The Christchurch City Council Legal Services management team pictured left to right: Ron Lemm, Manager Litigation, Public and Regulatory; Adele Budd, Team Leader Legal Support; Elizabeth Neazor, Manager Commercial and Property; and Helen White, Head of Legal Services.
Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Christchurch City Council and how you support the work of the Council?
Legal Services has 19 staff when at full complement, 16 of whom are legal professionals. We are split into three teams. Two are operational: one for commercial and property and the other is litigation, public and regulatory. The third team provides the legal support. The legal team managers run the operation a bit like partners in a firm with support from the Team Leader – Legal Support who is akin to a practice manager. They deal with virtually everything with little involvement from me. My role is all about supporting at a high level the Chief Executive and the wider executive team; leading the overall strategy and legal risk management for Legal Services .
Legal Services has been through a lot of change in the last year. I started in August 2020 and I then went on to hire the management team who have then filled their own vacancies. All in all, there are 10 of us who weren’t here a year ago, so it is fair to say we are just at the beginning of where we can go and I am super excited about that! Our Chief Executive wants the Council to be the best in New Zealand and so we will be doing some work to set goals that match that target. What does a legal team look like in the best council in New Zealand? Come back and ask me in a couple of years and I will show you!
What do you do to enhance the influence of the in-house legal function across the organisation?
It is all about people and communication. Virtually my entire role is about relationships: building and establishing trust with the key parts of the Council business. The better I can understand the people and the work they do, the better I can make sure that the legal support is fit for purpose. I am a big believer of getting things done in person. I try not to sit around and wait for colleagues to reply to an email – I’ll go and find them whenever I can, especially if the matter is complex or not going to plan. That is a real advantage of having 1500 of my colleagues all in one building! You get a completely different perspective on the context when you go and talk to your colleagues in their own environment. We know that technology is amazing, but I think what lockdown taught me more than anything is the value of face to face. I am always very happy when I am about and see one of the team working with colleagues in their own space. Not long after Ron Lemm (Manager – Public, Regulatory and Litigation) started, one of my senior colleagues told me that he was ‘always’ on their floor and what a welcome change that was. Elizabeth Neazor (Manager – Commercial and Property) often goes and sits for a half day or so with the Parks and Recreation team. I love that – that visible presence really helps the ‘one team’ approach.
It is not about what sort of legal service my team think they are delivering, it is about how it is experienced by our colleagues. Seeking out feedback in different ways really helps that dialogue. I held a series of workshops recently to find out what my colleagues liked and didn’t like about our panel of external providers. Overwhelmingly, I was told that having strong relationships with the internal and external lawyers was vitally important. This was closely followed by wanting legal advice that was clear, fast, with firm recommendations and didn’t waffle on in lawyer language!
Can you tell us more about how you built an attractive legal team employment brand and what skills and attributes you look for when recruiting new lawyers?
People are my biggest asset and I take recruitment very seriously. I’d rather not hire anyone than be unsure. If I am interviewing you, it is because on paper you can do the technical job. What I want to get from the interview process is a picture of how you behave in the workplace. I hire attitude and approach over technical ability every time. If you have the right approach to your role, I can grow and develop the technical side.
I want lawyers who are pragmatic problem solvers who are able to take on the wicked issues, providing clear advice and calculating the risks. Communication style is critical - I don’t care how good a technical lawyer you are but if you are in-house and can’t provide advice in a clear and accessible manner then you won’t be chosen off the shelf. I was fortunate enough to be able to recruit the whole Legal Services management team. It was important that I had diversity of style that could complement and challenge. Who wants a team of mini-me's?
We’ve tried to take a slightly different tack with our recruitment as a new management team. Working in local government hasn’t always had the best reputation and for me it was important that we communicate the message of: the quality and variety of the work that you will be dealing with; the support you will get from the new team managers; and the importance of the work we do to support the decisions that are made on behalf of the community.
Some of the work is particularly exciting, such as building a 30 000 seat stadium, but even the more routine work has a massive impact on the liveability of the city. A new bylaw on dog control, for example. Nearly everyone has a view on whether their local park needs to have a dog on a leash or not! We got something right with the tone of our recruitment because the calibre of our new hires is excellent and complements the skilled and experienced staff in the existing team.
What do you see as the key challenges facing the team and how do you plan to address these?
The key challenge is how we can support the organisation through the legislative reform agenda. Not just the proposed water reform, but also RMA and the Future for Local Government review. The next three years will see unprecedented change for local government and it is exciting to be part of it. We don’t know exactly what the changes will look like, but they will be massive – we may lose responsibility for water, we may lose big chunks of environmental work, and goodness knows what the local government review will recommend. What will the legal service look like after that? It is quite exciting to be part of this.
I’ve worked through many change agendas in the past and you have to be prepared to take risks and consider all options. And, you can either wait to have change happen to you or be part of the change!
The CCC value is “One team, making it happen, with integrity and passion.” How does this impact how the legal team communicates and acts?
We aren’t working for private profit therefore everything we do is to support the wellbeing of the communities of Christchurch. That is what working in local government is all about. Values underpin everything we do - it is the how we get things done.
If we have good relationships with colleagues and can communicate effectively, we will be part of the decision making process at the beginning and not the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We have moved away from any hangover of a ‘them and us’ mind-set – referring to our colleagues as ‘colleagues’ and not clients really helps with that. We practise visible legal leadership by getting out and about within the organisation. And we provide advice that is useful for our colleagues that supports the work they do, rather than put road blocks in the way – well, that is just a given.
I’ve learnt over the years that how you present advice is key – if you start with a message of ‘legal says no’ then you won’t be invited back next time and colleagues will work around you. But the advantage of having the good relationships is that your colleagues will want to know what you really think and will respect alternative options you may suggest.