Is it safe to let lawyers loose on developing and delivering government strategy? After practising at the Bar for six years, I had joined the Government Legal Service in 2001 in search of public and human rights law, and enjoyed five years as an advisory lawyer in the Home Office, advising on asylum and immigration, prisons and criminal sentencing. When an interesting policy job came up outside the Legal Adviser’s Branch in 2006, I was keen to see whether my legal skills and training would translate, but also to find out how Government really developed and implemented policy. Next thing I knew I was starting a secondment to the Home Office Unit, responsible for the strategy on organised crime, with specific responsibility for developing measures to respond to human trafficking and smuggling.

Transferring skills

In today’s Civil Service, there is much talk about “professional skills for government”—financial, project and people management tools, alongside analytical skills and strategic thinking. As a lawyer, some skills are second nature, such as the analysis of different types of evidence, including financial tools, to assess the costs and benefits of a policy. Strategic thinking, and “softer” skills of political handling and “stakeholder” management, are not so commonly used.

As an advisory lawyer, for example, I rarely got involved in media work or direct discussions with non-governmental bodies or external stakeholders. In my policy role, I had to know what was going on in the wider world, to listen, and to understand the particular agendas of different organisations which might impact on the policy area.

Making policy: challenges

At times, the political aspects could conflict with my task-orientated legal brain. I was sometimes frustrated, for example, by the need constantly to tell people what we were doing and what progress we were making, rather than actually getting on with the work—such was the media appetite for information on human trafficking. I realised, though, that the perception of what you are doing can positively impact on progress.

Another elusive skill is “stakeholder management”. On taking up the role, I was initially shocked at the lack of “direct levers” at a policy maker’s disposal. How do you persuade and influence other Government departments, law enforcement agencies and colleagues in the not-for-profit sector to pull in the same direction, or deliver policy in the way you want? To some extent this is easier with a policy area such as human trafficking where the “vision”—to arrest and disrupt the trafficking gangs and rescue and protect the victims—is common.

The whole picture

Advisory lawyers seldom see a process from beginning to end. Rather than just advising on particular legal questions or dealing with a judicial review when something has gone wrong, it was satisfying for once to see the whole picture; in particular, to contribute to decisions on what should be in the UK action plan on human trafficking. The freedom from wig and gown, to be able to ask the question “what should the overall strategy be?”, was both exhilarating and scary.

Lessons learnt

Will the experience be useful as I return to the Home Office as an advisory lawyer? I don’t see how it can fail to be; I will be more empathetic to my policy clients, which in turn will lead to more informed advice. I will have a better understanding of what they need, and the road they have travelled in developing policy. One truth that quickly hit home was that the legal aspects are sometimes a small part of the picture. Pomposity is something that is still alive and well in the law, and it is easy to get a disproportionate view of the importance of the role that lawyers play. As a government lawyer, I was sometimes frustrated by the urgency of advice requests. As a policy official, I was always under pressure to give an immediate media response and did not have the luxury of giving extra time to those who needed to input into the public statement.

Operational impact

The chance to work alongside operational colleagues and see how policy is put into practice was also a valuable experience. I was part of the Gold Strategic Command Group for the national police operations known as “Pentameter 1 and 2”, which sought proactively to rescue victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, as well as disrupting and arresting the organised criminal groups behind the trade in human beings for profit. Pentameter 2, which ended in summer 2008, rescued 167 victims from 833 premises, the vast majority of which were residential premises and not massage parlours, indicating the covert nature of the crime. I was involved in delivering regional briefings on the operation, putting together toolkits for front line staff, reviewing the interim operational and intelligence results and designing a marketing and media strategy.

For all the laudable strategic objectives of the operation, success on the ground often comes down to getting the detailed implementation right—can front line officers easily use the manual you have provided? Are the forms they need to complete straightforward?

International challenges

Working internationally brings a new set of obstacles. Language, cultural and administrative differences can challenge even the clearest of mandates. Whilst much of my experience working with overseas colleagues and organisations was very positive, I witnessed at first hand the difficulties that can manifest themselves when trying to work across borders. For example, I had the opportunity to develop a project on trafficking initiated under the auspices of the G6, but the differences in domestic structures meant that getting clear agreement could be complex and time consuming.

Privilege of public service

Perhaps the most important point I will take from the experience is the reminder about the nature of public service. When I was at the Bar, I was confronted on a daily basis with clients whose life would be changed by the legal process of which I was part. When I joined the Government Legal Service, I became more isolated from the people ultimately affected by the policies I helped to implement. This secondment has reminded me of what a privilege it is to work in public service and how fulfilling it can be to strive with passion and professionalism for something in which you believe and which can make a difference.

Emma Hopkins is a Home Office/GLS advisory lawyer. She was awarded the 2008 Whitehall & Westminster World Civil Service Award for Leadership and the overall Cabinet Secretary’s “winner of winners” award for her work on combating human trafficking.