On the job as a chief legal counsel at the Department of Social Services

Janean Richards studies Masters in Law at ANU and is now chief legal counsel and group manager corporate services at the Department of Social Services.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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What's your job title? How long have you worked in your current position? 

I’m the Chief Legal Counsel and Group Manager Corporate Services within the Department of Social Services (DSS).

I’ve been the Chief Legal Counsel in DSS since early 2013, but I took on an expanded role as the Group Manager of Corporate Services in mid-2016. This new role means that I oversee a lot of the corporate services that are provided within the DSS, such as HR, communications, project management, parliamentary, FoI, audit, and fraud.

I’m also a full-time working mother, with three beautiful children.

What does your job involve? 

The Department of Social Services (DSS) is the Australian Government’s lead agency in the development and delivery of social policy, and works to improve the wellbeing of people and families in Australia.

DSS’ policies and services respond to needs across peoples’ lives – looking after families, children and older people; providing a safety net for people who cannot fully support themselves; enhancing the wellbeing of people with high needs; assisting people who need help with care; and supporting a diverse and harmonious society.

Given the breadth of the Department’s work, each day brings new challenges and opportunities, and they are never the same. My days involve managing a group of more than 200 people, and I don’t spend quite as much time providing legal advice as I used to.

Our team has a great culture.  The people are collaborative and supportive of one another. In addition to their professionalism and preparedness to ‘get the job done’, we have a strong focus on continuing to improve the way we do things.

I enjoy building great teams and getting feedback through client and staff surveys which confirms that: our clients are happy; our services are well regarded and in demand; our people are highly engaged in their roles; proud of the contribution they make to the organisation and that they enjoy their work.

What’s your background?

I grew up in Canberra. I hold a Masters in Law, Bachelor of Laws (Hons), Bachelor of Arts, and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (ANU).  I was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory and signed the High Court Roll in 1996. 

I am a former President of Australian Women Lawyers and former Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Council for Women in the ACT.  

I received the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association Government Lawyer of the Year award in 2014.

My family has been awarded two Guinness World Records for the greatest number of Christmas lights on a residential property, installing 331,038 lights in 2011 and 502,165 lights in 2013 on our Canberra home to support the delivery of bereavement counselling services by SIDS & Kids to families in the ACT.

I was the first member of my family to go to Uni. I didn’t have an academic chaperone. My decision to study law occurred as a consequence of being accepted by the ANU.

Prior to joining the APS, I was the Commercial Dispute Resolution Partner at Deacons Lawyers (now Norton Rose) and formerly Commonwealth Government Practice Partner at Dibbs Abbott Stillman (now DibbsBarker).

My previous roles in the Commonwealth public sector include: Assistant Secretary Office of Legal Services Coordination in the Attorney-General’s Department and General Counsel Positions at both the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and Comcare.  

What personal qualities are required for success in your position?

You need to be strategic and take time to appreciate the context in which you practice, whether that is in the private or public sphere. 

Don’t be afraid to take some measured professional risks. Career breaks will not cause irreparable damage to your career progression and there are a lot of opportunities you can explore throughout a career in law.

Look for professional mentors and remember to support the development of those around you too. 

As legally trained professionals, achieving work/ life balance will be a challenge for many of us.  We find work intellectually stimulating and professionally rewarding but there does come a time when we need to set our own boundaries... 

What’s one thing it might surprise people to learn is advantageous in your job?

The diversity of the work and the quality of the opportunities that government offers. The opportunities and varieties of work available as an in-house lawyer for the Government are unrivalled in private practice.  

If you could give three pieces of advice to your younger self at university, what would they be?

  • Be a good communicator - talk to your clients, talk to your people, and share information. Good communication is not just about what you say, but what you hear, so be an excellent listener and remain open to feedback. Make it clear that you value a culture that celebrates its achievements and reflects positively on its failures because the focus is always on continuous improvement.
  • Be authentic, by which I mean look for roles that align with your personal and professional values.
  • Above all, find somewhere where you enjoy going to work.  You’re going to spend a lot of time there. Make sure that you’re enjoying yourself and feeling fulfilled.  If you’ve got doubts, don’t be afraid to take some professional risks.

 Learn more about working in this field, jump to career path in government sector or the Public and administrative law overview.