What do you love about being the General Counsel at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington?
I love that, through my role, I am a part of helping people to take the next steps in their lives and their careers. Working within an organisation that has a social benefit is incredibly important to me. There's many legal roles where you exist just to help a client do what they want within the law. Whereas with the university, there is the sense that you're helping an organization that's part of something much bigger; you're contributing to the future of our young people. I came to this role from private practice and that struck a chord almost immediately. That’s one of the one of the reasons I've stayed in the role for over 9 years.
You built the legal function at Te Herenga Waka, are there certain qualities that you look for when you're recruiting members into your legal team?
I look for people who are proactive and are going to fit within the culture of the university environment. In a university, hierarchy and titles and things like that are irrelevant. It's all about your ability to build relationships and connect with people. I’m General Counsel and that’s a fancy job title, but, really, no one cares. If you get in people's way or you're not there to help or to enable them, you are seen as a hindrance rather than a help. It's important for people working in the university environment to be really flexible, humble, and able to cope with competing pressures and demands on their time.
We look for people who can deal with the chaos that comes from working at the university. There's always just madness. All. The. Time. A university is like a town so the issues that come up are so weird and wonderful and it can be hard to predict what's coming up because things come out of left field. I've always said the university is a place for a lawyer to get better work stories. It really is a case of coming home and saying, “You won’t believe what happened today”. I remember a time when the School of Biology rung me and wanted to know what to do because they had literally found a skeleton in the closet. There’re always things like that that make the role interesting.
Can you tell us about your recent role as incident controller for the university during the anti-mandate occupation earlier this year?
As incident controller, I was responsible for leading the University’s response to the anti-mandate protests and resulting occupation of the parliamentary precinct. This affected the University’s Pipitea Campus as we had protesters camping in the grounds of the Law School and vehicles blocking the access road between the Law School and the Wellington School of Business and Government.
The protest directly affected almost 9000 students and 600 staff (a third of the University) and resulted in the temporary closure of the Pipitea Campus and significant disruption to students, staff, contractors, and the businesses that operate on that campus. All courses 200-level and above moved fully online and 100-level in-person teaching relocated to our Kelburn campus.
As Incident controller, I was supported by an Incident Management Team made up of key colleagues from around the University. This team was drawn from Faculty Deans, Faculty Operations Managers, VUWSA (our Students’ Association), Campus Security, Property Services, Communications and Health and Safety.
I was in the role for the duration of the protest and to be fair, I’m still in it, but it’s a much diminished role now – focussed on keeping an eye on protest hotspots and ensuring we’re ready for future protest events. But, certainly, for the core of the protest, it was it was a full-time role. It only took me about three days to forget to be General Counsel and I made the mistake of being overheard in a meeting saying that I wasn't worried about some of the legal details and that “I'll be happy to leave those with the lawyers so I can focus on the big-picture issues”. I haven’t been able to live that down ever since!
And at the same time as this event, we heard that the university’s legal team were delivering meals to students – how did that come about?
This goes back to the point about some of the interesting things that have happened in a university!
In late February, we faced going from a handful of COVID-19 cases in our halls of residence to hundreds of cases literally in a matter of hours. This resulted in a rapid change to the catering model – away from full self-service in the dining room to having meals delivered room service style – and required volunteers to assist with meal delivery. Members of my team were only too happy to give up parts of their weekends to help out.
While that was going on, another member of my team led the student welfare-check process. She had a team of over 20 volunteers underneath her (including other members of the legal team) who were tasked with calling hall residents to check they were ok and to connect students who needed assistance with relevant student services. Once I became free of the incident controller role, I and another member of my team, even became stand-in Heads of Hall to give our tired staff a well-deserved break and an opportunity to recharge their batteries
The effort from the team during this time was immense. We realised that the University was in crisis mode and nothing that we were doing was more important than making sure that our students were fed and cared for. It was a case of stop what you’re doing and get onboard to help students.
That was a very, very intense period. I was incredibly proud of the team and colleagues from across the university for pitching in. All of this was voluntary. I wasn't asking them to do it, people just volunteered and the work was done without complaint. It was quite incredible.
How have you and the team recharged your batteries after such an intense start to the year?
I extended offers of days-in-lieu to all of the team and encouraged everyone to take some time to recharge. For me, personally, I enjoyed a nice Easter break with my family exploring the area around my childhood hometown in the Waikato. A highlight was walking and cycling through the beautiful Karangahake Gorge.