Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Contact Energy and how you support the work of the business?

We run a team of six lawyers, made up of our General Counsel (who is also Contact’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer), two Associate General Counsels, two Senior Legal Counsels and one Legal Counsel. We form part of the broader Governance team at Contact, which also includes regulatory affairs, government relations and corporate communications – all up, the Governance team is 11 people. Our team is based in Wellington, although since COVID-19 we now operate primarily on a remote basis. Our team has the ability to work from anywhere, choosing if they want to come into the office (lockdown level permitting!) or work remotely. We make an effort to come together every Thursday for face to face meetings and a catch-up. We are all still settling into this new way of life, but the team is overwhelmingly supportive of the increased flexibility and the benefits it brings to their lifestyles.

As a legal team, we support all facets of Contact’s business – generation and development, customer, finance, ICT and people and safety. We manage all of the day to day legal requirements, and support key strategic projects. Our work is very diverse, and there is certainly no shortage of it!  We are also responsible for the company secretarial function.

We see our core role as supporting the business to achieve its strategic objectives. We place a high priority on ensuring that our legal advice is business focused, commercial and pragmatic and in line with our tikanga. It is always front of mind that we want the business to seek out our advice early and willingly, rather than as a grudging step in the process. We know that we have a key role to play in demonstrating that we can partner with the business, understand its needs and help craft robust legal solutions.

What have been your most recent challenges as an organisation and how did the legal team help resolve them?

There have certainly been plenty of challenges so far this year! The level 4 COVID-19 lockdown threw us novel questions of what it means to be essential service, which parts of our business could operate and how, what was the impact under various contractual arrangements and how we keep the market and our stakeholders informed. The announcement that Rio Tinto is exiting New Zealand next year and closing the Tiwai Point smelter has also created an enormous challenge for Contact and our industry as a whole.

The team has been nimble and adaptable in response. We’ve constantly re-prioritised our work as things changed around us. When prioritising we focus on matters that are strategically important because they are value adding/manage risk or satisfy immediate compliance obligations. This is a very deliberate exercise to ensure that we spend the most energy and focus on things that matter the most.

In this time of great uncertainty, we have found that speed is key. We’re not helping our business colleagues if we provide a well-written legal opinion two days after it was needed. Instead we’ve focused on collaborating with the various parts of our business to work through issues to find not only the right legal answer, but solutions that are the right thing to do and consistent with our tikanga.

You run a lean legal function operating model – how do you manage demand for legal resource and ensure you are prioritising high value and high risk matters?  

We have made some changes to our team structure in the last year or so with this front of mind. We have moved away from a “business partner” model that lent itself to silos within the team, to a model where legal work is allocated across the team on the basis of expertise, experience and availability. A key part of making this transition was the implementation of legal matter management software.  We use Xakia, and it’s been an absolute game-changer in terms of our visibility over almost all legal requests coming from the business and what each member of the team has on their plate. We can make far more informed choices about the prioritisation of work, and ensuring that high value and high risk matters get the attention they deserve.

What do you do to enhance the influence of the in-house legal function across the organisation?  

We think that relationships are so important here. We were mindful that a risk of the move away from the “business partner” model was that we could become more reactive and lose some of the valuable connections with key people and teams. Happily, we have found the opposite to be true. This is partly because we work hard to build and maintain these relationships, but also because collapsing the silo-ed structure has provided the opportunity for members of the team to work with a wider group of people within the business. We find that we often see similar issues or situations across different parts of the business and that we can play a valuable role in connecting those people or experiences to the benefit of the business as a whole.           

Are there any changes or new technologies you planning to roll out in the next 12 months? 

Our focus for the next 12 months is to extract maximum value from Xakia. Currently, we use it primarily as a workflow intake and allocation tool, but we know that it is much smarter than that. We want to increase the information that we feed into Xakia to get greater insight into how the team is spending its time, how/when we use external lawyers, and where our legal budget is being spent. This will keep us accountable, and ensure that we are dedicating our resources to high value and high risk matters. It’s always useful to be able to tell this story back to the business too.