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A (lawyer’s) life less ordinary

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 11:56

DEFRA lawyer Paul Collins.

By Paul Collins, a lawyer within the Government Legal Service for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Government Legal Service (GLS) consists of all those lawyers in around thirty Government Departments, Agencies and other public bodies. As a department, Defra has one of the largest legal teams in Government.

My interest in the dynamic of environmental issues between politics, people and the business community is the driving force behind my wanting to be an environmental lawyer. Since joining the GLS, my portfolio of work has always been varied, ranging from drafting legislation on dog walking controls to advising on proposals for restructuring the water industry in England and Wales. In the summer of 2009, I was responsible for drafting legislation to improve the energy efficiency of white goods and introducing a ban on certain types of light bulbs, which attracted a lot of media attention at the time.

As a lawyer within the GLS, I work closely with Ministers and policy colleagues within the Department and across Whitehall to help deliver Government policy. This involves working with colleagues and stakeholders (e.g. the environmental regulators, local authorities and businesses) to work through how policy can be delivered on the ground and critically, if legislation is required, ensure it is effective and fit for purpose.  Drafting submissions to Ministers for their decision and briefing them in person is another important element of my work.

Many of the skills I developed and demonstrated as a lawyer in private practice apply equally to my work within Defra – assessing and advising on legal risks, managing client expectations and delivering a legal service that clients can trust to deliver Government policy. However, the range of legal issues I now advise on in depth is far greater than the relatively narrow scope of environmental law I previously advised on in private practice. Such issues include European legislation, administrative law, human rights, devolution and freedom of information. All this calls for a much deeper understanding of the law than would typically be required as a lawyer in a commercial practice.

As a lawyer, I personally find the legal challenges and experiences of collaborating with colleagues to deliver Government policy much more rewarding than the achievement of a billable hours target. It’s true that my role carries with it a lot of responsibility and its own demands and pressures. However, Defra and the GLS are well structured to support its lawyers.

The training provided by the GLS is excellent. All lawyers new to the GLS attend a mandatory five day introductory course for lawyers. Attending this course at the start of my GLS career immediately settled my nerves and calmed my apprehension of having taken the step from private practice lawyer to the public sector.  I have since attended courses on devolution, drafting statutory instruments and dealing with Parliamentary Bills. There are regular training sessions that are run by Defra and other Government departments on a vast array of relevant subjects.

There is a considerable breadth of invaluable experience and expertise among my colleagues who I can readily consult. A knowledge-sharing culture clearly exists throughout Whitehall and it is encouraging that this is seen by all as a good thing and not something that could potentially jeopardise an individual’s own career ambitions.  The emphasis that is placed on professional development and the encouragement to initiate and lead on new ideas for sharing knowledge and working by all levels of the GLS is far greater than I have encountered before.

My experience of working for Defra has been rewarding and far exceeded my expectations. I invested a lot of time and money in training to be a lawyer and I am pleased that it is in an exciting, challenging and fast moving area of law that I work, at the heart of Government. Can things be better? Well, there’s always room for improvements. The level of bureaucracy I encounter at times can be frustrating but usually there’s a good reason for it. However, I would highly recommend a career within the GLS for anyone who wants to be exposed to new challenges, feel satisfaction with their job and make a real difference.