Promoting AGS to new lawyers

Promoting AGS to new lawyers

Ian Govey recently gave law students and graduates an insight into the work of AGS, his role as CEO and life as a government lawyer, through an interview published in Flinders Law Students Association's (FLSA) 2013 Careers Guide.

Ian also shared his experiences in the public service and how he came to choose government law as his career.
The interview is reproduced here with the permission of FLSA. (

FLSA:Can you provide a brief description about the work of the Australian Government Solicitor?

IG: The Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) is a statutory authority under the portfolio of the Attorney-General. It is the leading provider of legal and related services to Australian Government agencies.

Our essential role is to support the Attorney-General as First Law Officer and to provide legal services to Commonwealth agencies. In doing that, we have to operate as a business enterprise and operate very much like a law firm. We get no budget funding, so we have to charge to cover all of our costs. Our charges also need to cover taxation in the same way as a private law firm and we have to return a profit to the Commonwealth. The idea of all of this is that we operate on a competitively neutral basis with private law firms.

However, in other respects we are not like a private law firm. What distinguishes us from the private sector is that we are an agency of the Government and what drives us is that we are working for the Government. We work in areas of law that are, in some respects, unique to the Government, and the environment in which we work is certainly unique to government.

AGS has about 600 staff, of which about half are lawyers, who cover some 40 different areas of law related to government. We have offices in every capital city. Canberra is by far the largest.

FLSA: What is your role as CEO?

IG: My role focuses very much on the strategic issues concerning our legal practice, as well as key aspects of our financial, people and client management. In essence, my role is similar to that of a chief executive of a private law firm on issues such as budget, revenue and cost structure. On the people front, with lots of assistance, I deal with specific issues that arise, but generally I focus on the strategic issues: planning for the work force, making sure that we have good graduates coming into the organisation, making sure that employee terms and conditions are appropriate – both in the sense of looking after employees and making sure that the business can operate on a sound basis.

Some of the things that I have been particularly interested in for AGS include succession planning, professional leadership and management skills. We have focused in the last couple of years on improving leadership training for our senior people and on increasing the number of graduates.

FLSA: So what would a normal workday involve for you?

IG: It involves a lot of meetings and emails! The meetings are both internal and external. For example, next week I am visiting 3 of the State offices and talking with several client agencies.

About 60% of AGS's work is what we call dispute resolution, which covers both general litigation and alternative dispute resolution. Around 20% is advisings and constitutional litigation, including legal advice to key policy areas and the implementation of government programs, especially whether the Government has power to implement particular legislation or programs. The remaining 20% of our work is commercial work which includes, for example, advice on Defence contracts and contracts relating to the new National Disability Insurance Scheme.

There are very few government policies and programs that are implemented without some form of legal advice from AGS. We have had close involvement, for example, in water reform, the carbon tax, gambling reform, energy market reform, migration law and asylum seekers, wheat export marketing legislation, live animal exports and so on. Then we are involved in the constitutional challenges, such as the Williams Case on the power of the Commonwealth to spend money and the plain packaging of tobacco case. We have also been appointed Solicitor Assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

FLSA: When you were a law student, what did you want to do?

IG: At that stage, I had assumed that I would go into private practice in Adelaide and I had my articles all lined up. It was really only at a late stage that I thought 'Gosh, do I really want to do this?' A friend then told me about graduate positions with the Attorney-General's Department, which meant I would be paid to go to Legal Workshop for 6 months and work in Canberra with the Department – so I applied and was successful.

I had a completely naïve and unsophisticated understanding of what the public service was all about. I had no sense of its hierarchy or structures, or in many respects its role. Having said that, I think the work I have done has been incredibly interesting; I certainly don't regret it.

I worked for many years in commercial law reform areas – companies and securities, trade law, and copyright – so I had a lot of exposure to the private sector over a period of time. I considered at various points jumping ship and moving to private practice, but at the end of the day I'm glad I didn't.

I didn't do any clerkships while I was studying to see if private practice was what I wanted to do. They weren't all that common back then. I think that the experience students now get from summer clerkships, as well as part-time legal work, is fantastic.

FLSA: Was it a big decision to move to Canberra from Adelaide? Was it difficult to make the move?

IG: The hard part was leaving family and friends. I didn't know anyone else in Canberra at that point. It was perhaps a brave move for someone who had a good job lined up in Adelaide in private practice.

FLSA: As part of your employment with the Government, have you spent anytime working overseas?

IG: I spent 3 years in Washington DC. At that time the Department had a position in the Australian Embassy, which was titled 'Counsellor Legal'. The role was a mixture of providing legal advice to people in the embassy and reporting back to the Attorney-General's Department in Australia, especially on law reform measures where the US experience was useful. It was fascinating to be exposed to the American legal system, the American political system and the Washington DC diplomatic scene.

I would certainly recommend that students and graduates spend time overseas at some stage, but I don't think any encouragement is needed! The increase over the years in the extent to which people go overseas for work including on 'Youth Ambassador' or other voluntary roles is great.

FLSA: Is there anyone who particularly inspired you while you were at university or just started working at the Attorney-General's department?

IG: Certainly in the work force there have been several people, particularly senior lawyers in government, who have had a positive influence on my career, both as a lawyer and as a public servant. I think it is really valuable for that sort of formal or informal mentoring to occur.

FLSA: What would you say are your career highlights? What are some of the significant cases that you have worked on that you find particularly interesting?

IG: Being the CEO of AGS has certainly been a highlight – running an organisation that performs such a central role for the government. We have some of the country's best lawyers, not just the Commonwealth's best lawyers. AGS does such terrific work and has some interesting challenges which are, of course, essential for a good job.

In my previous role in the Attorney-General's Department I was heavily involved in law reform. Probably the most interesting area I worked in was copyright, and that was because the legal policy issues were incredibly interesting and difficult. The challenges of new technology had some really fascinating social and cultural aspects. There is also an important economic component too, which I quite enjoyed with my economics background.

Other highlights include work in the constitutional law area, particularly on the referral of the corporations power from the States. This was interesting not only because of the legal component, but also going along to meetings with State bureaucrats and Commonwealth and State Ministers. There were a number of reasonably sensitive and tense meetings that took place when the arrangements were being hammered out! I also did a lot of interesting work on the substantive reform of companies and securities law.

FLSA: What do you believe are the important differences between working for the AGS and the private sector – what are the benefits?

IG: For me the key distinction is that, basically, you are working for the Government so there is a political component. The fact that the public interest is the ultimate driver is the key motivation. We are advising on laws that are central to developing and implementing key polices and government programs and also defending the Commonwealth in court in really important cases. It is all about serving the Attorney-General as First Law Officer. AGS, through our predecessor bodies, is 110 years old this year, so being responsible for the corporate memory and being the custodians of the Commonwealth's legal responsibilities is a fantastic part of the job.

FLSA: What skills do you think are particularly important for students to develop before applying for a graduate position?

IG: Having excellent skills as a lawyer is obviously critical, particularly the skills in core areas of government law like constitutional, international and administrative law. However, I think the skills of legal reasoning and research, rather than any particular subject area, are the most important. The other skill I would highlight is communication, both the ability to write clearly and concisely and to be persuasive in oral communication.

All the usual extra curricular activities that so many students undertake in developing their communication and people skills are incredibly valuable in enabling students to sell themselves. It is very competitive to get a job at the AGS. We get some incredibly good applications. I should also mention that we do recruit at other levels, mostly at a junior lawyer level. For example, we have recently taken on a new junior lawyer in our Adelaide office. We also take people from other fields as part of our corporate support team.

FLSA: Do you have any other advice for students considering a similar career path in the Government?

IG: Working for government can be very rewarding. We ultimately work in the public interest, and are not driven by the profit motive. I think that at the end of the day this is what people find motivating about working for Government. The work is intrinsically interesting, particularly with the interaction with government and the way in which polices are developed and law reform is undertaken.