‘After your predecessor, Sir Jonathan Jones QC, publicly resigned last year in circumstances which leading lawyers have claimed raise serious questions about the UK’s commitment to the rule of law, you are bound to be asked: what made you want his job?’

Susanna McGibbon, Treasury Solicitor and head of the Government Legal Department (GLD) since March of this year, responds: ‘Jonathan’s resignation was personal and particular to the circumstances. He has been pretty public about his reasons and I respect his view. Of course, these things are always more complex than they appear.

‘What’s important to me is that it remains vital that the government gets high quality impartial legal advice and that government lawyers have strong and supportive leadership. GLD’s purpose – mission statement if you like – is ‘we help the government govern well, within the rule of law’. That means advising and supporting the government of the day as part of that delicate constitutional balance of parliament, the elected government and the courts – in the service of our fellow citizens.

‘In my career I have sometimes had to point out that a course of action would be problematic, leading occasionally to heated and tense discussions, but not to a stand-off with ministers.’ Why not? ‘Largely by maintaining good relationships; also it’s rare to be unable to find an alternative means of achieving the desired result; and in my experience the people whom I am advising are also ultimately committed to the rule of law. I enjoy working with ministers who are clear about what they want to achieve and open-minded about how they achieve it. We all like to be listened to! The nicest thing a minister has said to me? When introducing myself to Eric Pickles at the then communities and local government department, I said, “I’m your legal adviser.” He replied, “Cool!”’

The new Treasury Solicitor heads a 2,500-strong department that advises and litigates for nearly all of central government. As Permanent Secretary she shares in the councils at the top of the civil service.

Susanna’s personal legal area of influence lies mainly with No 10 and the Cabinet Secretary and builds on her earlier experience of advising the Cabinet Office. If the PM has a legal problem, she will be on the case.

‘I love leading an organisation but I am still at core a lawyer and ensure I keep abreast of legal developments. A wonderful mix of issues comes at me daily: an urgent meeting; a call from the Cabinet Office; one of my senior lawyers telling me of a problem; an unwelcome court result. I enjoy my relationship with the Law Officers: it’s based on mutual trust and respect and it enables me to galvanise the GLD to support them in their role as chief legal officers of the Crown. The ‘trust’ element comes from my demonstrating we are part of the same team, going in the same direction, anticipating issues of mutual interest, showing understanding of what government is trying to do.

‘GLD has a fantastic leadership cadre. The effort we have put into it over the years has brought us through the recent challenges in good shape. I give a massive shout-out to the fabulous work by our people on the pandemic, the EU transition and the government’s manifesto commitments from the 2019 general election, working from home, against tight deadlines, often juggling the job with home-schooling. It’s a testament to the individuals and their superb leadership. We have got better at having caring conversations, at recognising the importance of wellbeing, the unique nature of people’s circumstances. I, too, benefit from the support of colleagues. I get a lot of my resilience from friends and family. I know how important it is to have a supportive environment. The experiences of last year have strengthened teams through a shared sense of commitment – but I don’t underestimate the challenge it has been. And we always seem to be able to find a bit of humour to lighten things. I’m blessed with lovely colleagues who give me – and each other – appreciative feedback on how we are performing. It’s important this feedback comes from the right place. It’s the opposite of point-scoring.’

As more of life returns after the pandemic, she is looking forward to ‘more socialising; to returning to the theatre; to concerts at the Wigmore Hall, followed by a nice lunch; to long bike rides, and to climbing mountains again’. She has always cycled into the office, at first on a racing bike but now on ‘more of a City bike’. A choral singer from school and university, at one stage she ran the Islington Choral Society.

Raised in Bolton and still retaining her accent – at least for Southern ears – Susanna was the first lawyer in her family and the first to go to university too. ‘My father was a surveyor in the valuation office and my mother a book keeper in a factory until I and my younger brother came along. My Mum was thrilled when I got this job – though I gather the family did a lot of googling to find out what the job actually was!’

After school it was law at Sheffield University. ‘I saw law as a combination of language and history – subjects which I liked – with a bit of argument thrown in and the opportunity to do something worthwhile – sounds naïve now – but defending the poor and oppressed, Rumpole-like. At Sheffield I became interested in the relationship between the individual and the State. I liked the conceptual nature of public law. I really enjoyed jurisprudence, though some thought it was way too theoretical. But at the time I didn’t think public law could lead to a career.’

The Bar? ‘I was attracted by the advocacy, the argument, the self-employed part, the freedom. I did pupillage, plus 18 months squatting, hoping for a tenancy. I was in court every day, with a successful practice for someone of my call, but I was told there wasn’t enough work. Looking back, I know I wasn’t as good then at showing my strengths, a point I address when mentoring others; and perhaps social or educational background was more of an issue in those days.

‘After my third failure to get a tenancy I was devastated. I resolved to get “a proper job” and applied for everything for which I was vaguely qualified. One of those was for the Foreign Office – although I wasn’t sure what it would involve. There was a long and thorough recruitment process; I trusted it and went along with it. “If they offer me the job after all this,” I thought, “it means they want me and I am likely to be happy there.” I quickly realised that I had found my niche in government law, enjoyed being part of a team and I had five happy years there.’

Susanna was then approached to join what became GLD and began a ‘fascinating career’ advising the Defence Ministry, Education, Cabinet Office, Business, and Communities and Local Government, then heading government litigation before becoming one of the three top deputies to the Treasury Solicitor, the post from which she stepped up into her current one.

‘I am thrilled to be following in [Dame] Juliet Wheldon QC’s footsteps as the second-ever woman Treasury Solicitor. I do see myself as a role model for other women. I am proud of GLD’s record on gender diversity; nearly two-thirds of our leaders are women. I look forward to a time when gender doesn’t need to be mentioned.’

Did she always aspire to leadership positions? ‘Not at first, but I started to see things that needed fixing and wanted to help fix them. This all came from my wanting to make any team I was in work more effectively.’

She now wants GLD to be seen as ‘an outstanding legal organisation and a brilliant place to work’. She will accelerate progress on ‘those things that make us better as a legal organisation, being even more responsive to our ministerial clients at the same time as being a rewarding, fascinating and modern place to work; to become a truly national organisation’ – at present just over 5% of the jobs are located outside London – ‘with an infrastructure that enables our people to work wherever they are, and with more modern management and leadership that learns how to operate on a more dispersed basis, giving people more choice on how and where they work, supported by the best tools and leading to a more rewarding working environment. This must be allied to a workforce that more accurately reflects the society we serve as civil servants, a more modern, diverse, inclusive culture, where everyone is welcome, way beyond the protected characteristics, including diversity of thought, background, skills and aspirations. What’s good for our people is also good for business. It’s a virtuous circle. People feel welcome in an inclusive culture and will be genuinely more productive.’

As someone who has selected counsel for the AG’s panels and instructed counsel in many of the top national cases, what does she see as good advocacy? ‘Putting forward your arguments persuasively, making the most of your best points, telling the judges what they need to know to be convinced of your case, with focus and brevity. I’ve seen many examples of this – and some of the opposite, what I’d call ‘kitchen sink’ advocacy. It’s important to me that the government gives careful feedback to counsel and instructs the best advocates at the Bar.’

Finally, as Bencher at Lincoln’s Inn and member of its committees on scholarships and social mobility, what is Susanna’s advice to those starting out?

‘I say to GLD’s trainees: Embrace every opportunity to learn; you are learning by doing real work for real policy colleagues, it’s a responsibility and a privilege. There are no duff jobs, so keep an open mind about what you want to do next. As well as the legal knowledge, think of the wider skills you are acquiring – problem solving, people skills and commercial awareness – and will bring to future jobs. Remain curious.’