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On the job in public and administrative law
Christopher Malone studies Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts at Monash University and is now a lawyer in the Disability and Housing Legal Team at the Department of Social Services.
What's your job title? How long have you worked in your current position?
I’m currently working as a lawyer in the Disability and Housing Legal Team at the Department of Social Services (DSS). I joined the DSS as a 2016 Graduate and started in February last year. During the graduate program everyone completes two five-month rotations. I completed my first rotation in a policy team working on social security payment reform before moving into my current team at the start of my second rotation in July 2016. I then stayed on after the completion of the program.
What was the grad experience at the Department of Social Services like?
Being a grad at the Department of Social Services was a really positive experience. I think if I had to narrow it down it would be for a couple of major reasons: the work environment and the people.
There’s a huge amount of training offered in both general skills, such as writing for government and introductory social policy, as well as more specialised opportunities depending on where you work.
For example, I had the opportunity to attend courses on practical skills such as briefing drafters on developing legislation as well as broader opportunities such as attending forums on developing areas of law. There’s an entry level team whose role is to support grads and smooth the transition between study and the start of a career in government and work closely with the Department and the graduate cohort to help everyone get the best out of the year.
Being a grad also gives you more opportunities to meet people, and contribute to projects that other entry level staff might not get to work on. I found that my managers placed a real focus on developing my skills and preparing me for the future, rather than expecting immediate outcomes.
Another part of the grad program that has held me in good stead was the other grads. DSS takes around 70 grads per year across a number of areas (generalist, data, finance, law, IT, and so on). Most grads move to Canberra from other states and it’s really helpful to have a group of people in a similar boat who are willing to support each other. It’s like stepping straight into a ready-made community.
What does your current job involve?
I currently work with a team of seven lawyers who advise on policies related to disability (including the development of the National Disability Insurance Scheme), housing, and gambling reform. We work as an in-house legal service for the Department, offering legal assistance to colleagues so that they can develop and implement policies.
On any given day this could include working on matters such as what policies can be pursued under existing legislation, or what legislation would need to be amended or introduced to support the policies; discussing how to reduce risk in proposed activities; or assisting with drafting letters to key stakeholders, such as the States and Territories, or other Government Ministers (including sometimes the Prime Minister). At the moment, my largest project is working with the team to support the National Disability Insurance Scheme to develop a new regulatory body that will oversee disability service providers.
What is your employer’s goal?
We aspire to be Australia’s pre-eminent social policy agency. Our mission is to improve the wellbeing of people and families in Australia.
What do you do on a daily basis? Have you worked on any projects that you’re particularly proud of?
At any one time, I’ll usually be working on half a dozen different matters, and they’ll often be with different areas. At the moment, as well as working to develop the National Disability Insurance Agency regulator, I’m providing advice on housing affordability, helping the gambling reform team to understand how the laws of the states and territories interact with the policy they’re developing, and looking at how disability programs could be streamlined.
I was recently responsible for a project that involved getting a Bill through parliament to amend our disability legislation. This entailed briefing the Commonwealth drafters to write the Bill, writing the explanatory memorandum, and assisting the policy area to write the second reading speech which was delivered by the Minister for Social Services in the House of Representatives.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
I think the most challenging aspect of my role is also what’s most rewarding for me. Working across a diverse range of policy areas represents a unique opportunity to get incredible insight into the development of Australia’s social policy. This also means that I need to have an understanding of how policy works across a huge number of fields. For instance, disability has not only the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but also Disability Employment Services, agreement with the states and territories, and a host of other programs.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your role? Please be as specific as possible.
In addition to working across so many different areas, I value the opportunity to work in a team with other people who are incredibly capable and really passionate about their work. Although the graduate program finished at the end of 2016, I’m fortunate enough to have managers who place value in ongoing development. I feel I work in a Department where I’m valued both for my work and as an employee.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up Williamstown, in the inner west of Melbourne. I moved to Canberra at the start of 2016 for my graduate position.
Where were you educated, and what did you study?
I studied at Monash University where I completed my Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts (Hons). I spent my final year writing my thesis on the Federal Government’s regulation of liquor in American-Indian communities during the early 19th century. I then spent a year volunteering with the Consumer Action Law Centre and completing my Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. I also travelled for six months. I’ve just gone back to university to do my Masters of Law at the Australian National University, with a focus on government legal skills.
What attracted you to that field of study?
I always wanted to be in a vocation that ‘had its finger on the pulse’. I spent some time studying journalism before starting my law degree and always wanted to be at the middle of everything. I think this was a major influence on my decision to join the grad program at the DSS. It’s fascinating to see how the legal framework underpins so much of Australia’s policy outcomes.
What personal qualities are required for success in your position?
The most important skill is the ability to adapt to new circumstances. Policy can move incredibly quickly and being able to get process new information and manage shifting priorities is a large part of the job.
What’s one thing it might surprise people to learn is advantageous in your job?
Even though I work in a social policy agency, it’s hugely beneficial to have some practical numeracy and accounting skills, such as understanding budgets and spreadsheets. Even though I don’t engage directly with any of the financial processes, everything the Department does costs money, and being able to understand where the funding comes from, and how it impacts policy, is incredibly useful.
What are the limitations or downsides of your job?
I think I’m incredibly fortunate to have the position that I do, but it’s true that I don’t often have the opportunity to engage with an issue on an extended basis. As a generalist legal service, we interact with a range of areas, but don’t always get the chance to engage with them in a deep way.
If you could give three pieces of advice to your younger self at university, what would they be?
- Study what you’re interested in. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s for a reason. While my degree help me get this role, so much of what I actually do is learnt on the job and from the people around me.
- Make the most of the long breaks and take big trips. I worked long hours through my degree, and while it’s a necessity for almost every student, taking a summer, or a semester, off to do those big trips is something that is far harder to justify once you only get limited annual leave.
- Look for graduate career opportunities that aren’t immediately obvious. I knew in my last couple of years of university that I wanted to work in a government, NGO or community justice role. Talk to people, look outside of your city, and research what other avenues there are to get to where you want to be.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume?
If I was going to change career I’d work as a tour guide in Northern Australia. I love trekking and mountain biking, and am preparing for a month long trekking trip to Nepal later this year.