a wide discrepancy between the salaries of solicitors from government department to department.

In an effort to fix the discrepancies, the Community and Public Sector Union and state government are negotiating to introduce a new career structure for Victorian public sector employees.

The union hopes the new career structure will be in place by 1 November this year.

Ms Batt said that once the new structure was in place, employees in specialist occupations (such as solicitors) would be in a better position as a group to negotiate a career structure in the Victorian public service specific to their profession.

Mr Syme said the public sector pay levels would not appeal to some solicitors.

“I think the only downer would be that the high-flying lawyer who really is looking for big money will not get it in the public sector,” he said.

“It’s part of my job as a manager to try and make sure that the compensation is there in other directions. So the compensation is in terms of the quality of the work, the emphasis on a work/life balance and flexible working practices,” he said.

“Quite deliberately, we don’t tend to drive our people as hard as they may be driven in the private sector environment.”

Mr Syme said that lawyers could find a lot of fulfilment on a personal and professional level in the public sector.

“For those lawyers who can perhaps look past the immediate financial rewards, the quality of the work, the lifestyle benefits, the professional development opportunities and the stability of the working environment can make it a very satisfying career choice.”

Contact information

To scan for legal jobs within the state government, check the public service website at
For information on government jobs at the federal level, visit the Public Service Gazette online at
For information on positions at the Office of Public Prosecutions, solicitors can send their resumes to human resources manager Ken Dickson at


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