The history of human development is marked by the production of significant pieces of public law, from the Athenian constitution to the American Bill of Rights. Broadly speaking, public and administrative laws defines the relationship between individuals and the state. It also outlines the circumstances in which individuals are entitled to challenge the state (such as when, for example, they can demonstrate that an existing law violates their constitutional rights).
This area of the law is less concerned with ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ than it is with more fundamental questions of justice. Accordingly, a career in public law, though it may lack much courtroom drama, will give thoughtful graduates an opportunity to interrogate and apply the most foundational rules of our legal system.
Public law applies to a range of public functions, which means that it can offer you insights into various areas of life that you might otherwise never experience. For example, you could find yourself working with prisons, the police service, the public housing department, or the military.
There is no ‘typical case’ in public law, but most of the cases you work on will be engaging and consequential. This is especially true if you work on a case that’s tried in the High Court or before a federal tribunal. Graduates who choose to focus on public law can expect to tackle some of the biggest legal issues of today, such as the individual’s right to privacy, the management of immigration, and the increasingly complex relationship between Australia’s federal laws and its international obligations.
Many government agencies advertise graduate programs with detailed information about the type of work you can expect to complete. For example, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet provides graduates with a ‘structured, on-the-job development’ program that prepares them for a successful public service career. The best way to learn what your experience will be is to look up a particular graduate program. Public employers are generally obliged to disclose as much information as possible, including salary packages, target outcomes and any relevant fringe benefits.
While public law is certainly important, it tends to offer less remuneration than careers in the private sector. Public law experts do travel for work from time to time, but it would be unusual for them to be sent to a different federal jurisdiction. They’re more likely to travel domestically, especially when required to present cases in the nation’s capital.
The public service has a reputation for providing a high degree of job stability, and this is true for public lawyers as well. Having said that, the public law sector is affected by judicial reforms, which may be pushed through during a recession to maximise efficiency and save on costs.