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VGS: Without fear or favour

VGS: Without fear or favour

By Karin Derkley

COVID-19 Interviews 

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Victorian Government Solicitor Matthew Hocking’s leadership skills were tested as he came into the role with an onslaught of COVID-19 related work.

Last year, in the early days of the pandemic, the-then acting Victorian Government Solicitor Matthew Hocking went into full disaster preparation mode. “I was doing the break-even numbers and thinking . . . how do we remain sustainable?”

The VGSO operates essentially as a standalone law firm, albeit one that acts only on behalf of the government. “We compete with the private sector for work, we bill our time, and we have to be financially sustainable,” Mr Hocking says. “We don’t receive financial appropriation from government. We have to stand alone as our own profit and loss unit, so we have to deliver value, but create our own value at the same time.”

That meant, as with any law firm, that the office was exposed to a potential COVID-19-related downturn in business. 

In the event, Mr Hocking’s fears were misplaced. Instead of work drying up, the VGSO faced quite the opposite problem. “We were inundated,” he says. “We became the go-to law firm because we had that closeness and deep understanding of what government needs were. So, very quickly, that break-even calculation I was doing flipped to a concern about the wellbeing of our people.” 

Like everyone else, the VGSO’s around 280 staff were sent home to work, juggling a workload accelerated by the huge amount of government legislation required to bring in public health measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. “I started to worry, because with all of our staff working remotely, my concern very quickly turned to the fact that there’s no off switch to some of this work at times and to how we could manage the wellbeing of staff during that period.”

Many staff were at the pointy end of being involved in COVID-19 related litigation, advising on legislation or public health directions. “And that was a pretty heavy load, particularly in some of the darker months,” Mr Hocking says. “So it was important for us to recognise that.” 

Staff at VGSO are not unfamiliar with sensitive, contested and even traumatic issues. The legal service deals with subject matter such as child abuse, sexual crimes, historic abuse-related matters, claims from former wards of state. “We’ve long had various training programs around vicarious trauma, mindfulness and emotional resilience. So we already had systems in place to deal with some of those aspects, and that lent itself very well with how we responded to the pandemic,” he says.

Acknowledging the likely impact of the onslaught of COVID-19 related work, the VGSO decided to tackle it head on, holding a series of resilience-based seminars sessions. “We also appointed an organisational wellbeing manager who is a registered psychologist to take ownership of these programs and the changing needs of the organisation.”

He says the organisation is still processing some elements of last year, and the challenges it brought. “That was quite the whirlwind. But the good thing we did was keep everyone connected.”

Mr Hocking took over as Acting Victorian Government Solicitor in December 2019 when the previous Victorian Government Solicitor Marlo Baragwanath left to head up IBAC. It seemed a fitting segue from a career that has moved from private practice into legal and non-legal roles in the financial services industry and then into the public sector. He was appointed to the Victorian Government Solicitor role permanently in November last year.

“I’ve always enjoyed managing business units, and I’ve always been comfortable with leadership positions. But none of us expected we would roll into 2020 and hit a pandemic year. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was ready for that, but from a leadership perspective it has been a fantastic opportunity.”

From a beginning at Myrtleford plaintiff law firm Nevin Lenne Gross, Mr Hocking says his career journey has been a process of deepening his business and management skills, alongside his skills as a lawyer. “Over the years I’ve always been curious about what other skills I could acquire that would round me out as a better lawyer,” he says.

From Myrtleford he moved to city firms, first HWL Ebsworth and then DLA Piper, and then took the leap across to corporate law as in-house counsel at ANZ. An MBA at Melbourne Business School was a launching pad to head up the retail overdrafts business unit at the bank – his first experience of leading a team and developing business management skills, including risk assessment and data analytics. 

An opportunity to lead the resolution branch at the Geelong-based TAC office coincided with a decision to relocate to the Bellarine Peninsula to start a family. At TAC he moved through two more branches over the next nine years, gaining experience in large scale people management, but also an appreciation of the public service value of the agency. 

“When I first moved to the TAC I didn’t appreciate the difference between the private and public sector whereas now I can really understand that there are so many other aspects like community expectations and public value that need to be taken into account alongside the financial and legal considerations.”

Moving to the VGSO took him to the next level of public service. Initially heading up the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Branch, he is now responsible for legal teams across a wide range of law, including civil claims, commercial disputes, constitutional law, emergency services, disciplinary proceedings, public sector project delivery and implementation, and coronial investigation. 

He would like to see government law and the work VGSO does having a better level of visibility. “We’re involved in some of the most high-profile contemporary leading-edge matters – whether it be litigation or advice – and that work is all happening in the moment,” he says. “Our lawyers are some of the leading experts in the areas of public law and government law.” 

Even for junior staff, there’s a strong awareness that they are working on issues of huge significance to the state. “When I go around and ask them to tell me what they’re working on at the moment, I always wish I recorded it because it is the most fascinating piece of advertising for the VGSO as to why you’d want to come and work here. The work is just so varied, it’s so technical and so academic. And they’re involved in things that years later they’ll be able to say, I was involved in that.”

The nature of government law is that the environment in which it operates is ever-changing, he notes. “Community expectations change, laws change, and areas of focus for governments change in line with that. So, you need to remain agile and bring new ways of thinking to respond to that.

“You’re at the front line of being involved with what government needs and what really positive changes can be brought about within the community. That has its pluses when it involves positive changes, while on more contentious changes it really tests you as a lawyer to have a ‘without fear or favour’ approach to the work that you do.”

What has also struck him over his time at VGSO is its unique insight across such a wide range of areas of law. “Often one of our clients will tell me about their issues and challenges and I’m able to say I’ve heard this before, and I can provide a level of insight that takes what we do beyond the level of just a transactional relationship. That is what gives the VGSO a competitive advantage in being able to join the dots for whole of government.”

Heightening the profile of government lawyers and the unique perspective they bring to the law is an aim of the VGSO in partnership with the LIV, and Mr Hocking is looking forward to future joint ventures in that regard. He said the LIV’s support of public sector lawyers has been “really important”, particularly in the past year. 

“The LIV understands the issues of particular significance to our practice and the importance of providing tailored opportunities to support the professional development of those who practice in this area. The annual LIV Government Lawyers Conference [18 June 2021] is a highlight of the CPD year for our solicitors.”

While VGSO staff are now returning to the office – “that tangibility of having the office presence and that connection to colleagues is really important”, he says – the VGSO is happy to retain the remote working capability that was forced on them by the lockdown. 

“A lot of our staff are working parents and the ability for them to better combine family life and working life has been a huge positive,” he says. “What we’re also recognising is that flexibility has a different meaning for different people. What last year has taught us is that you don’t always have to take traditional views around when you can get the work done and where you can get it done.”

He is a good role model in that regard, sharing day care and school drop offs and pick ups with his wife, also a lawyer and manager, in between commutes from Geelong to the city office. “So I’ll be in (to the office) later in the morning and out a bit earlier in the day. Obviously I’ll work on the train on the way home and then do whatever else is needed when I get home, so that combination works for me.” 

The logistical challenge presented by his young family also means his passion for golf has to take second priority. With its combination of strategy and number analytics, golf is the one thing that allows him to remove himself from the world and focus on the game. The negative on golf, though, is that it takes so long to play, "so it’s not something I get to do as much as I’d like to these days". ■


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