Barrister carves out a GLS career
Ming Kong was called to the Bar in 1997, where she practiced as a criminal defence lawyer before joining the Government Legal Service (GLS) in 2000. Her first GLS posting was as a prosecutor and human rights co-ordinator at the former Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Prosecutions. Since then she has worked at the Attorney General’s Office and is currently in an advisory role at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). She is very enthusiastic about the work and opportunities available within the GLS and hasn’t looked back since her move.
mtl: Hi Ming, please can you tell us about your working life pre-GLS?
Ming: I studied law at university and initially wasn’t sure whether to become a barrister or solicitor, so I did many mini-pupillages and summer placements. In the end, for reasons of financial security, I accepted a training contract but a third of the way into the LPC, it fell through. I decided to continue with the LPC anyway and somewhat miraculously, I was offered a criminal defence pupillage at 95 Chancery Lane (now 1 Inner Temple Lane). I did the BVC after the LPC and was called to the Bar in 1997.
I thoroughly enjoyed my pupillage as it was great being on my feet in court and meeting clients (even though some of them were unpalatable at times). I learnt a lot about advocacy, client care and networking. After a year, I moved to Francis Taylor Building where I squatted for 2 years. Then the millennium year came and I had to decide whether to stay on at the Bar in the long run, or move on at that point. I decided to apply for other jobs and seriously contemplated joining the Army Legal Service! However I accepted a prosecution role at the former DTI as I thought it would be interesting to switch from criminal defence to the other side...
mtl: So tell us about your roles so far at the GLS?
Ming: I prosecuted white-collar crime for 2 ½ years. At the time, the Human Rights Act had come into force and Government litigators and prosecutors encountered many novel challenges which required us to formulate lines to take in order to ensure consistency in our arguments. I was the human rights co-ordinator for the department, which involved a lot of inter-Whitehall working and collaboration.
This exposure to Whitehall stood me in good stead when I was seconded to the Attorney General’s office. I worked in a team of 12 lawyers, stayed for 3 ½ years and it was absolutely brilliant. I had an almost vertical learning curve and learnt so many new skills including speech writing, press handling and policy advice. The hours were long and the work was difficult, but the nature and quality of the work compensated for that – it was so fascinating and intellectually challenging. It was also exciting to see that what I had been working on featured in the newspapers, often the next day. I was exposed to the machinery behind the headlines and the interface between law and politics. It was the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my GLS career so far.
After my secondment I moved back to what is now BERR. I decided not to do any more criminal law and instead to move into advisory work. I now advise on State aid and business relations, including some personal injury work. The State aid work is very different from what I started out with. I deal with issues such as the post office, BT and Northern Rock. It is intellectually rewarding to play a crucial part in Government business. I travel regularly to the European Commission in Brussels, have provided training to the Romanian judiciary on State aid and am off to a course in Maastricht tomorrow for three days.
mtl: How would you describe the type of work available at the GLS?
Ming: It is varied, challenging and diverse. I cannot think of any other employer that offers prosecution, advisory, regulatory and legislative work, and allows you to move across its full spectrum. Within each area, there are different types of work - you’ll never get bored as a GLS lawyer. You are pretty much in control of your career development - you are encouraged to discuss your plans with your line manager. The whole ethos is based on transferability as ultimately the GLS want adaptable people who can handle any Government legal problem. You are encouraged to strengthen and develop your core legal skills to enable you to transfer from one area of the law to the other - you can be a generalist rather than a specialist, if you choose to manage your career that way. Movement between GLS departments is encouraged.
You can refer to the GLS website for more information about what the different departments do, but very basically “TSol” (the Treasury Solicitor’s Department) handles the Government’s litigation, although some departments like BERR and DEFRA do their own prosecutions. Generally the work is split between prosecution/litigation on one side and advisory on the other. Within advisory, there is a whole raft of different work depending on the department, for example, legislative work, European law, commercial, employment, contracts, procurement, energy, competition and consumer protection, to name a few.
Like other GLS lawyers, I have drafted statutory instruments, but for Bill work we instruct Parliamentary Counsel. We have to advise on issues like human rights, retrospectivity, whether the policy works in practice and in law and potential loop-holes, so that we become effective ‘middlemen’ between the policy advisers and Parliamentary Counsel. .
mtl: Who do you think does well as a GLS lawyer and how can someone find out more about it?
Ming: If you are adaptable, able to work in a team as well as on your own, able to think quickly on your feet and provide practical advice, then you would be suited to working here. If you are interested in the law behind what you read in the newspapers, ifworking in the public interest appeals and you want to be in a fast moving area of law, then the GLS would be a good option for you.
You should brush up on constitutional, public and administrative, freedom of information and human rights law before attending an interview. If you know someone in the GLS then talk to them, or have a look at the website (link below). Entry levels depend on your experience and again, you should refer to the website to see the sort of roles that are available. The competition and interviews are tough and involve a written test and panel interview. Be well prepared, stay calm, and try and enjoy the experience - you should be fine. The GLS likes happy people with a “can do” attitude.
mtl: How did you find the transition to the GLS and how would you describe the environment?
Ming: My transition from the self-employed Bar was relatively seamless and I adapted very well (particularly as it was very nice to receive a salary and paid leave!) I retained some remnants of working at the Bar, such as wanting to test everything that I read as well as wanting to do everything myself!
When I first arrived, there was a small, but nice, culture shock. I had much more support and training. They gave me time to settle in and to understand the department. The training provided by the GLS, internally at BERR and the National School of Government is fantastic and is tailor made for GLS lawyers. The hours are better than the City and the Bar and you aren’t expected to work long hours unless the work requires it.
Some lawyers moving to the GLS may find it difficult to deal with Government processes. For example, draft consultation papers need to be seen by lawyers, financial advisers, policy officials, Ministers and interested parties – all of which takes time. We have to get things right and this involves waiting, stopping and starting, which can be frustrating but is also how Government works.
The GLS working environment is increasingly becoming open-plan. At BERR, there is a system of open plan hot-desking (with quiet and meeting rooms available). There is a clear desk policy which actually works once you’ve got used to it and we store all our work in cabinets overnight. We have flexible working too. The GLS is very sociable and friendly and everyone knows of everyone. There are various networks within it, including a social network that organises e.g. picnics in the park and chocolate tasting; a softball team; an award winning Pro Bono network; and a trainee network, among others.
mtl: What about career progression at the GLS?
Ming: I have a line manager who is a senior civil servant and leads a team of 4 (though other teams can be much bigger). Within the team, there are lawyers of grades 6 and 7 (grade 6 is roughly senior associate equivalent; grade 7 is roughly associate equivalent with at least 2-3 years PQE) and sometimes a trainee or legal officer (0-2 years PQE). Generally, work isn’t hierarchical - you could have a grade 7 doing the same work as a grade 6 lawyer. If the work falls within your remit, then you do the work. This means that junior lawyers get challenging work from the outset, working with another experienced lawyer and under the supervision of his/her line manager. There is quite often a lot of competition to get from grade 7 to grade 6.
Within the senior civil service itself, there are 4 further levels. Level 1 is roughly partner equivalent; level 2 is roughly senior partner equivalent; level 3 is Director General and departmental head of legal; and at the top of the apex is the Treasury Solicitor who is the Head of Profession for lawyers across the GLS and who is also a civil service Permanent Secretary and sits on the Civil Service Management Board.
It is possible to have a lengthy career at the GLS but naturally some people leave. They may go back to the Bar or to the City, particularly if they have never had private sector experience, though it tends to be the younger lawyers who do that. Some also go into industry. Generally if people have had enough, they move on to another area of law or a different department.
mtl: Dare we ask about pay and benefits?
Ming: I think it’s fair to say that we are not doing the job for money, but instead for the interesting work. The pay is fine (though there are no bonuses as seen in the City). We get a defined benefit pension and annual leave of up to 30 days plus 2 ½ privilege days and public holidays. I work compressed hours, which means that I do 15 days in 14, so in every three weeks I get a day off. The IT systems are set up so that you are able to work flexibly. If working at home, you can have access to your work computer, legal resources, electronic files and telephone calls – it is as though you are working in the office! Part-time arrangements are available, as is job-sharing.
mtl: Many thanks for talking to us about the GLS.
Law, University of London
LPC, College of Law, Guildford
BVC, Inns of Court School of Law
Pupillage, 1 Inner Temple Lane (formerly, 95 Chancery Lane)
Criminal defence, Francis Taylor Building
GLS (DTI Prosecutions, Attorney General’s office and BERR)