Meet Australia's new Solicitor-General

By Rachel Hewitt

It was while mooting as a Melbourne Law School student in the early 1990s that the role of Solicitor-General first piqued the interest of Dr Stephen Donaghue QC (LLB(Hons) 1995, BA 1995).

Dr Stephen Donaghue QC
Above image: Dr Stephen Donaghue QC. Image credit: supplied.

“The then Commonwealth Solicitor-General (Gavan Griffith AO QC) was a guest judge and I remember him describing his role, and commenting that he thought that being the Solicitor-General was ‘the absolute best legal job in Australia’,” he says.

Little did Dr Donaghue know that some 25 years later – in January this year – the job would become his. As Commonwealth Solicitor-General, he is the chief legal advisor to the Australian Government and appears as counsel for the Commonwealth before the High Court of Australia and before international tribunals.

“It is a terrific role because the Solicitor-General gets offered all of the most important and interesting work involving the particular government of the day that they serve,” Dr Donaghue says.

“That means there is both a choice of interesting matters on the litigation side and also, through the advising function, a greater capacity than there is as a private lawyer to advise on things before they happen.”

Dr Donaghue discovered his passion for constitutional law in the second year of his MLS studies, inspired by the teaching of Professor Greg Craven and, in later years, Laureate Professor Emeritus Cheryl Saunders AO and Professor Michael Crommelin AO.

“I absolutely loved it, so from that time I was convinced that this was the area I wanted to practise in. I was lucky enough for that to happen.”

A few short weeks after sitting his final MLS exam in 1995 – winning the Supreme Court Prize for top graduating law student – Dr Donaghue began his articles at Minter Ellison in London. After nearly two years with Minters, he undertook a Doctorate of Philosophy at Oxford University as a Menzies and Commonwealth scholar, before returning to Australia in 2000 to serve as Associate to former High Court Justice Kenneth Hayne AC.

In 2001, immediately after finishing his associateship, Dr Donaghue went straight to the Bar. He had decided on that path when still at law school, partly as a result of having enjoyed success in MLS and intervarsity mooting. Much of this he undertook in a team with his now wife, MLS Dean Professor Carolyn Evans.

Dr Donaghue spent 16 years as a barrister specialising in constitutional and administrative law. He took silk in 2011 and appeared in more than 40 cases before the High Court, working over the years with numerous Commonwealth and State solicitors-general.

Dr Donaghue advises MLS students to embrace the “terrific” opportunities open to them, from clinical programs to overseas exchanges, and to build networks in areas of interest, including through the mentoring scheme.

“If they follow their interests, their career path will look after itself.”

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017