Deborah Kassell-Haak, GWRC | Juno Legal
Deborah Kessell-Haak, Kaiwhakahaere Matua/Head of Legal and Procurement (General Counsel) at Greater Wellington Regional Council. 

Can you tell us about your roles at Greater Wellington Regional Council and what a typical day looks like for you? 

I have a slightly unusual role in that I support two teams within Greater Wellington; a newly established procurement team and a nascent legal team. I also act as Greater Wellington’s General Counsel.  

The diverse functions of Greater Wellington as a regional council, my dual role and the small size of the legal team essentially dictate what my day looks like as I have to both manage and muck in. I manage two highly professional teams with all the leadership responsibility that entails. Still, I am also a team member within the corporate services leadership team using ‘other than legal skills’ to help the team make decisions.

On any given day, I can be acting as a sounding board for the Chief Executive or members of ELT, I can be giving advice on media approaches, reviewing a Council report with an element of legal risk, advising on rating issues helping the environmental regulatory and delivery teams manage litigation, providing advice on multi-million dollar public transport contracts or infrastructure projects, helping to make line calls on difficult procurement decisions, providing advice about derelict boats in the harbour right down to down to helping a park ranger draft a simple contract. No day is the same.   

What aspects of your role do you find most fulfilling, and what have they taught you? 

There are two things that I find particularly fulfilling about the role, one derives from the work that Greater Wellington does as a regional council, and the other from my own personality. The public service nature of the work that Greater Wellington does for the community and the environment aligns with my personal beliefs. It feels really good to be even a small part of an organisation filled with people who are genuinely passionate about what they do on a day-to-day basis. 

I am also a lifelong learner, and my career has been very diverse. I started out as a scientist, retrained in law, worked in private practice and then chose to enter the public sector.  I have had to step up in a big way since starting as a senior legal counsel, and every single day I have been here, I have learnt something new. This ranges from understanding how a stop bank is designed, how procurement evaluations are conducted (it is quite a science), coming up to speed in the environmental regulatory and public law space, and how to be a people leader.  

What have I learnt from this? That it is not enough to be promoted to a role – you need to train in being a people leader and you will make mistakes. Also, that you are never too old to take a chance – I started out here with maybe 50% of what was required in my original job description.   

Can you share some of the recent challenges you've faced in your role and the strategies you employed to overcome them? 

The biggest challenge I faced when I started in this role, and that I still face, is the small size of both teams. Both teams started organically on the basis of a need at a point in time and have been added to as they became more visible to the organisation.

My challenge, therefore, is to investigate what the organisation actually needs from its service partners and not make assumptions. Leaning heavily on professional teams within the organisation whose speciality is service design and change, I am converting that into a clearly identifiable operating model that gives me an evidence-backed case for growth and change. While I am doing that and getting the right people on board, I am leaning heavily on our external legal partners, including Juno Legal, who I need to be that critical extension to our small in-house team to give me the space to do that strategic work. It’s very much a work in progress! 

What strategies do you use to manage and prioritise the legal department's workload, especially during peak times? 

I’m keeping it very simple at the moment, noting that as the team grows and we become an even more visible part of the organisation, the need to prioritise will increase. In no way being a list of priority: 

  • Using the technology we have to start the bones of an instruction intake and triage system.  

  • Have an automatic message in the legal team's inbox that politely asks the requestor to fill in certain details, such as critical deadlines, if they haven’t already done so.   

  • Invest in technology where it is appropriate to do so to make our lives easier - for example moving away from an Excel spreadsheet for legislative compliance tracking.  

  • Hire an amazing co-ordinator who works between both teams, learns the systems, and interfaces between the teams and the organisation! 

  • Manage expectations. Quickly let your colleagues know whether or not the team even has the capacity to take on the instructions and when you can get to it.  

  • Develop key templates, FAQs, and soon-to-be videos/webinars for lower-risk issues or continual questions (liability caps, insurance, and the like) to enable the organisation to self-help as much as it can.  

  • Develop strong relationships with the external firms, know their strengths and capabilities and have key advisors on speed dial so that you can use them as an extension of the in-house team! 

  • Breathe deeply. Sometimes, things happen, and you just have to drop everything else to deal with it.   

What trends do you see having the most significant impact on in-house legal teams in the near future? 

It has been said before, and it Is not necessarily just in-house, the effect that technology will have on the development of young lawyers. Traditionally, our training has been on the job and functional – I have vivid memories of being buried in a basement doing discovery as a junior litigator. That very functional training has value in that it gave you considerable insight into matters and lets you develop knowledge and experience in a safe and incremental way. The legal profession will, I think, be able to show value at the strategic advice end, where human experience or oversight will be valued. 

Where it may not necessarily be able to compete is at the run-of-the-mill end, where even a large language model will be able to draft up a contract faster and more precisely than we could. The profession is going to need to look to itself and decide how it develops its young and clever minds to get to the stage where they are able to provide that higher level advice.