Sarah Rees OneFortyOne New Zealand Ltd | Juno Legal
Sarah Rees, In-house Counsel at OneFortyOne New Zealand Ltd, onsite.

Can you tell us about your role at OneFortyOne, what aspects you find most fulfilling, and what it has taught you, both professionally and personally?

OneFortyOne is a large forestry company at the top of the South Island, which also owns the Kaituna Sawmill. My role as sole Senior Legal Counsel and NZ Forests Lead Team member supports both the NZ Forestry business and the Kaituna Sawmill, along with feeding into OneFortyOne’s corporate head office in Melbourne, Australia, various OneFortyOne group Committees and the Board, which comprises directors based in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. The OneFortyOne group also owns forests and a sawmill in the Green Triangle in Australia, so whilst I am the only legal counsel for the NZ business, I am part of a cross-border team led by the Group General Counsel in Australia.

Having come from predominantly external counsel roles in professional law firms, it has been a great experience working within one entity for an extended period and truly getting to know the business and the wide team of people who support its success. I have found it invaluable to gain insight into the behind-the-scenes work which leads to legal involvement, getting to input into the earlier structuring phase of transactions and being involved in such a broad range of work. It is challenging but also interesting juggling the various priorities placed on you by different working groups within the business, external stakeholders to the business (particularly the landowning iwis, government departments and local councils) and the board/shareholders of the group as a whole.

I’ve also enjoyed establishing relationships with external law firms who can assist when more specialist work is required or when workload dictates another pair of hands is important – it is nice being the client at times!

It has been a new experience for me to sit with people who really care about the product, which underlines their jobs, too - those involved in day-to-day forestry here are genuinely passionate about trees. The opportunity to get to the ports to view exporting operations, and out and about in the forests to view the various stages of operational forestry and the work done by OneFortyOne’s many contractors, is not only enjoyable, but also adds a lot of value by increasing practical knowledge and therefore making the advice you provide, and the contracts you draft, much more relevant and workable. Site visits also provide a greater ability to understand the underlying risks inherent in the business.

As the only legal team member based in Aotearoa while the rest of the team is in Australia, what unique opportunities and challenges do you encounter working across both regions?

Each member of our legal team has a different focus, however, we do work closely together at times also. With Teams on our desktops and access to each other’s calendars, we can easily link up to discuss any issues which crop up in order to feed off each other’s experience. We also aim to approach things in a consistent manner as much as possible, particularly as our business is trying hard to implement a “One” business model despite the cross-border nature.

Along with knowing I can talk to any of my team members at short notice, we also have regular legal team weekly meetings so that the General Counsel can update us on what is happening at the board and shareholder levels of the business, and so that each legal team member can update on what pressing issues they are facing at the time.

There is also travel at times to Australia, which helps – I’m a big believer of in-person catch-ups, as they allow team members to get to know each other as real people, which in turn assists with the ability a team has to support each other through issues faced both within and outside work.

I admit I initially found it difficult being the only legal member based in a large business unit, as not only was I trying to do the pressing work, but I was also trying to get to know the business from a more legal perspective (i.e., using a different lens to everyone else in the business on the ground with me). In addition, there had not been a dedicated NZ legal counsel for the NZ business before, so it took some time to establish systems and relationships within the NZ business in order to gain the trust of those around me. In an operational environment like a forestry and sawmill business, it is key that the staff see the legal function as helpful and not a hindrance to them getting their jobs done efficiently.

A year and a half in now, relationships established and a greater understanding of the forestry/sawmill environment, I enjoy the challenge of being the only NZ legal counsel. I get to work on a wide range of issues in an industry which is often in the news and is becoming more and more regulated, I also feel I get to use my judgement and common sense more than I was able to as an external legal counsel. In addition, the cross-border nature brings with it an additional interesting layer as a lawyer, that being the necessity to assist the business adapt its Australian policies for what is a different forestry landscape and environment here in NZ.

The legal function in Aotearoa is relatively new to OneFortyOne. How did the organisation know it was time to bring in legal counsel here?

OneFortyOne’s approach to legal resourcing has evolved over the years as the business has grown, with the acquisition of assets in Australia and NZ, and the increasing complexity of the business and regulatory landscape. Initially, OneFortyOne was a heavily outsourced model, relying on external legal counsel, but as the business grew, the benefits of having an in-house legal team to support the different business units became apparent and the legal team started to expand.

While the legal team in Australia initially supported the NZ business with external legal counsel after it was acquired in late 2018, the value of having an in-house lawyer on the ground in NZ became more apparent during the COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures.

In your view, what are the biggest challenges when stepping into a new position?

As I’ve alluded to above, starting a new role is a particularly challenging time – there is a lot to get your head around in what feels like a short space of time. You need to juggle the work which needs to be done, gain an understanding of the systems the business operates, build relationships with the people in the business, learn how to most efficiently find the information you need to effectively do your job, etc. At a time when you’re trying to establish yourself in your role, you have the least information at your fingertips… so it is more difficult to ensure your advice and assistance is timely, efficient and helpful.

It is also particularly challenging if some of the first things you work on involve you having to point out risks and/or highlight legal issues which ultimately delay the outcome the operational side of the business is looking for. That is, at a time when you are trying to get to know people within the business, you have to manage the potential conflicts inherent in your legal role with personalities in the business who have differing priorities.

You are also introducing new systems which you know will assist efficiency for the business, not to mention are essential for risk and compliance purposes, in an environment where change is not always welcome. Whilst it is often obvious there are many things you could do to improve things quickly, it is important to prioritise the big issues and introduce new approaches slowly in a way which brings the staff along with you (rather than them feeling like you are imposing lots on them in a short space of time).

Communication is key – making the team feel part of the process of improvement, rather than simply being told to do things your way. Educate them so that they understand the reasons and benefits rather than simply telling them to do things differently. Also, ensure you appropriately recognise the work which has been done before you and support those who may be most put out by any changes you make.

How do you see the role of today’s in-house lawyer evolving?

In an environment where money is tight in many entities, in-house counsel roles are becoming increasingly about getting the work done in-house and less about outsourcing it to external law firms. An in-house lawyer needs to use his or her judgement even more now about when it is an effective use of your business’s resources to get a specialist lawyer involved in drafting a contract or providing legal advice, as opposed to doing the drafting and advising yourself in-house.

There is no question that developing technology is going to change the manner and speed in which legal advice is delivered, particularly contract drafting. Also, businesses need to become more flexible regarding working hours and remote working.

I believe businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the value an in-house counsel can add, and accordingly I envisage more and more businesses will look to adding this function to their staff in due course.