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Planning your law career path in government sector

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator


Government lawyers are qualified solicitors and barristers who act on the behalf of, and give legal advice to, government ministers and agencies. The government sector includes all the jobs in public service, distributed among the governmental agencies and public bodies of Australia. These can range from agencies that work in criminal law such as the Crown Solicitors’ Office and the Commonwealth and State Director of Public Prosecutions, to government departments like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. There are dozens of government agencies and public bodies that offer graduate programs and are also seeking law graduates to be part of their programs.

Entering the government sector

Most government agencies that recruit graduates have regular and well organised admission programs that take applications during fixed periods each year. The easiest way to learn more about the different programs, including application procedures and what will be expected of new recruits, is to visit Australia Government, The Australian Public Service or GradAustralia websites.

Government jobs tend to be highly competitive. Given their popularity, you shouldn’t be surprised if the application process is unusually rigorous. For example, to apply at DFAT, candidates must complete a detailed application letter, an online psychometric test, a written test, a one-way video interview, a group interview, a second test, and, finally, an individual interview.

Law students can also enter the government sector through internships, which are offered by a number of bodies including the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Attorney-General’s Department. It’s important to search for these jobs regularly because government internships and graduate programs tend to open at different times throughout the year.

What’s involved?

The responsibilities of a government lawyer are largely determined by the department or agency for which they work. For example, lawyers for the Australian Defence Force will likely focus on military justice and administrative law, whereas lawyers for the Australian Federal Police will focus on litigation and forensic investigations. Lawyers for the Attorney General’s Department will be tasked with policy and legal development.

A government lawyer’s main duties may also include:

  • Handling civil and criminal litigation.
  • Writing legal documents and providing legal advice for the government.
  • Defending or prosecuting cases in court.
  • Drafting and developing legal policy.
  • researching and analysing emerging legislation.

Career progression

There are innumerable opportunities for career advancement in public law. Generally, you will begin your career by entering a graduate program. Alternatively, it’s possible to apply for government positions after gaining experience in the private sector. Within individual departments and agencies, there is scope for promotions, allowing movement from junior roles into senior positions that offer more influence. According to a recent Hudson salary guide, government lawyers can expect to earn around $70,000 (excluding 15% superannuation) per year in junior positions, and more than $200,000 per year when they move into the most senior roles.

Best and worst

Government jobs are synonymous with stability, with reasonable salaries often supplemented by excellent working conditions. As many government jobs are based in Canberra, there are often programs to help government employees with their relocation process. Other benefits of working in the government sector include appealing professional development opportunities and attractive leave provisions.

While government salaries tend to be competitive (a Federal employee receives approximately $110,000 per year), it’s also true that average salaries are higher in the private sector. So if remuneration is of high importance to you, you may feel frustrated within the government sector.

While organisations like the Attorney General’s Department offer legal roles to law students, the majority of the government’s graduate roles are not exclusively focused on the law. For example, if you enter the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Graduate Programme, you will be rotated through two policy/program areas (often not legal work), a regional placement and a placement in a non-government organisation such as the United Nations.

Employer examples:

  • national government agencies
  • state based agencies
  • parliament.

Job title examples:

  • legal project manager
  • lawyer
  • intelligence officer
  • legislator
  • policy analyst
  • lobbyist
  • prosecutor
  • policy officer
  • political advisor
  • legislative drafter
  • investigator
  • government research officer
  • public defender.

Choose this if:

  • You’re committed to public service and have a strong sense of civic responsibility.
  • You understand that you may have to invest large amounts of time in a stringent application process.
  • You can demonstrate flexibility when it comes to where you’ll be working.