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Former Summer Clerks Share Their Experiences

Niamh Lenagh-Maguire, Summer Clerk 2006/2007

I applied for AGS Canberra‟s summer clerkship program at the end of my fourth
year of an Arts/Law program at the ANU. I had become increasingly drawn to the
possibility of a career in legal practice, and as a devotee of public and constitutional
law I thought that AGS would give me opportunities to work in my areas of interest
that I wouldn‟t necessarily be given in the top-tier commercial firms.

When talking to older students and careers advisors, I was warned that the clerkship
program was competitive and places were highly sought after. I drafted my
application carefully, and thought a lot about how my experience and skills could be
transferable to a legal practice setting. I wasn‟t optimistic when I learned that there
were only three clerkship vacancies, but was thrilled to be offered a place in the
program in mid-October, a great confidence booster just before the start of final

Summer clerks go through a comprehensive induction program, from learning about
billing and time-recording to an introduction to the special AGS Word toolkit (which
magically turns your rambling sentences into something that at least resembles a
polished advice). As well as a direct supervisor in our practice group, we each had a
„buddy‟ who was assigned to answer our silly questions and help us settle in - the
graduates on rotation in our respective practice groups also made a big effort to
welcome the clerks and show us the ropes. In our first week, we had the opportunity
to see some of the high-profile work that AGS engages in - we spent a morning at
the High Court observing Thomas v Mowbray (Jack Thomas‟ challenge to the
validity of control orders issued under the Commonwealth Criminal Code) and
attended a presentation to AGS clients outlining the High Court‟s decision in the
WorkChoices case.

My first rotation as a summer clerk was in the Commercial Group, which was a great
introduction to the legal practice environment. I worked on a range of matters which
gave me a sense of some of the key areas of AGS‟ commercial practice in
Canberra. I worked on several government procurement processes, some
commercial lease and contract arrangements, and helped prepare advice on the
application of new legislation to complex property trusts, and the terms of salary
sacrificing arrangements. My time in the Commercial Group demonstrated how
flawed my mental categorisation of areas of law into „public‟ and „private‟ had been -
in fact, even though the Commonwealth engages in the same sorts of commercial
and financial dealings as everyone else, there are significant issues of public
interest, risk-management and accountability involved in every government action.

My second rotation was in the Office of General Counsel, where I joined the Finance
and Revenue team. Whereas in Commercial I had worked on contracts, drafted
clauses and modified tender documents to make sure that government commercial
transactions were all in order, in OGC my work was much more focused on
answering particular questions posed by a client, generally involving a mix of
statutory interpretation, analysis and problem-solving. I did background research
when requests for advice were received, discussed the issues with my supervisor,
and then drafted advice to clients. Some of my most useful feedback came from
comparing the text I had drafted with the barely-recognisable versions that went to
clients - I learned a lot about how lawyers draft advice that is thorough, accurate and

It will be clear from the preceding account of my clerkship that I spent my time doing
„real‟ legal work. There were busy days and quieter days, but I was never given filing
or photocopying to do just to keep me occupied. Throughout both rotations it was
made clear that I was there to learn as much as possible and see as wide a variety
of matters as I could, and my supervisors and other lawyers went out of their way to
find out where my interests lie and find me suitable work. I learned a vast amount in
a short time, about specific legal issues like taxation, privacy and probity, and more
broadly about the range of legal services required by government and the work that
goes into meeting client‟s needs. I was also fortunate to meet friendly, welcoming
and enthusiastic people who were keen to make my time as a clerk as rewarding as

Catherine Mann, Summer Clerk 2006/2007

I always suspected that I was not going to be terribly excited by the standard
commercial work of a private firm. I enjoyed my legal studies but was more
interested in government and policy than commerce, so when I heard about AGS I
thought this would be my chance to see whether it was possible to be a lawyer and
do something that I found interesting. I‟m happy to say that I haven‟t been

My first rotation was in Litigation, in the Information Access team. My main work was
on Freedom of Information matters, doing research and preparing matters for
hearing, but I also did some work in other areas such as employment law and
defendant claims. I was often involved in the matter as a whole - I wasn‟t just given
discrete tasks to do but was invited to sit in on teleconferences with counsel or
clients. I was pleasantly surprised to have some contact with clients, including
instructing a senior lawyer during a phone call with a client and getting to make
simple calls myself (which would be unheard of at other firms). This gave me a
much deeper understanding of what being a lawyer is all about, and the at times
different perspectives that clients and lawyers have. I also got to follow a number of
lawyers to court to watch their matters.

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My second rotation in the Office of General Counsel (in the Government team) was
very different as I did a lot more research and got to draft advices. The highlight was
working on a complex matter advising various departments about migration issues.
This was really valuable because I got to sink my teeth into some complex issues
and had the satisfaction of seeing a long advice that I had drafted get sent to a client
after settling/second counselling by more senior lawyers. Other than that, I did a
number of smaller tasks for various lawyers, including some work in connection with
the Murray-Darling Basin which was making the news at the time.

Other lawyers were friendly and happy to take time out of their day to explain things
to me, or to stop for a chat to see how I was going. I learned so much about the
workings of government, the unique challenges of providing legal advice to
government, and the role of government lawyers in policy-making. Through
watching other lawyers and through attending the various professional development
sessions (including the Lawyer Development Program) I got a really good sense of
the skills required to be a great lawyer, particularly in the government law context. I
found the clerkship extremely rewarding and would highly recommend it.

Matthew Rudd, Summer Clerk 2006/2007

When I first heard about AGS, I thought that it sounded like a place that was too
good to be true! I was always the type of law student who‟d never had a substantial
interest in becoming a commercial lawyer, but I had a keen desire to get involved in
public sector work. It wasn‟t surprising then that the idea that there was a place
where you could practice constitutional law, specialise in High Court Litigation, or
just get some great exposure to government legal work without restricting yourself to
one department had me asking, “Where do I sign?” A few years and a summer
clerkship later, I would recommend working here to anyone, especially if you have
an interest in public law.

My first of two five-week rotations during the summer was in AGS‟s Litigation Group.
I worked on a wide variety of matters ranging from tort claims against the
Commonwealth and Freedom of Information requests, to a hearing where a Member
of Parliament was being called as a witness and a coronial inquest involving
questions about the type on information in the possession of Australia‟s intelligence
organisations. All of the lawyers in the group made sure that I was given every
opportunity to attend court, and I was involved in matters in the Federal Court, ACT
Supreme Court and ACT Magistrates Court. On two occasions I was asked to attend
a criminal hearing on my own in order to liaise with the Department of Public
Prosecutions and report back to my supervising lawyer and the client so that they
could co-ordinate the civil case running in parallel. The work in the Litigation Group
was often exciting, and the exposure, access and responsibilities that I was given
were way beyond anything that I had never imagined a summer clerk would be
shown. Strangely enough, I never felt out of my depth, if only because of the
marvellous support that I received from both new and experienced lawyers when it
came to stretching my skills and confidence.

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My second rotation was in the Constitutional Litigation unit of the Office of General
Counsel. Rather than doing advice work, as is the case with most of OGC, this
specialist unit gave me a fantastic opportunity to be involved in constitutional
proceedings before the full bench of the High Court. I worked on matters involving
the validity of the counter-terrorism legislation, the military justice system and an
enforcement agency‟s powers, and I attended the Court on several occasions. One
of the highlights of my rotation was contributing to discussion during conferences
with clients and the Solicitor-General, especially on one occasion when the S-G
used an argument that I had come up with when he was making submissions before
the High Court! I felt quite privileged to be in the middle of litigation at the highest
level, and even more so to be and feel a part of the high quality team that was
conducting it. I learned and experienced so much, and it was always exciting when
the cases or issue I was working on made the front pages of newspapers around the

I come from Sydney, so making the move to Canberra for the summer was
something that I had initially considered a daunting and potentially unexciting
choice. On the contrary, coming to the national capital was one of the best decisions
I‟ve ever made. Canberra is a funny place in that it has everything that you would
normally expect to find in a city (except the traffic), but it has the personability and
two degrees of separation of a country town. The mere ten minutes it took me to
commute to work each day (down from more than an hour in Sydney) was a real
boon, and with so much extra time on my hands and lots of new friends I found that I
had a very social summer.

The things that I had heard about AGS before even applying for a summer clerkship
meant that I had very high expectations of the quality of the work on offer and the
professionalism of the people that work here. These expectations were not
disappointed. AGS is a welcoming and egalitarian workplace, and I found that
everyone from the junior lawyers to the Chief General Counsel was enthusiastic,
approachable and genuinely interested in ensuring that I got the most out of the
clerkship that I could. I was never given menial tasks, I was not expected to work
outrageous hours, and though we weren‟t wined and dined in the way that summer
clerks at some private firms are, I was invited to more than my fair share of morning
and afternoon teas, lunches and after work drinks. I learned and experienced a
great deal during my ten weeks here, and I enjoyed it immensely. AGS was a
fantastic place to work, Canberra is a great city to live in, and I would heartily
recommend both as the ideal place to undertake a summer clerkship.

Alice Kingsland, Summer Clerk 2004/2005

Are you thinking about doing a summer clerkship? Has the thought even fleetingly
crossed your mind? I wasn‟t one of those law students who had plotted a clerkship
since day one of law school. In fact I wasn‟t even plotting it in the week before
applications closed. But after reading a testimonial from a previous AGS clerk, I
decided that it sounded like something quite interesting to apply for. It turned out

AGS Canberra
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that I was right, and my summer clerkship at AGS was an absolutely fantastic

The best thing about my AGS experience was that I was given real, challenging
legal work to do. No photocopying, no mundane tasks. Although this sounds quite
daunting, it wasn‟t. I never felt too far out of my depth, simply because the
supervision and support was fantastic. I never felt that any question was too stupid
to ask, and all acronyms and governmental processes were explained to me by my
supervisor with great care.

Each AGS clerkship is of course going to be different, depending on which matters
are in action when you are on board. My fellow clerks and I had two rotations – mine
were in the Commercial Group and the Office of General Counsel (the Constitutional
Litigation Team). In both groups, it just so happened that I had one very large
project to work on, which was interspersed with working on a number of other small
projects. The advantage of this was being able to get my teeth into one project and
to understand it in more depth, but at the same time being able to get a taste of the
huge variety of work that is done in AGS.

In the Commercial Group, the main project I worked on was the drafting of a
contract for an agency that, among other things, coordinates the searching of state
and territory databases for criminal records (for example when people need a
criminal records check before employment). Involvement in this project was a great
experience, because I was able to attend meetings with the client, and was given
the opportunity to do a significant quantity of the drafting myself. Other projects that I
was involved in included such diverse topics as the trademarking of a sound, the
difference between works of joint authorship and collective works, the tendering
process for the refurbishment of the premises of a High Commission, a licensing
agreement for an authority with an environmental focus, and an agreement with a
European country over social security.

In the Office of General Counsel, the major project with which I was involved was
the drafting of the explanatory notes for the new aviation security regulations. It was
fascinating to see the law making process – I was quite shocked at the hurried
manner in which departments have to carry this out! Other small projects involved
topics such as the comparison of cross-vesting legislation, investigating the different
state laws regarding mandatory reporting of child abuse, looking at the legitimacy of
certain appropriations to a Commonwealth authority, and assessing potential
amendments to medical indemnity legislation.

As well as our day-to-day work assisting lawyers, we summer clerks were also
encouraged to attend the various workshops that were provided for the lawyers and
graduate lawyers, as well as the social events such as the Christmas party. All of
these things helped to give me a better insight into what sort of place AGS is.

AGS Canberra
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All in all, AGS is a really fantastic place to do a summer clerkship. The most eye-
opening part for me was how friendly, welcoming and supportive it is. There is none
of the opportunistic, competitive behaviour that I expected from a law firm. People
genuinely want each other to succeed and support each other to do this. Also, the
people who work there seem to be genuinely happy to work there, and often
mention how interesting and variable the work is.

So, why not think about applying?

Simon Thornton, Summer Clerk 2004/2005

I applied for a Summer Clerkship with AGS‟s Canberra office at the end of my fifth
year at university. Having just completed a year studying honours in computer
science I was keen to get some experience that related to my Law degree. I chose
to apply to AGS because I though it would provide a very different opportunity to
those offered by the private law firms and I wasn‟t disappointed.

During the ten weeks I spent at AGS I was rotated through two of the three legal
sections in the office. The first place I worked was with a team specialising in work in
the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, as part the Litigation Group. In my five weeks
with that team I was able to get an overview of the litigation process. I had the
chance to summarise material that had been summonsed from doctors and I was
also able to draft some advice to a client agency on what certain doctors‟ reports
meant to the case in question. I attended counsel‟s briefing of a witness and even
went to the AAT, although disappointingly the matter was adjourned. All of this
provided me with a fantastic insight into the sort of work that is involved in the
litigation process.

The second half of my clerkship was spent in the Commercial Group. Whilst there I
worked on a number of different tasks, including looking at tender guidelines for
compliance with the new Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines, writing a
summary of the relationship between administrative law and government contracting
and drafting Confidential Information clauses for clients to use in their contracts.

However, probably the most exciting work I did was on two international agreements
for two separate Commonwealth Departments. In both cases I was examining the
wording of the proposed agreements to ensure that Australia was not disadvantaged
and proposing changes if they were required. It was really quite thrilling to be even
just a small part of negotiations that were taking place at the international level and
something I would not have had the opportunity to do at a private firm.

Overall I found my ten weeks at AGS to be most enjoyable. Everyone was really
friendly and my supervisors were always happy to answer any questions that I had. I
learnt a lot about the way the law works in practice and developed my research and
writing skills by applying them to real-life legal tasks. Based on the time I spent at
AGS I would highly recommend applying for a Summer Clerk or Graduate position.

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