As you look back on your 22 years with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (MWLR), how has your role changed over the course of your career?
I was Support Services Manager for one of MWLRs predecessor organisations so transitioned into the Crown Research Institute (CRI) in that role. We were based on University of Canterbury campus at that time and, mainly for interest, I began studying law part-time while working full-time. I finished my degree about the time the CRIs, who had previously briefed out all legal work, were creating in-house legal positions and I was fortunate to be able to move into that role.
At that time, the majority of my work involved reviewing incoming contracts and preparing outgoing contracts using standard templates, with some intellectual property and legislative compliance work. My workload quickly expanded to include preparation of a variety of legal documentation, transactional work involving property and corporate governance issues and any matters that could, however tenuously, come under a legal umbrella.
Can you tell us about your role at MWLR and what a typical day might involve for you?
The expansion in my role to encompass all things legal means that there is probably no such thing as a typical day as I never know what I will find when I login to my email each day – it could be a complex, high value contract that needs to be reviewed urgently, a request for a subcontract or MOU template, an official information request that could end in an Ombudsman complaint, a scientist needing help to prepare expert evidence or with concerns about copyright infringement, or a reminder to complete a monthly report. Prioritising workload is a perennial problem when you have multiple internal clients who are unaware that you already have a backlog of jobs received from others who also want a response by tomorrow.
How has the in-house legal profession changed over the course of your career?
The main change has been our exponential growth from around 13% of the legal profession in 2000 to 25% or a quarter of the profession today. The change hasn’t only been numerical either. It has been interesting to see how the status of in-house lawyers within the legal and business communities has changed from being seen as lesser than private practice to the situation today where the in-house legal profession is highly influential and in-house lawyers are involved in decision-making at the highest levels in business and government.
The main agents of change have been developments in, and adoption of, technology. Researching legal issues or legislation and finding precedents used to involve a visit or email to the law library but now most of this can be easily accessed online. In the early 2000s most one-to-one interactions were by phone and exchange of documents by fax or post with some emailing of Word drafts and basic PDFs.
Now virtually all transactions are by email, including signing contracts using recent developments in digital signing. Attending meetings or seminars usually involved spending a very long day flying to and from Wellington or Auckland or else straining to keep track of discussion through speakerphone. Skype videoconferencing and seminars by webinar were a welcome development but even more welcome is the rapid adoption of meetings by Zoom and consulting with colleagues by Microsoft Teams with its ability to work collaboratively on screen as the standard means of communication.
As an advocate for and former committee member of ILANZ, why do you encourage in-house lawyers to get involved in their professional association and wider networking?
Not having developed student or law firm networks, and being MWLR’s sole Legal Counsel until about 3 years ago, I found that taking part in local law society and CLANZ (now ILANZ) activities through attending conferences and seminars to be a good way of developing contacts. Becoming involved in committee work enhanced my sense of collegiality with other lawyers and my understanding of how practitioners could contribute to the development of legislation such as the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act and Rules of Conduct and Client Care. At the local level, arranging social events and helping to organise conferences and seminars is a great way to establish and develop contacts and networks.
What are you looking forward to in retirement?
Not having to do anything! After that novelty wears off, reading all those books and tackling all those projects around home that I never have time for when working. I also plan to enjoy more of Christchurch’s recreational and cultural attractions and travel within NZ catching up with friends and family until we can travel overseas again. However, I’m sure that I will also maintain my interest in and passion for the law by at last having time to read all those newsletters and articles!