The role of government lawyers in shaping the relationship between government and law

- EN - NL

Government lawyers play a role in shaping the relationship between law and government. As that relationship is frequently strained - recent examples include the Dutch childcare benefit scandal, the Integrated Approach to Nitrogen ruling, and the Urgenda rulings -Wubbo Wierenga explored precisely how government lawyers fulfill their role and why. One of his findings is that high-quality legal advice does not inevitably engender legally sound government action. For these professionals, then, the key question is what role they can play to make sure it does.

Government lawyers are both lawyers and civil servants: as lawyers they engage in the process of finding the law and as civil servants they try to use the outcome of that process. Through observation, interviews, and a survey, Wierenga collected information about how nearly five hundred Dutch government lawyers fulfill these twin roles, paying particular attention to professional performance, the self-defined work situation, and government lawyers’ professional ethics.

Ideal-typical roles

Taking his cue from these factors, Wierenga shows that there are four ideal-typical roles for government lawyers: influencing the policy and decision-making processes, contributing to achieving societal objectives, maximizing legal quality, and steering a middle course between the judiciary and the executive.


In practice, however, government lawyers’ efforts to perform these four roles meet with varying degrees of success. For example, government lawyers indicate that while they succeed in giving legally sound advice, they fail to achieve the same measure of success in ensuring that the ensuing government action is equally sound legally. From a professional ethics perspective, the key question for government lawyers is to what extent they themselves are responsible for this disconnect.

Wierenga also found that government lawyers are paid better [BD1]  when they do go beyond giving legal advice. If and when government lawyers manage to free up time and create opportunities, the dynamics that evolve favor influencing policy and decision-making and achieving societal objectives - in other words, genuinely connecting law and government. It should be noted that lawyers filing objections and litigating government lawyers face different dynamics, because their roles are more regulated.

Wierenga’s PhD thesis presents three practical takeaways for government lawyers to increase their professional reflective capacity and strengthen their adaptability.

PhD defense

Wubbo Wierenga will defend his PhD thesis in the Auditorium of Tilburg University on Friday, April 21, 2023, at 13:30 hrs. Title: De rol van overheidsjuristen. Een empirische studie naar de invulling van de professionele rol door overheidsjuristen (The role of government lawyers. An empirical study of how government lawyers fulfill their professional role). Supervisors: Professor S. Zouridis and Professor E. Niemeijer. The defense will be livestreamed.