Ministry of Social Development Legal Team

Team overview: Ministry of Social Development

The Ministry of Social Development legal team supports a complex business of 10,000 staff over the country - it's like a small town. The team chatted with us about the key tool in the in-house tool kit, and how the team balances the legal work with the business of doing legal work.

Pictured (L-R): Simon Millswell (Corporate), Sarah Martin (Legal Ops), Hayley Evans (Chief Legal Advisor), Michelle Johansen (Southern Region), Felicity Wilton (EA to CLA), James Marshall (Litigation), Lauren Smith (Public), Ryan Moran (Kaupapa and Whaikaha), Vaiula Roberts (Northern Region).

Can you give us an overview of the legal team at MSD and how you support the work of the organisation?

The MSD Legal team is a national team of 65 working across New Zealand, primarily based in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. We organise ourselves in terms of supporting our front line operations through our regionally based staff, and then our head office staff support regulatory policy, litigation and corporate areas of work. We support MSD by ensuring MSD understands its obligations at law, works within its statutory framework and manages legal risk generally.

We enjoy working for MSD because we cover almost all areas of law, and we are working towards a really important purpose – supporting New Zealanders to be safe, strong and independent. There’s never a dull moment when you’re supporting a business as complex as ours, with 10,000 staff working the length of the country. It’s like supporting a small town in terms of the complexity and scale of the legal issues that come across our desks.

We enjoy the challenge of seeing the connections between issues as they arise, and using them as opportunities to drive improvements in the way MSD works. Working to support both our front line and our corporate head office gives us a valuable perspective on how well change is implemented, and where the strategic risks to the organisation arise.

In-house legal are known to 'put out fires before they begin'. How does the team mitigate and foresee risk before it arises?

The key tool in the in-house tool kit is relationships. There really isn’t a shortcut other than being connected to the business and having strong, genuine, relationships. Ongoing meaningful engagement with colleagues is the best way to ensure you know what’s happening, you can get involved early and spot risks. At this early stage, you can influence options and give gentle encouragement to avoid risks becoming issues. In turn, people gain value from having the legal team involved and it becomes a virtuous circle.

Without the right relationships, the team quickly becomes consigned to transactional (generally email-based) advice that focuses on compliance because it’s usually too late in the process to explore options, and we’re now into issues and compliance.

For us, given our scale, while we all have networks of connections and relationships, we need to have a structured and planned approach to how we manage relationships to ensure we are covering all bases. We also embed lawyers where we can in important strategic initiatives at the Ministry so that they can be involved at all levels in the project.

What do you see as the key challenges facing the team and how do you plan to address these?

We are a large, busy team that is in demand right across our business. One of our biggest challenges is keeping our hands around everything that’s happening to ensure (a) we’re delivering what the organisation needs from us (b) we’re working on the most important/high risk issues and (c) we’re able to tell our story of how we’re adding value to the organisation. It’s the age old challenge of balancing the legal work with the business of doing legal work. We are lucky that we have a really great Legal Operations team that supports us to create and manage the optimal environment to deliver legal services. This is a real focus for us in 2022/23, and we’re excited to see what others are doing in this space.

We are fortunate to have a great team of fantastic staff but I’m aware that the borders are opening and opportunities are beckoning our lawyers. Increasingly, our lawyers are looking to head overseas to seek experience. We would love them to stay but we understand the desire to spread wings and see the world, particularly after the time we’ve had recently! We have amazing work that provides fantastic opportunities for lawyers – both who want to specialise, and those who love variety. We are a large team, so lots of lawyers to learn from and resources to undertake development and training. We continue to welcome new lawyers into our team and we are grateful that we can attract such high calibre candidates.

Are there any changes or new technologies you planning to roll out in the near future?

The Ministry is rolling out 365 and we are using this as an opportunity to refresh our approach to matter management and information management. It’s a priority for us this year to ensure that these systems are fit for purpose and going to serve the team well into the future. We want lawyers coming into our team to stand on the shoulders of giants and we want to be able to demonstrate through our reporting where we see the risks and priorities in our work.