What does leading the legal function for City Rail Link involve and what does a standard day look like for you?
When I joined CRLL, two years ago, it was a newly formed Crown Entity without an in-house legal function. This is my first foray into the rail sector, and the public sector…come to that.
All legal work had been outsourced to external providers, which had its pluses and minuses. Looking back, I think it would have been a smart move to set up the legal function as soon as the company was formed, actually sooner and that role could have transitioned over when CRLL was established in its own right (rather than as a division of Auckland Transport). It has certainly added degrees of difficulty by joining the party late in terms of getting up to speed.
As a team of one, I’m a functional lead as well as a business lead. It’s brilliant!
It’s rare that the same piece of work comes across my desk twice in my role at CRLL! There is a new challenge to face every day. I feel privileged to be working alongside highly skilled professionals across several different disciplines, from procurement to finance via commercial and engineering. The passion and care people have for this project always impresses me.
What are the key challenges you face in your role and how do you plan to address these?
Top of mind, a key challenge is to ensure that all the documents and legal instruments are in a constant state of readiness to handover to the ultimate asset owner(s). A significant challenge was, as I said, joining the party late and scrambling to get up to speed. Lawyers are very good at document management to a pedantic degree.
There aren’t many other disciplines that are so widely populated by pedants, so inheriting a mass of contracts and important documents from a bunch of non-lawyers, collating and storing them, has been testing. I will continue to ‘address’ this issue over time.
You were General Counsel for Coca-Cola Amatil for ten years. What have been the key differences shifting into the public sector in a crown entity role with CRL?
I think it’s easier to say there are almost no similarities. From culture, history, values set to day-to-day tasks – literally nothing is the same. That, in itself, is very exciting. You are never too old to learn new tricks or get out of your comfort zone.
I was drawn to the role because I saw this project as a game-changer for Auckland, and I have always had an interest in engineering and infrastructure projects from my days at Alstom and Transfield Services. It was the experience from those organisations that influenced my decision to join CRLL. Also, I loved the idea of being part of such a uniquely special project from beginning to end.
Taking this role was definitely a shift outside my comfort zone. But then again, the same could have been said for my move to Coca-Cola Amatil. To quote Lord Sugar “…never go for a job you think you can do”… it’s far more exhilarating to test yourself by trying something completely different. At the end of the day, my view is that legal principles are fundamentally the same regardless of the discipline.
The legal landscape of this industry and sector is radically different from an FMCG organization (no surprise there) but it has also changed tremendously over the last decade (since I was last working in the infrastructure sector) which means the legal work remains fascinating. Perhaps, more importantly, I love the infrastructure industry: it is a close-knit caring community full of passionate people.
It will come as no surprise if I say “nimble” or “agility” is a key difference between public and private sectors, in my view. In the private sector, opportunities can be actively pursued if they align to the business strategy, i.e. generate revenue. The layers of bureaucracy in the public sector, whilst completely understandably, mean that actions aren’t nimble. But the public sector focus is less on profitability and more on ‘value for money’ so it’s hard to compare like with like.
How do you see the role of the modern in-house lawyer evolving?
I was speaking to some new-to-inhouse lawyers recently, who were new or relatively new into their roles. My take-out from those discussions is that to find true happiness in a role, you should trust yourself; identify your strengths and weaknesses; and find an organisation whose values align with your own.
I hear the rhetoric about disruption, automation and AI but in-house legal teams are not (in my experience) flush with cash; in fact budgets are very tight. Companies won’t be hurrying to invest in technology that replaces their in-house lawyers because money is best spent on activities that generate revenue and support cash-flow.
So, the ‘can-do’ character traits of an ideal in-house lawyer, e.g. someone with an inquiring mind, who is capable of thinking critically about the status quo and asking why [are we] doing something before actually doing it, will remain essential for a few decades to come. Success will be for those who are generalist lawyers, in fact expert-generalists.
As a parent, of now adult children, I’m a strong advocate for flexible working. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have employers who embraced that mindset. I’d like to see more of the “It doesn’t matter when or where you do your work, as long as it gets done when it needs to be done” approach to people management. CEOs and senior managers need to lead by example. Today and tomorrow, flexible working is not a nice to have, it is a necessity and we need to accept that the landscape of the family and work dynamic has changed. This issue impacts everyone –of course - not just lawyers.
What has your board member role with New Zealand Football taught you about governance and about yourself and what advice would you give other in-house lawyers looking to step into governance roles?
To be honest, my time on the Board of New Zealand Football was an absolute privilege. Talk about passionate people, they are next level! My 4 year experience on ExCo was invaluable from a governance perspective because we faced a number of crushing crises, during my time, that were hugely impactful on the game and the community. Personally, I learnt a great deal about resilience.
I would recommend sports boards as an initial step into the governance world, as long as you are passionate about sports. You probably need to be at a time in your life and career when you are able to devote time to the organisations you wish to join (as a director). There’s a lot more to a governance role than 8 all-day meetings a year.
Also (and this isn’t a paid endorsement) I’ve heard good things about the Institute of Directors course.