Government lawyer Daniel Byers has found a place to work whose values he truly believes in. His department’s vision, ‘Together, we create thriving environments, communities and economies’, is also a powerful driving force for the Director — Native Title at the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
When Byers joined the NSW Crown Solicitor’s Office (CSO) as a paralegal working for what was then known as the constitutional and native title team, he says excellent mentoring and professional experiences opened up to him. It was a formative time, in professional terms, and led to his first job with that same group after Byers was admitted as a solicitor in 2021.
“While I rotated through some other teams that did some really interesting work, I kept finding my way back to the native title and Aboriginal land rights,” he says.
Speaking to The Mandarin about his rise through the ranks of Planning, Industry and Environment, the 33-year-old government lawyer says it was when he started to entertain the idea of becoming a barrister that an opportunity for him to make the switch to join his clients at the time – the department’s native title team.
“About five years ago I had been thinking about leaving the CSO to become a barrister when an opportunity came up to apply for the Principal Legal Officer role in the native title team in the department (who were my client at the time). I had worked with the manager of the team at the CSO and knew he would be fantastic to work for, so I took the plunge and I haven’t looked back,” Byers says.
The department’s native title team is responsible for negotiating on behalf of the NSW Government to resolve native title claims. Since 2016 Byers has held various roles from principal legal officer, to assistant director and now the director position, which has held for more than 14 months.
Byers describes the work as rewarding, pointing to negotiation efforts over 2017 and 2018 that he led to resolve the Arakwal (Bundjalung) native title claim over land and sea of more than 800 hectares in Byron Bay.
“These negotiations were a team effort over an 18-month period which finalised the oldest active native title claim at the time,” Byers says.
“Following the determination, Arakwal elder Yvonne Stewart told the media that this recognition ‘… will give us the freedom to walk taller, it will give us freedom to access and use our resources of country and look after our wellbeing.’ – it was pretty motivating to know we had been involved in something that was going to have lasting and intergenerational impacts,” he added.
Presently, Byers is turning his focus to improving the time it takes to resolve native title claims. He says real ground has been made to achieve this by making reforms to internal processes and enhancing the quality of international coordination. But more can and should be done.
“We have been involved in more determinations recognising native title over the past four years than in the preceding 23 years. My focus is on maintaining this momentum,” Byers says.
One of the things the Native Title lawyer loves most about working for the NSW public service is that each day his work contributes to delivering outcomes for the people of the state. Byers says the values of the public service resonate deeply with the theme of National Reconciliation Week 2021: ‘More than a word. Reconciliation takes action’.
“The great thing about my job is that there isn’t a typical day. For example, this week I’m instructing in an appeal before the full court of the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney on Monday and Tuesday, up on Widjabul country (Lismore) on Thursday, and I’ll spend the other two days in meetings, providing legal advice and participating in a range of policy workshops,” he says.
In terms of Byers’ own professional development as a government lawyer, he says the skills areas he is focused on advancing have changed. The key is to constantly invest in self-improvement, whether it be advice writing, advocacy and legal knowledge, he adds.
“As I took on more senior roles, I needed to learn to communicate to senior executives and master the elevator pitch (there are some great courses for this on LinkedIn),” Byers says.
“Then with COVID-19, I’ve been investing time learning how to lead and manage a remote team and ensure we maintain our collective culture and vision – which has led to some pretty fun team meetings.”