The lure of a government law career

By Angela Martinkus

A career within the machinery of government has long attracted lawyers - not just on the political side but in legal, governance, policy, strategy and management roles across government departments and funded agencies.

Bronwyn Notzon 

When Bronwyn Notzon accepted a graduate position with the Attorney-General's Department in 2001 her plan was to stay for a couple of years and then hightail it out of Canberra for a commercial firm in Melbourne or Sydney.

Now more than 12 years later Bronwyn holds the role of Usher of the Black Rod in the Senate and is about to make Commonwealth Parliamentary history by being the first person since Federation to move from that role to become the Serjeant-at-Arms in the House of Representatives.

Bronwyn's position means that, at only 37 years of age, she has a front-row seat from which to observe the protocols and procedures of the Commonwealth Parliament and the operation of the Australian Constitution. "Watching our Constitution work in action is really quite special," she says.

Bronwyn is currently undertaking a Master of Laws in the Melbourne Law Masters, including specialist subjects on government law, which provide an academic insight into matters that lie at the cutting-edge of government law in Australia. When she originally joined the Attorney-General's Department as a young graduate, Bronwyn hadn't anticipated the dynamic nature of this branch of law.

"I wasn't expecting work in the public sector to be so interesting. The range of issues I worked on was breathtaking in terms of legal complexity and sheer interest," she says. "I think it is the best training ground for a young lawyer."

"There's nothing quite like focussing the mind to write a complicated brief for the Attorney-General in minimal time and knowing that what you are doing matters," she says.

In 2011, Bronwyn moved to the role of Clerk Assistant (Procedure), which is the head of the Procedure Office, in the Department of the Senate. The Procedure Office has a staff of approximately 30 and, among many other things, advises senators on their legislative drafting options.

The Act governing the role of parliamentary officers stresses "the need for confidential, ethical and impartial behavior", which Bronwyn likens to the typical client and practitioner relationship. "When working as a parliamentary officer keeping things confidential, remaining impartial and treating everyone fairly and equitably is extremely important."

Last September Bronwyn took up the position of Usher of the Black Rod, a role which harks back to the 14th century in Britain, when the Usher represented the monarch in the House of Lords and used a black wooden rod to keep order. When the Australian Parliament opened in 1901 the ceremonial role was maintained.  Today, the Usher of the Black Rod is seated in the Senate chamber during Parliamentary sittings days and, in addition to procedural and ceremonial duties, is the chief operating officer for the Department of the Senate.

On a typical sitting day Bronwyn, carrying the 1.3 metre Black Rod, escorts the President into the Senate for prayers and Acknowledgement of Country. She takes the roll, delivers messages, locks the doors of the Senate to manage division votes and fields queries from the floor.

Throughout the day there is a constant stream of meetings with senators and the day will wrap up when the Senate finishes sitting. It's a high-pressure environment, "so a sense of calm and approaching each problem step-by-step is the most important thing".

"I've found having a strong working knowledge of constitutional law and a strong background in administrative law very valuable," says Bronwyn.

Since joining the senior ranks of the parliamentary service Bronwyn has "changed as a lawyer and grown as a leader as well."

"I often think that the law is the easy bit. As lawyers we are trained to think rationally and make decisions without emotion. Leadership and dealing with people needs a combination of objective, rational decision-making and emotional intelligence."

"I love the leadership side of my role and would find it very difficult to go back to a purely legal role."

James Dalmau also wouldn't dream of leaving his job with the Office of Chief Parliamentary Counsel where he drafts Bills that later become legislation in the State of Victoria.

Five years into the role, he loves the enduring nature of the work and is getting close to drafting legislation without supervision. "You get instructions based on a Cabinet decision and it generally takes three months to draft a Bill, but given the team is part of the 'political machine' there are some large reform projects that take multiple years and other projects where they need the finished Bill in a fortnight."

James is currently pursuing a Master of Laws, taking up public law subjects such as Current Issues in Administrative Law, Judicial Power in Australia and Statutes in the 21st Century. "I picked these kinds of subjects because, as part of government, I feel it is important to have as much public law expertise as possible."

"The course has directly assisted my work by improving my statutory interpretation skills, giving me a better knowledge of how public power is administered in practice, and keeping me aware of the many other issues that make up the legal context in which legislation operates."

In an election year he has noticed the workload ratchet up by about 50 percent. "Working under incredible time pressure can be really satisfying," he says. "If you draft something in three hours and it is considered acceptable, you feel the training wheels are coming off."

For Scott Fitzpatrick, a policy officer in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), the attraction of working in government is "the ability to make a difference and contribute in a meaningful way."

"As a lawyer you are addressing an issue or problem after it has happened," Scott says. "Working in policy you're dealing with problems that exist."

Following work with the West Australian State Government, Scott moved to Victoria in 2011 and is now managing a team in the Energy, Resources and Land section working on land policy.

"There is a lot of analysis and preparation of advice for the Secretary of the Department and the Premier's office."

A legal background is useful for his role. "Advocacy is one of the core skills required for a policy officer and that's something I learned at law school, as is research, legal writing and drafting skills and the ability to construct a structured and legal argument," says Scott.

Now deepening his legal expertise with a Master of Laws, he says that "it's good to go outside work and use your analytical skills in a way that is unrestricted."

Lorraine Kershaw's career trajectory has taken her beyond Australia to work as Legal Adviser at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Lorraine's interest in human rights issues saw her undertake stints with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and the Attorney-General's Department where she was a human rights policy adviser. She broadened her experience with two hands-on assignments: a 12-month volunteer position with the State Law Office in Vanuatu and a two-year deployment with the Public Solicitor's Office as part of the Regional Aid Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

Vanuatu was Lorraine's first time working overseas and she was struck by the challenges facing governments in a developing country. "It was a big eye-opener. I loved it," she says.   In the Solomon Islands Lorraine was amongst the first civilian RAMSI teams that arrived and worked on programs to restore the criminal justice system, which included court sittings in rural areas accessible only by small plane and boat.

"It was quite a fun and dynamic environment but everyday work was exhausting."

When the role at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat based in Suva was advertised, Lorraine jumped at it. Working in the premier regional political organisation her remit is broad: developing trade agreements, and negotiating arms treaties and legislative reform programs.

"I am a bit of a jack of all trades," she says. "Lawyers are relied upon because they have good drafting and analytical skills."

Lorraine flew back to Melbourne to undertake intensive subjects within the government law specialisation and gained her Master of Laws in 2013. "After you have been working for a while it is a pleasure to delve into issues that you may not be able to deal with in your work context."

Subjects such as International Law and Development had direct relevance for her work.

"Development issues are part and parcel of working in an inter-governmental agency in the Pacific, but the subject gave the historical, theoretical and analytical context to lots of the issues that I see on a day-to-day basis."

She would encourage other graduates to consider work in the public sector with its opportunities to influence society, shape reform or contribute to international development.

"There are really diverse ways to work as a lawyer or policy adviser in regional organisations, NGOs and think-tanks," she says. "But experience and understanding of your own national government is a really useful basis."

Image: Bronwyn Notzon, Usher of the Black Rod, at the opening of the 44th Parliament in November
Credit: Howard Moffat/AUSPIC

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 11, June 2014.