Grace Mickle is an investigator for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and is about to move to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) as an enforcement lawyer. It is an intellectually challenging role, demanding rigorous investigative ability and a thorough understanding of the law and its limits. However, Grace’s path to government law was far from a straight line. Insights spoke to Grace about why she loves what she does, how she found herself working in investigations and enforcement, and what advice she might have for lawyers looking to move into government law.
From sole practitioner to researcher
Upon admission as a solicitor and barrister, Grace joined a small law firm.
“It was essentially a sole practice,” explained Grace. Her work was predominantly in commercial litigation and dispute resolution. “I absolutely loved the job! I particularly enjoyed working on matters involving alleged contraventions of the Australian Consumer Law and alleged breaches of directors’ duties under the Corporations Act 2001.”
After a year, she moved to an in-house role on a short-term contract, helping a Western Australian mining services company at the end of the mining boom.
“I had to hit the ground running, as there were quite a few disputes and litigations underway. It was great to gain experience in such a challenging, high-pressure environment.”
Grace then switched pace and became a technical legal writer for LexisNexis. Working from home, she wrote regulatory compliance registers for use by government departments and local governments in Victoria in relation to their financial and environmental legal obligations and risk management.
“While I enjoyed the introduction to regulatory compliance, I began to miss the excitement of disputes and litigation,” she admitted.
Getting into government law
When a role at the ACCC opened up, Grace applied.
“It was a regulatory enforcement position, which had the best of everything!” enthused Grace.
As an investigator for the ACCC’s Enforcement Division, Grace investigates potential contraventions of competition and consumer law.
“Investigations require that you find out all the relevant facts, assess whether those facts establish a cause of action within the ACCC’s jurisdiction and priorities, create a strategic investigation plan and manage the matter to its final resolution aligned with the ACCC’s objectives,” explained Grace. “While many ACCC investigators are lawyers and economists, they come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. We work collaboratively in teams and benefit from and build on a diverse range of strengths and expertise.”
No two investigations are the same
Fact and evidence gathering is central to the role. Some involve voluntary enquiry or search engines, while others occur through the use of the ACCC’s compulsion powers.
“The role involves presenting recommendations to Commissioners and seeking their input and direction at all key turning points of the case,” Grace explained. “Some cases take years, and others are resolved in a matter of months – no two investigations are the same. We pursue a variety of outcomes including litigation, infringement notices, court-enforceable undertakings and administrative resolutions.”
Her day to day work can be quite varied, and regularly requires engagement with different traders, complainants and other stakeholders.
“A typical day can also involve reviewing and providing input on relevant court documents and liaising with external lawyers,” said Grace. “I always have a mix of legal and case management tasks. Forward planning and project management are definitely critical, but each day is different. This morning I lodged an undertaking to the public register and tomorrow morning I’ll be working on appeal submissions.”
“Now, after three fantastic years as an investigator at the ACCC, working on a variety of complex investigations and litigations, I’m about to make my next move over to ASIC as an Enforcement Lawyer. I’m going to miss the ACCC, but I can’t wait to see what the next adventure will bring!”
Halting harmful conduct is rewarding
Grace derives a real sense of purpose from her work.
“I love being a part of an amazing team of people, and working collaboratively towards shared objectives that easily align with my values,” said Grace. “Striving to stop and deter harmful conduct brings a sense of real pride and joy in outcomes achieved.”
Considering a problem from all angles is a process she thoroughly enjoys and adduces key facts to determine what solution might be optimal in each circumstance.
“While bound by some external parameters, enforcement work is highly strategic and creative,” observed Grace. “ACCC investigations involve industry research and engagement to understand the factors affecting different markets, which is always interesting. There’s a constant interplay between law and economics, as well as other areas such as marketing, management, media and public policy.”
While Grace took the scenic route to government law, she has never looked back.
“One of the best decisions I ever made was to work for an independent government agency!” said Grace. “I would highly recommend the public service if you’re passionate about making a difference and particularly if, at the end of the day, you care more about that than maximising your salary.”
However, she cautions that government law is not for everyone.
“If you have trouble seeing the big picture, find it hard to work in a team, or are easily frustrated by internal processes and procedures, it may not suit you,” said Grace, noting that government can be quite hierarchical.
“It helps to be able to thrive and adapt to a changing environment. The ACCC is not afraid to take on a level of risk where appropriate or innovate the way we work. A level of constant development is necessary to build capability in any government organisation.”
Since the public service seeks to reflect the interests of a diverse public, it’s important to appreciate different perspectives and support diversity and inclusion.
“As a government lawyer, you’ll need to treat everyone with respect and be genuinely mindful of their wellbeing,” said Grace.
Adopt a learning mindset
Grace urged graduate lawyers to look beyond the ‘big name’ law firms or government organisations and consider the full breadth of their career options.
“Do your research,” encouraged Grace. “Focus on building the experience you need and less about landing your ultimate dream job straight away. If you don't have any clear goals yet, focus on building experience. Get out of your comfort zone and really challenge yourself. Don't underestimate smaller firms, barrister's chambers, community legal clinics and in-house legal work. If you’re determined, you will eventually find what you want.”
For Grace, this meant undertaking volunteer work in the final years of her law degree and persisting through rejections. She landed her first role as a solicitor from a firm she had door-knocked years ago, looking for a clerkship.
“I introduced myself as a local law student seeking experience and convinced them to interview me,” said Grace. “I wanted to try out different areas of law, so I obtained a second clerkship in a similarly desperate fashion, and then two more through normal, formal application processes before graduating.”
For lawyers worried about work or switching to a new area of law, Grace encourages tenacity.
“You need experience to get experience, so you have to get over any fear of rejection,” advised Grace. “Go out and create the opportunities you want.”
Set big, challenging goals for yourself
“Don’t catastrophise your future prospects or blame the economy because this will just give you an excuse not to bother trying,” said Grace. Indeed, she has worked at two companies which have subsequently been wound up.
“I would do it all again because I learned so much and benefited from the experience!” said Grace. “A bit of risk and uncertainty is not going to kill you. In fact, it is necessary for growth. Look out for your peers who may need support and encouragement at this time, but don’t let other people’s negativity kill your drive. Most importantly, take it easy on yourself. Focus on taking one step at a time to keep learning and developing your skills.”
She also counsels caution when it comes to taking advice.
“Before you take anyone’s advice, look at them and ask yourself whether you would like to have their life,” said Grace. “If the answer is no, it’s probably best to smile politely and ignore most of it!”
Grace is an advocate of chasing big goals, even if the route to achieving them proves challenging.
“I believe that if your goals aren’t hard or far, they’re probably just not very big,” observed Grace. “If life is about the journey, as everyone says it is, then you don’t want the smooth and linear path straight down the highway. You want the bumpier, scenic route that makes for a more challenging and rewarding one in the end!”