Public Interest Law Careers Guide - Steven Tudor Testimonial

Public Interest lawyer and academic lawyer: Steven Tudor

Organisations: Victorian Department of Justice and La Trobe University

Short biography: Steven Tudor has worked as a legal researcher (Court of Appeal, Victoria), a judge's associate (Court of Appeal and Federal Court of Australia), a barrister (Victorian Bar), a legal policy officer (Department of Justice, Victoria), and a law lecturer (La Trobe University and Deakin University). He has also tutored in philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and is a former committee member of Liberty Victoria. He is currently a senior legal policy officer in the Department of Justice in criminal legal policy and a part-time senior lecturer in the Law School at La Trobe University. (None of his comments below necessarily represent the views of any organisation he works or has worked for.) 

Law: where did you start?

My first job in the law was as a legal researcher in the Court of Appeal. It was an excellent introduction to seeing how the legal system worked from the inside of one of its most important institutions. There were three of us working as researchers. Our job was to provide legal research assistance to the judges of the Court of Appeal. We were a bit like judges' associates, but were not attached to any particular judge.

What was your pathway into public policy on crime?

I had long thought that I would like to end up working on law reform issues in some way. That was partly why I turned to the law after completing my first degree (in philosophy). However, I was keen to get some experience of legal practice first, since I think it is highly desirable to have a practical, hands-on sense of how a machine works before you start suggesting ways to improve it. So after my law degree I was keen to be admitted to practice and get some experience.

After working as a legal researcher and a judge's associate, I went to the bar. I worked as a barrister for two years, doing a range of things typical of "baby barristers" and occasionally some bigger jobs as junior counsel. I wasn't sure where I would go with it, but it was a great experience and I learned a great deal about how the law works (and doesn't work) in practice.

While at the bar, I was on the committee of Liberty Victoria (the independent lobby group promoting and protecting civil rights (Liberty Victoria). This was fascinating work and got me involved in current public policy debates and gave me a good insight into how the public policy process works (or doesn't). I decided to apply for a legal policy job with government and was lucky enough to get a job in criminal law policy in the Department of Justice. 

I later became a law academic, but I maintained a close interest in policy and law reform while there and made several submissions to law reform inquiries. I then took two years' leave from academia to work on a specific law reform project in the Department of Justice, and have been juggling part-time academic work and full-time public policy work since 2011.

How do you juggle working in public policy and academia?

I've been fortunate in having managers (in both academic and the public service) who have been flexible in letting me maintain my interest in both academia and policy. So I've been able to juggle part-time and full-time work reasonably successfully.

I have certainly found that my academic angle on things has helped in being creative and lateral when it comes to policy work, and I've also found that being at the coal-face of policy work has been of direct benefit in my teaching. I think quite a few students have been interested to know that what we are discussing in class are genuine current legal policy debates and that there are career paths for them in this area.

In academic work, you are much freer to set your own agenda and cultivate your pet ideas. Debate is often much more judgmental and oppositional. In Policy, you need to work with people in a more constructive way. You need to be much more constructive and sympathetic because you are trying to build something together that will work and not just show how clever you are. (No doubt I'm being a little unfair to academics here!

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?

In my legal policy work, one of the main challenges has been (and will always be) thinking up clear, simple and effective solutions to complex and difficult problems. One of the great challenges in policy work is to solve existing problems without creating a whole set of new problems.

This requires thinking through all of the possible and plausible ramifications of the proposals we develop. Being able to think laterally and creatively is essential here. This is also why it's very valuable to have an understanding of how the law works in practice, so you can more easily think through how proposals for change might or might not work.

It's also important in policy work to work as a team member and not get too wrapped up in your own ideas. You need to be prepared to have other people challenge what you do (and even override it) and you can't be too precious about your pet ideas.

How did you deal with these challenges?

I try to be lateral-minded and flexible in my thinking, and not get tunnel vision. No doubt, I don't always succeed.

What advice do you have for Law students and lawyers wanting to pursue a career path in public policy?

There are various career paths within what can be called "public policy". Some policy jobs are with private or non-government organisations and can involve lobbying on behalf of specific stakeholders to shape relevant government policy. I'm not so well qualified to discuss those, so I'll focus on public policy careers in government or the public sector.

For law students and lawyers, there are two basic pathways into public policy work within government . The first is through the graduate entry schemes. The second is "lateral" entry by  lawyers who have done other things first and then enter the public service directly (i.e. not through a graduate entry process). I'll say something specific to each one first, then talk about some things common to both.

If you are a law student and are planning on taking the first path, good grades will obviously be important to improving your chances of beating the competition for what are tightly contested jobs. I would also recommend that you swot up on legal practice, so that you have a good understanding of how legal procedures work even if you haven't worked at the legal "coal face". Ultimately the law is not a book that sits on a shelf but is something that is put into practice, and policy development and law reform needs to take that into account.

If you are taking the second path, much will depend on "where you are coming from". You may be bringing a wealth of experience with you; then again you might have chalked up just one or two years in private practice. Either way, it will be useful to have swotted up a bit on government and public policy processes.

Whichever path you take, good communication skills are very important. The better you can write clear and cogent documents, the more effective you will be. One of the most useful things you can do at university is to work on improving your writing skills. Everyone can improve and most of us should. Buy some books on improving your writing and learn from them.

Interpersonal skills are also essential, as you will be working closely with a variety of other people. Diplomacy, civility, tolerance, open-mindedness and good humour will be very useful skills to have if you work in government

Also, you need to be able to think laterally and creatively. Very often, the solution to a policy problem will not consist in doing the same thing over again (which is a habit we precedent-loving lawyers can easily develop). So you often need to think abstractly and at a high level of generality - and, even though, it has become a cliché, "thinking outside the square" is very important. At the same time, you need to put that creative thinking into a practical, real-world context and make sure you come up with workable solutions. This can involve taking all sorts of factors - institutional, political, historical, cultural, budgetary, etc - into account.

Another good policy skill involves being able to see the word "compromise" and not get distressed. Most good policy work involves balancing various and not necessarily harmonious values or goals. It is good to have a passion for justice and a strong desire to make the world a better place, but if that gets too doctrinaire it can sometimes narrow one's thinking and lead to an inability to forge practical solutions to problems.

What do you find most rewarding in your work?

The most rewarding thing for me in working in public policy in government is grappling with law reform issues that are important for society, very real (in that they impact directly on people's lives) and are intellectually challenging. Being "inside the tent" of government gives you a unique opportunity to contribute to the law's ongoing process of improvement.

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