Home' Defence Magazine : Defence Magazine Issue 1 2018 Contents 34 Defence Issue 1 2018
HE Defence Legal team has been recog-
nised for its relentless hard work by being
awarded Government Team of the Year by
In a further boost to the team the Head
of Defence Legal, Mark Cunliffe, was also awarded
Government Lawyer of the Year.
The awards, held in March, recognise the perfor-
mance of Mark and his team as exemplary profes-
sionals, highlighting their legal prowess, leadership
capabilities, and personal achievements.
In Mark’s words, “to be recognised by your con-
temporary professionals and by specialists in the field
is obviously a badge of honour”.
“It is something that we should be proud about
and certainly that I am proud of,” Mark says.
Mark has been Head Defence Legal since July
2004, in what he calls “the greatest legal job in the
world within the government structure”.
In this role, he has guided his team through advis-
ing government, conducting litigation and drafting
legislation on some of the most complex and sensitive
issues of national importance.
The Defence Legal team comprises 140 perma-
nent APS staff, including legal officers and paralegals
and other enabling staff, and 127 permanent ADF
legal officers, complemented by 380 reserve legal
officers. The permanent team is located in more than
40 different sites, including commands, bases and
units across Australia, as well as deployed overseas.
The team works on areas as diverse as interna-
tional humanitarian law, major litigation and dispute
resolution, including sensitive personnel issues, com-
mercial law and law of the sea, and is a frontrunner
in emerging areas such as cyber law, space law and
autonomous weapons systems.
Defence Legal practitioners must not only be pro-
ficient in specialised areas of law, but they must have
the expertise to readily apply their skills and legal
knowledge to new scenarios and the agility to switch
between them, often operating within compressed
“Sometimes you just need to know a little bit
about everything, but sometimes you need to know a
lot about narrow things,” Mark says.
“I personally believe that our very best are as
good as anybody I’ve worked with. And I’ve worked
as a judge’s associate, I’ve worked with judges,
I’ve worked with people who I think are among
Australia’s leading legal intellectuals and leading
practitioners in my lifetime.”
Mark is highly esteemed among his peers and
is a valued mentor and role model to his team.
Notwithstanding this, one of his key personal quali-
ties and strengths as a leader is his humility.
When asked why he thought he won the award,
Mark responds with grace.
“I don’t really think I’m the best government
lawyer in the Commonwealth – I think the Solicitor-
General might have a disagreement about that for a
start,” he says.
“But leaving that aside, I don’t think that’s really
what the award says. I think it’s really saying ‘this is
an indicator of the success of the whole structure’.”
Mark says the awards go hand-in-hand, in the
sense that one reflects the leadership of the other in
what can be considered an overall team effort.
“In terms of legal knowledge, I know there are
people in this office who know a lot more law than I
do,” Mark says.
“But being a lawyer is not just legal knowledge.
It’s technique, it’s a whole range of other features as
well, because outcomes are a combination of a whole
mixture of strands of things. And so hopefully, that’s
what the awards are really saying – the outcome
shows the effectiveness of our combined effort.”
Mark’s strong leadership of Defence Legal is
demonstrated by the decisive steps he has taken to
ensure the wellbeing and professional development of
Defence Legal practitioners.
This includes providing guidance and growth
through continuing legal education and maintaining
a focus on professionalisation. It has also involved
regular engagement with staff based around Australia
and overseas, to reinforce a sense of community and
ensure that all practitioners are aware of the impor-
tant role they play.
Under Mark’s custodianship, Defence Legal has
made a significant contribution to Defence and gov-
ernment in a high-tempo and high-stake operational
environment, dealing with complex legal issues rarely
encountered elsewhere in the legal community.
Yet, as Mark says, the Defence Legal team must
continue to learn and develop in an ever-changing
“We’ve always got room to grow, and what you
always know is no matter how well you do, you can’t
just stop there. It has to keep getting better.”
By Jenna Sorby-Adams
Defence Legal wins Government Team of the Year
and Government Lawyer of the Year
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