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Careers for law graduates in public sector

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator

What do public sector employees do?

The public sector encompasses those sections of the economy that provide governmental services and are (primarily) funded by public resources. In Australia, the public sector includes the three main branches of government (the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary); the military; the public healthcare system; the public education system; various infrastructural service providers; the members of the government (such as administrators and elected officials); and many other departments and agencies.

There are many roles within the public sector, from personal assistant to a local councillor to Prime Minister of Australia. In this sense, the phrase ‘public sector’ is unhelpful – it refers to who employs you, but sheds little light on what you do. Having said that, what all public sector employees theoretically have in common is that they are expected to serve the citizenry and enhance the state.

Where do they work?

Currently the federal government has 14 departments, which are collectively responsible for around 200 agencies, dealing with matters as diverse as fisheries research and native title.

Historically, the largest federal government departments have been the Department of Defence, the Department of Health, the Australian Federal Police, the CSIRO, and the Department of Home Affairs. Individual state governments are also broken down into departments and agencies, with local matters addressed by elected councils.

Approximately 40 percent of Australia’s ~150,000 public sector employees are concentrated in Canberra, the nation’s administrative capital. The other sixty percent are found everywhere from Australia’s largest cities to its most remote communities, as well as on various overseas postings.

How can I take advantage of my law degree?

Employment options for law graduates in the public sector fall within two broad categories: roles that specifically require a legal background, and those which instead draw upon the generic skills acquired from a law degree.

In the first category, there are the many public and governmental positions that are filled by legal practitioners with specific law-based responsibilities. However, for now, it’s useful to note that there is a broad range of jobs for law graduates even within this sub-category of the public sector. You’ll find lawyers advising on policy development for individual parliamentarians, providing expert legal support to the government through the Attorney-General’s Department, participating in the development and activities of various tribunals, and much more.

The path towards a career in the public sector often begins with a successful application to a graduate program. The Federal government maintains an up-to-date list of such programs on its Graduate Programs website. Roles at the state and local levels can be found by visiting the relevant websites for each jurisdiction.

The second category of public service jobs particularly suited to law graduates are those that draw heavily on legal reasoning skills without requiring the day-to-day tasks of a practicing lawyer. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a reputation for attracting and recruiting lawyers for diplomatic and foreign policy based positions. This is due, in large part, to the training law students receive in policy analysis, negotiation, dispute resolution, and mediation. Similarly, law graduates are highly prized in communication positions across multiple departments.

What is the average salary?

The average entry-level package for graduates in the public sector is $65,000 and the average industry hours are 37.5 per week. Furthermore, working conditions are highly competitive, with flexible hours, structured career breaks, job sharing, and mobile working arrangements.