How would you describe the Fletcher Building legal team’s operating model?

The whole legal team reports into the Group General Counsel and Company Secretary of Fletcher Building, Charles Bolt.  Charles sits on Fletcher Building’s Executive team, which ensures that as a legal team we retain our independence and ‘one team’ approach. 

That said, on a day to day level, we operate in smaller teams, led by operational General Counsel, who are closely connected to the businesses that they support and who effectively have a dual reporting line to the chief executives of the divisions.

Can you explain how this model was created and how it has evolved over time?

The legal function is approximately 6 years old.

As part of the strategy reset the whole operating model of the company has been reviewed.  This review included deciding what functions are required at the centre of the organisation, what resources they need, the cost base, reporting lines and charging basis.

In some cases our lawyers are physically located with their business units, others sit with the other lawyers that work with similar businesses. There is not a “one size fits all” approach, reflecting the reality that Fletcher Building is a large and highly diverse business and that the nature and extent of the legal support required is therefore different for each division.

Our ability to connect and influence across the whole of the Fletcher portfolio is highly valued.  The legal team is in a unique position to see trends across the business and within our industries and to act quickly to provide a whole of Fletcher Building perspective, as well as deliver excellent legal support to our specific business units.

The team also has dedicated corporate resource in the form of a General Counsel of Corporate and Deputy Company Secretary.  Fletcher Building is moving through a strategy reset with major corporate initiatives already in 2019 that have required a particular set of skills and experience which is different from that which is required to support the business operations. 

It was out of this that a specific charge back model was introduced, whereby functions such as legal are managed centrally, but costs charged back to the businesses according to the level of support that they need.  This has actually resulted in parts of the business requesting that more resource be added to the legal function– and the property, construction and corporate parts of the legal team have expanded in the last eighteen months.  This is a very positive sign, as it demonstrates that the legal function is valued, such that the internal clients are driving the request for resource and support; as opposed to the centre imposing the function on the business.

Whilst our direct reporting lines still lead back to Charles Bolt as Fletcher Building’s Group General Counsel, the operational General Counsel have dual reporting line to a Divisional Chief Executive and our lawyers work closely with the General Managers of each of the businesses. 

What have been the greatest challenges for the legal team in recent times and how are you meeting these challenges?

As we have grown it has been challenging to keep a ‘one team’ approach, particularly with team members located in multiple locations. 

One of the tools we use to stay connected is to get together every 6-9 months at a “Legal Team Summit” to focus on issues relevant to the whole team. The New Zealand based team also meets monthly and the General Counsel from Australia and New Zealand meet regularly.

Whilst a ‘one team’ culture is important, the different and diverse needs of each Division are also recognised and reflected in the way we provide legal services.  Where there are common issues and collaboration is appropriate and efficient, we do that too by encouraging team work across the whole team by establishing smaller cross-division ‘project groups’ to look at issues relevant to the whole group (e.g. changes to legislation/policy).

Certain members of the team are subject matter experts (competition law; consumer law; OIO; property etc) and so we look to encourage that and for them to have a broader advisory role across the team over and above the work that is done for their direct, day to day internal clients.

Developing policies and rules that apply to a diverse portfolio will always remain a challenge but our strength is in being able to see the commonalities and leveraging those.

Change is constant and the pace often relentless.  Like all in-house legal teams, keeping perspective in the pace is critical.  Our last team “Summit” focused on tools and lessons from others (both internal and external) on health and wellbeing. 

We also cannot ignore the macro issues presented by the organisation in the last two years in the form of major projects losses; a change of leadership at Chairman, CEO and Board level; conducting a $750 million capital raise; a reset of the strategy and significant changes to the company’s operating model; and the complex divestment initiatives around our international businesses.  The Legal function has had to do a lot more than usual in supporting the organisation through this period, and the value of this has been recognised with the function receiving the highest internal customer satisfaction rating in the business in the last year.

What are the different skills and attributes you look for when recruiting new lawyers?

Senior, subject matter experts. Team players. Resilience. Ability to manage multiple competing demands. Ability to ‘simplify the complex’ and communicate clearly with management and take a commercial and pragmatic approach.

Are you rolling out or planning to roll out any new technologies or systems to support the work of the legal team?

We are currently implementing a Document Management System (netdocs).

One of the teams is piloting time sheet recording to create a “heat map” to identify how much time we are spending on high value strategic work vis a vis the “churn”.

We are investigating document automation and outsourcing tools.

We are rolling out a new property information database which will serve as both a contract database and a property management system.

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

Increasingly we are relied on as strategic, commercial (as well as legal) advisers and risk managers. There is also an increased emphasis on the role we play in governance and policy setting.

The pace of regulatory change also seems to be increasing.  With that comes a requirement to not just advise, but for in house roles to work with businesses and across functions to find practical ways of educating employees and getting the right systems and processes in place; it is not enough just to advise, you have to deal with the execution of the advice as well.