Geraldine Baumann

In the spotlight: Geraldine Baumann

Geraldine Baumann has been Senior Legal Counsel of Heritage New Zealand for 20 years and has over 30 years' experience in the electricity sector. We asked her about her role, what changes she has seen in the in-house profession over that time, and what's next for such an experienced lawyer.

Could you tell us about Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and the role of the legal team within it?

Heritage NZ has a statutory responsibility to regulate any modification or destruction of the thousands of archaeological sites in New Zealand. We grant authorities, permissions and consent for people to do that on conditions. These can be appealed and that's when the legal team is involved.

We have a list of places of heritage value in New Zealand. It used to be called a register, but that confused the lawyers who thought that meant it was registered on a title, so they changed the word to "list". Now they talk about ships in storms ‘listing’. There's a degree of research that goes into that, and occasionally we get tricky statutory interpretation about how to structure an item on the list.

The legal team is also responsible for heritage covenants, which we negotiate and go on title to protect places and we have properties we maintain, for example, the law school in Wellington. They present problems every now and then especially if you've got earthquakes and such like.

We also have a very pleasant activity that every year we have a big funding round and give out half a million dollars of grants to people with heritage properties for heritage restoration. To date, I have managed all of that, except for the payment which our finance team does. Upon my departure they may find somebody else to do it rather than burden the legal team but I've enjoyed it. It's nice to contact an owner who's asked for money and say, “Yes, you can have $85,000 if you sign this document”.  It’s a great public service.

What does a typical day as General Counsel at Heritage look like for you?

We deal with all sorts of categories of law, except family law, so it's a very wide spectrum of what can come across our plate. Today I'm meeting with external lawyers who are doing a prosecution for us; getting involved in lease discussions on a substantial property we own with the tenants; and going over a contract - and that’s just the morning. It's pretty fast-paced and it’s made worse at the moment because it’s just me and so we’re aiming to grow the team.

As the guardians of Heritage New Zealand people come to us saying, “Help! How do I get out of this problem?” It is definitely solutions driven.

In-house counsel is not only there to give legal advice. It's also to find solutions that are lawful. The trick of a good counsel is to take the problem from a colleague and find the answer that will work for them. It's very rare that you have to say, “No, we just can't think of a way, under the law of New Zealand or statute law we operate under, to do that.”

You’ve had over 30 years’ experience in the electricity sector, and on boards, including The Rulings Panel. How has this affected your role in-house and vice versa?

At Electricity Corporation New Zealand (ECNZ) I was Company secretary and General Counsel and very much involved with working with the board and Chair.

We split up ECNZ in 1999-2000 and I was chief executive for another year and a half trying to finish it all off. Then not long after that, I got appointed to the Genesis board and became a governor. I was on that board for six years before it was privatised. My knowledge from the industry was terribly useful in that respect.

You must remember when you're moving from one to another, that you’re not the do-er, you’re just the questioner. Your job is to ask, “Has it been done? Has it been done properly?” You don't jump in and start doing it. It’s often a problem with board members, that they don't understand the difference between a board member and being a manager.

I mean, it's tempting. You often think you know the way, but you have to couch it in such a way that raises the question with management so they go away and think about it. They might come back with perfectly valid reasons, or say, “No, we've considered that” and well, fair enough. You've asked the question: you've got the answer. If you don't ask the questions, then you're being negligent, or too trusting, or just turning up for the lunch and that's not good enough. Ultimately, you're accountable but you can only be accountable through management.

How have you seen the role at Heritage change in the 20 years you have been there, and the in-house community changed over your career?

When I started at Heritage it wasn't a very developed role so I've developed it myself and the work has increased exponentially; the more you're there, the more work that seems to appear.

It seems to me that there is more and more appreciation of the value that in-house counsel can bring. When I started out back in 1987, there were very few in-house counsel in New Zealand. They were government lawyers, office solicitors, but there weren't a lot. We used to have an annual get together of lawyers and, at the very most, 60 people would have a lovely weekend somewhere like Lake Taupō comparing notes.

Now you'll find most large businesses have in-house counsel, and when you look at the list of lawyers in government and companies there is a preponderance of private people working for private companies.

Maybe this has increased over time as there is the comfort of having somebody who's solutions based and in-house. They can bring a place together. In-house lawyers can be that quiet word that says, “Why not try this track instead of that track, you'll come out in a better place and maybe with less antagonism and problems along the way?”

The biggest change I have seen though is the presence of women all across the profession. When I was at ECNZ there was a big push to get women on boards, not just appointed by the government. They really worked quite hard. I remember when everyone got terribly excited because they were appointing a woman to the Brierley's Board and that was considered amazing.

It used to be that when women lawyers graduated they went to work as a government lawyer because they were the only organisation happy to employ them. You were therefore considered second rate.

I would hear comments such as, “Are you going to work for the government because that's where all the women go.”

Admittedly, there were only seven of us women who went to Victoria University at the time, but still, it was the view of some lecturers. Fortunately, it's changed. It's not the same profession.

What has the increased number of women brought to the profession?

Flexibility and a practical solutions-base approach that isn’t hidebound by, “We've always done it that way”, or, “You can't do it that way.” It's made for a wider appreciation of others of where other people stand. It's not just the male manager dealing with the male lawyer, who they all know and all have the same code. Men would deal with all sorts of diverse people and situations, but it was outside their old code. Now, that's all changed.

This doesn't mean women are a soft touch or anything - they're not. But I think we're more open to appreciate where other people are coming from and that they're not all coming down the same straight road.

What are you looking forward to in your retirement? What’s next?

First is a long trip overseas seeing friends and family. After that, I’ve got to find something that's worthwhile that I can do that doesn't take 40 hours a week. The trouble with me is that once I get started, I don't know how to constrain myself. 18 years ago, when I took this job I thought it would be a 9-5 and maybe for 9-4 and it didn't work out like that because I didn't let it. I wanted to make an impact.

People don’t want me hanging around the organisation like a bad smell. For me, once I’ve been involved in one area, I like to look for something new, find something vastly different to do so I’m considering the charitable space, something worthwhile.