What does leading the legal function for Contact Energy involve and what does a standard day look like for you?
I wear two hats, as General Counsel and Company Secretary. As General Counsel, as you would expect, I’m responsible for legal advice and management of legal risk for all areas of Contact’s business. As Company Secretary, I run the Board processes and am accountable for Contact’s compliance activities as an NZX and ASX listed company. I also have a role in oversight of policies and corporate governance systems.
I have an excellent team to support me with all of this – six lawyers and a governance/compliance advisor, along with some great support from our external providers.
In terms of a standard day, I spend a lot of my time in meetings or talking to people. It’s a long way removed from the days when I spent hours researching points of law or drafting contracts! I value time spent with each member of my team to stay across and support the matters they are working on. Connections with colleagues right across our business are also really important to identify and work through issues, and to ensure the legal function helps Contact deliver on its strategic goals.
What do you love about it and what have you learned?
I’m a long-serving member of the Contact Legal Team, and I stepped up to the General Counsel role around 18 months ago. It’s been an exciting time to do it. We have an ambitious growth programme and an unprecedented number of strategic projects underway, many involving complex legal issues. It means the pace is fast, but the work is meaningful, and there is never a dull moment. We have a really clear purpose - to lead New Zealand’s decarbonisation - and it feels like what we are doing is really making a difference.
Throughout my earlier career, I’ve succeeded through technical legal skill and by focusing on the detail. I can’t do that anymore. For every one significant project the company would’ve had on the go a few years ago, we now have 10, and my input into those matters has to be at a more strategic level. I’ve learned to value my own input at that level and trust that the team will take care of the detail.
Can you tell us about the challenges you and your team are facing that keep you awake at night and how you are going about addressing these?
With a big growth agenda and lots of new projects underway, as well as business-as-usual activity, the key challenge for me and for the team has been the volume of work coming our way, the pressure to deliver on tight timeframes, and how to balance that with team wellbeing.
While I’m sure this is common to many legal teams and is difficult to truly “solve”, Contact’s transformation project, which was launched last year has made a meaningful difference. The programme has introduced a new way of prioritising strategic initiatives across the company. I work with the Transformation Office to determine the amount of legal resource required to deliver each initiative and draw the “waterlines” for which projects the Legal Team has the capacity to support. Where matters fall below the waterline, external resource can be bought in provided that the cost is justified by the benefit of the projects.
While this sounds quite simple, it’s the first time I can recall that the company has properly appreciated that internal legal resource is finite. It’s also the first time I’ve seen proper prioritisation of projects right across the whole business, so that we have really clear direction for where to put our energy.
What are some of the trends that you're seeing in the in-house legal profession and how do you see it evolving?
I’m seeing expectations of turnaround times for legal matters continue to speed up. In many cases, we’ll choose to do a piece of work in-house rather than outsource it because we can do it faster than the law firms can. Our output might be a bit different – e.g. legal advice delivered via Teams chat message or through collaboration on shared documents – but in many cases it can be more effective than a detailed and carefully worded email.
I think we’re also seeing more blurring between legal and commercial roles. In-house lawyers in particular are seen as part of a project team delivering an outcome, not just an advisor to the team. This is the part of the job that I’ve always really enjoyed, and I think it’s a key attraction of an in-house role.