In the Spotlight: Kristy Rusher, Dunedin City Council

In the Spotlight: Kristy Rusher, Dunedin City Council

Kristy Rusher, Chief Legal Office at Dunedin City Council talks about her the satisfaction of seeing her team's contribution to...

What do you enjoy about your role and what is your greatest challenge?

The thing I enjoy most is being able to walk through Dunedin and seeing the outcome of the legal work that we are involved in.  The scale of the transactions that the Council is involved in can be large and the legal issues complex.  What I enjoy least is the deadlines – the time pressure to complete legal advice is frequently intense. 

However, walking through the City and seeing it change and knowing that you have contributed to that improvement in the buildings, parks, roads and events is very satisfying.

In 2018 you attended the well-known Leadership in Corporate Counsel intensive at Harvard University. What can you tell us about the week and what did you learn?

The experience at Harvard Law School was very rewarding.  Approximately 20 hours of course work is completed at home.  The remainder is held at the Harvard Law School campus to complete the onsite portion of the programme over 4 days.  The course is based on case study analysis.  The first case study to complete is about a GC who is in a new country in a new job with some challenging transactions, combined with some family complications.

That case study is segue into a discussion about the expectations that a GC or CLO is expected to fulfil within an organisation.  The professor taking the case carefully concludes that from an organisation design perspective, the GC role is essentially designed to fail because as the GC/CLO we are not only managers but also producers.  There is never enough time, never enough certainty about the facts and we are advising clients who are not satisfied with advice, simply because they may not like the law that applies.  The two roles will inevitably conflict. 

It’s an important reality check – the pressure to manage the cost and speed of delivery of legal advice means that our focus for judging success is sometimes how much we are “on the tools” as legal advisors.  Actually the best value that we can add is often at the strategic decision making level, and we need to measure our success by the value we add.  What I took out of that session is that part of the solution, is educating your client about the value that a legal team has offered, as this will provide you with the mandate to make your highest value contribution.  

Fortunately, I can report <spoiler alert> that the rest of the programme is all about how to harness your strengths to get the best out of yourself, your team and your organisation.

I certainly feel the programme was a very worthwhile experience – although I was aware of the tensions present in my role as CLO, there is certainly a benefit to knowing that this issue is shared globally and that it is also is a dominant force shaping the private sector.

How do you balance working in the legal team with working on the legal team?

I see it as a pendulum swinging between two extremes – there is no perfect balance, but at times I will find myself leaning more on one end of the spectrum than the other. I try to keep aware of where I am on that trajectory and check that I am in the right part of the swing for the circumstances I am facing.

I find it is easier to sacrifice time spent on the team, for time on the tools.  But, being aware of that tendency means that I programme “team time” in as a non-negotiable and then fit other parts of my role around that commitment.

Do you think the culture of an organisation impacts the delivery of legal services to that organisation and if so, how does the culture at DCC influence the DCC legal team?

I agree the culture of an organisation impacts of the delivery of legal services.  Culture has a significant bearing on when, how and what advice is presented.  The business process that is used for decision making is also heavily influenced by culture.  That also has a bearing on what a client needs from its legal team.

As an in-house legal team, it is not enough to state what the law is.  We need to take that next step to translate our advice into actions and decisions to make it obvious to a client how they can use that advice to advance the objectives of the Council.  This style of advising means the legal team is growing the capability of the organisation as a whole, rather than simply fulfilling the role of a gatekeeper or the “department of common sense”.

At the DCC legal team, we are in a position to positively influence our organisation’s culture – it is important to deliver advice that assists the client, but to also explain the purpose and meaning of the advice which is a very important part of client service, and helps ensure that legal advice is implemented in a way that delivers on the DCC’s strategy. 

What is the one piece of technology (either current or yet to be created) that would make your day job easier?

A time machine that extended deadlines would be a very handy device for legal teams!  However, the technology that is having the biggest impact on our team currently is our matter management system.  Among other things, that system helps us decide how we can best deliver on what our clients want and proves the value of the in-house team to the DCC.