Team Overview: Auckland Council Legal Team

Team Overview: Auckland Council Legal Team

Dani Gardiner, General Counsel, gives us an overview of the Auckland Council legal team and how they support the work of the Council

3 March 2020

We are a team of 54 lawyers, legal executives and prosecutors, and five support staff. We act for Auckland Council and three of its council-controlled organisations (CCOs). Because of the range of their services and activities, we have an incredibly diverse and interesting practice. We are involved in everything from regulatory prosecutions and enforcement through to infrastructure or development projects; defending civil claims against the council through to advising on finance and capital markets issues; health and safety investigations through to property transactions; regulatory advice and litigation through to commercial contracts; applications for judicial review through to advice on bylaws, protected “rights” and climate change risk.

Over the last few years we have increased the size of our legal team and enhanced its capability, which has enabled us to in-house much more of our work. Now 80% of our files are handled in-house, and of those 20% where we instruct a law firm, there is typically significant in-house involvement.  This strategy has created savings for the council and a better service for our council clients. Our lawyers understand the business, the strategic and political context, can offer more than narrow legal advice, can trouble shoot, are accessible and can resolve problems quickly. Obviously there remains a very important place for external advice and we value that greatly, but we have found much more can be done in-house effectively than previously assumed.

A further benefit of enhancing our capacity and capability and in-housing more work is variety and challenge for our lawyers. Rather than briefing the best work out, our lawyers have increasingly taken a lead on interesting projects or challenging cases and this has made the council a more rewarding and attractive place to work.

Key challenges facing the legal team and how we are addressing them

Managing workloads and meeting client expectations in a way that is sustainable and keeps the job enjoyable is our biggest challenge. In some ways we are victims of our own success in terms of utilisation by the organisation - we have experienced escalating demand for our services year on year. We are continually thinking about how we can manage demand and ensure we are spending our time on the right things. Building in some predictability to workflows is also a key focus.

A secondary but related challenge is securing the technology we need to support us to become more efficient and make our job easier. We are a sizeable legal practice operating within a large public sector organisation and it is a challenge to get technology, tools and resources that are fit for our purposes. We are close to transitioning to a new document management system and possibly new matter management system, which we hope will be transformative.

Review and refresh of the legal function, further intended work

Two years ago we took steps to better define the role of the legal team within the organisation and more actively manage demand and workflows to ensure that our time was being used wisely. We introduced what we called our Legal Services Charter which was intended to spark conversations between lawyers and their clients to reset the relationship. We commenced “business partnering” between managers and lawyers to enhance our understanding of their plans and priorities, anticipate likely input required from us, and identify any training or self-help tools that could be beneficial to help them to manage themselves. We renewed our emphasis on critically assessing the relative priority of a piece of work before we began. 

We are now extending this work further. We are about to trial sending monthly snapshots to managers across the council and CCOs. These reports will inform them exactly how their part of the organisation is using the legal team and, we hope, encourage greater accountability and moderation. To enable this, we have worked to ensure our data is accurate and gives the best picture of the nature of the legal work and exactly where it is coming from. The management team and I are clear that good data and analytics are key to managing our practice and the demand challenge we face.

We are making a real push to generate more self-help tools – tip sheets, explanatory notes, templates - and training for clients to enable them to deal with low risk, low value or repeat matters themselves. The team is becoming increasingly innovative – we have had mock trials and drop-in legal clinics! 

Skills and attributes we look for when recruiting

Aside from expertise and experience in the relevant area of law, we look for people who will form good working relationships with their legal colleagues and clients; who will be able to collaborate; who are adaptable and will thrive in a dynamic environment; who will work with autonomy and take responsibility for outcomes. In my experience the people who really thrive in the council environment are those who will derive satisfaction from putting their skills and expertise to use for the benefit of the public and/or the environment. 

What else are you focusing on?

A defining feature of the team is its positive, collaborative and supportive culture. We want to continue to foster this environment. Embedding adaptable ways of working, so people can work flexibly in a way that suits their individual needs, is a focus.  So too is providing everyone with opportunities to learn and develop. There is plenty of interesting work and opportunity here, it is a case of providing people with access.  We also strive to reinforce and make real how the work of the team, at an individual and collective level, makes a difference to Tāmaki Makaurau.