Team Overview: Crown Infrastructure Partners

Team Overview: Crown Infrastructure Partners

We talk with Kathryn Mitchell, Chief Legal and Risk Officer at Crown Infrastructure Partners about the repurposing of their company and the role of the legal team in changing times.

Can you give us an overview of the legal function at Crown Infrastructure Partners and how it supports the work of the Company and its broadened business purpose?

Crown Infrastructure Partners Limited (CIP) was set up to manage the Government’s $1.75 billion investment in Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB), and its role was expanded in 2017 to include rolling out rural broadband and mobile coverage (RBI) under the Rural Broadband Initiative phase two and Mobile Black Spots Fund (MBS), and bulk housing infrastructure financing to improve housing supply.

The role of the legal function at CIP has been primarily to develop, negotiate, implement and manage the contractual arrangements between CIP and our partners in the UFB and then the RBI/MBS and bulk housing infrastructure space. CIP is a small and dynamic team and the legal and business functions are very closely integrated with most of the legal team also holding commercial and/or executive functions in the management of the contractual operations and oversight of the broadband rollout. 

The legal team also work closely with our communications and stakeholder relations team in their interactions with stakeholders including the Crown and New Zealanders interested in gaining access to broadband services.

We support and advise the board, the CEO and the broader business and perform the company secretarial functions of CIP.

What have been your most recent challenges and how did you address these?

Repurposing the company and assisting the commercial team with the development of a new commercial model for financing bulk water and roading infrastructure was both a significant and exciting challenge for the legal team. 

We were working in new territory, trying to solve a number of complex legal issues that could be taken forward and introduced to the market through a pilot project, while still providing the legal support needed by our telecommunications business. This was a fast moving and complex pathfinder project with multiple integrated components. Within the space of 12 months, our company was repurposed, developed a commercial model for private sector financing of bulk infrastructure and closed on the first pilot project in Milldale, Auckland.   

The most significant challenge for the legal team throughout this process was capacity. At the outset we were a legal team of two, and with a number of telecommunications procurements underway at the same time (with our rural broadband and mobile black spots programme), managing our capacity requirements was key. We managed this by bringing on an additional contracted legal resource with significant telecommunications experience who could hit the ground running and focus on our telecommunications services. 

Effective collaboration within the organisation was also crucial to the success of our projects, particularly within our new line of business. Closing on our first pilot project was certainly a major team effort with the legal, commercial, and finance functions working essentially as one team given the highly integrated nature of the work, and working closely with our external legal, finance and capital markets advisors. 

With your new expanded activities, are you rolling out or planning to roll out any new technologies or systems to support the work of the legal team?

The new projects CIP is undertaking in the bulk housing and infrastructure space are data and compliance management intensive and involve significant overlaps between the commercial, finance and legal management requirements. 

A whole of project approach is therefore required to identify the right systems to support this work. There are a number of considerations we are working through in determining the right systems to use, including insourcing versus outsourcing, cost benefit, security, IP retention, scalability, automation, timing of implementation, ease of customisation (given the bespoke nature of our activities), etc. 

We have learnt some valuable lessons from our large scale long term UFB contracts and the systems we have adopted in managing those that are shaping our vision of what is required to successfully support our new projects and associated legal work. The key for us is not to rush it and to get the systems right and ensure they are fit for purpose. 

An advantage to rolling out technology for these new projects is that we can take a Greenfields approach rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole with existing systems. We are taking the time to document all of our processes, and carry out the tasks manually initially before we have scalability in order to fully understand our requirements and identify teething problems. We are definitely still at stage one of this process, but planning and fully understanding our requirements is key to ensuring we adopt the right systems.

How do you see the role of the modern in-house lawyer evolving?

It depends somewhat on the size and structure of an organisation, but generally we think there will be a continual evolution of what we have already seen emerging in the market with the blurring of lines of responsibility of what an in-house lawyer’s role is and therefore the skill set required. Certainly in our company there is a significant overlap in the legal and commercial activities performed by the inhouse legal team, as well as internal and external relationship and project management. 

These skills as well as having a sound understanding of the business (including its financial levers) enable us to provide optimal legal advice and support to the company. As a result, we think in-house lawyers are becoming more business orientated and strategically focused and that is a good thing, as the legal department shouldn’t work in a legal silo if it is truly going to add value to an organisation.