NSW Treasury GC: Lawyers are officers of the court first and foremost

Sometimes, lawyers have to be willing to give unpopular advice, Charles Cho says

NSW Treasury GC: Lawyers are officers of the court first and foremost
Charles Cho

Charles Cho initially wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a businessman, but pursuing a Commerce/Law degree awakened him to the appeal of the law.

Since making the call to follow his passion over 20 years ago, Cho has been a pioneer and a decorated in-house lawyer. Over his six-year tenure with the NSW Treasury, he has helped to grow the department’s in-house legal team to 18 staff – a team that recently took home the Clayton Utz Australian In-house Team of the Year award at this year’s Australasian Law Awards. Cho has also been recognised as an In-house Leader by Australasian Lawyer for several years.

In this June interview, Cho discusses why lawyers have to be willing to give unpopular advice in line with their duties to the court, the growing focus on ESG, and how one person in government can be a force for good.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I didn’t start wanting to be a lawyer. I wanted to go into business like my father and took up Commerce/Law at UNSW, but I found that I liked my law studies much more than my commerce studies. I then summer clerked at Mallesons Stephen Jaques (as it was then) and here I am still in the legal profession 24 years later.

My favourite part of being an in-house government lawyer is that the work you do has enormous public impact. Recently, I worked on a multi-billion-dollar project targeted at addressing current energy issues impacting the state.

What is going on at the organisation? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

NSW Treasury plays an important stewardship role in anchoring the state’s economic and fiscal performance and emergency response. During the two years marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters, our organisation responded to crises with agility and urgency to support communities and citizens in need. Our team advised on emergency COVID-19 related legislative changes and procurements, including the successful hotel quarantine framework and the retail leasing moratorium.

Now, NSW Treasury is continuing to focus on delivering economic and fiscal outcomes, including the 2022-23 State Budget that delivers the government’s policies. Two areas of particular focus are property tax reform and policies to lift women’s participation in the economy.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the organisation, if any, are you most excited about?

We are currently looking at utilising workflow automation capabilities to streamline processes and reduce manual work – our goal is improving operational excellence. Being in government, there are many governance-related processes that involve many steps and stakeholders, which can become a real task to manage without such provisions.

Being able to leverage user-end configurable platforms to incorporate rules-based processes and functions into our day-to-day tasks, means we can get the same jobs done with ease and consistency, whilst freeing up our team members to upskill and/or to work on more high-value tasks.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

Winning the Australian In-House Team of the Year award [at the 2022 Australasian Law Awards] was one of the proudest moments in my career.

The biggest lesson was what we learnt as we managed the transformation from just one lawyer six years ago (me) with no precedents, and no panel firms and no legal systems to a team of 18 staff, a panel of law firms as our key partners and utilising a cloud-based matter management system amongst others. It is how to best to deploy your resources when faced with the new and the urgent and the BAU.

What should the profession focus more on?

Environmental, social and corporate governance is a key focus for many industries; there is increasing demand for lawyers, particularly in-house, to help organisations build sound governance frameworks and practices as part of this. In this climate, lawyers will need to provide critical support to their clients as they re-evaluate their people culture, systems and processes. Integrity within the profession is a given, but our clients now more than ever need trusted partners toward integrity, not just trusted advisers. And people should be at the centre of everything we do – the profession will only thrive if the professionals do likewise.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

With all of the rapid change that the profession, and industries at large, are experiencing in their work practices and operations in light of COVID-19, a key challenge for lawyers is to bring organisations back to their guiding frameworks, laws and structures, so that risks can be taken and growth can be achieved in a measured and strategic way. Much of the time, this will involve helping to build and reinforce structures.

It is also more important now than ever for the profession to remember that while lawyers are highly integrated in the business of their clients, they are first and foremost officers of the court and have duties to the court to conduct themselves with integrity and in a way that upholds the law. Sometimes this may mean giving unpopular advice, but sound risk counsel is what organisations are looking to lawyers for.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

Going overseas to see family. For over two years, COVID has prevented my family from visiting relatives overseas and my wife’s parents have really missed seeing their grandchildren. Professionally, I am looking forward to having the team back in the office together and doing things physically together. We have a tradition of having our team Christmas party at escape rooms, and I hope we can do that again this year.

If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?

Lord William Wilberforce. He was an English politician and activist who led the campaign against abolition of slavery in England for many decades. That campaign culminated in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which passed just three days before his death. His moral conviction and courage in the face of enormous opposition is something which I really admire, and he is an example of how one person in government can be a force for good.

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