Pictured (L-R): Fiona McLeod, General Counsel; Alison Millard, Property Legal Executive; Angelique Vaessen, Legal Administrator; Madeline Austin, Principal Legal Adviser

Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Nelson City Council and how you support the work of the Council?

We’re a small in-house legal team currently with two lawyers, a property legal executive and a legal administrator (all part time).

We provide or facilitate legal advice on all areas of council’s work, including local government decision making, litigation, dispute resolution, regulatory, enforcement, commercial and property matters.

We support council’s work by helping others to identify and manage legal risks to achieving council’s objectives. We do this in numerous ways, including responding to requests for legal advice, holding regular legal clinics, providing legal training and partnering with business unit managers.

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

We put a lot of focus on proactively working alongside officers and managers to help them identify and manage legal risks early in a decision-making process. We want to minimize the time we spend reacting to last minute requests for legal advice.

One of the ways we achieve this is having a key relationship lawyer for each Business Unit and regular meetings with all Business Unit Managers. At these meetings we share information that we have on legal requests from their teams, including volume, trends and any emerging risk areas. We talk about any significant work coming down the pipeline, what they might need from the legal team and when. We also talk about any assistance we can offer to improve their Business Unit resources for managing routine legal risks, like legal training, procedures, templates or other self-help tools.

This is a great opportunity for us to look at how we can proactively help the Business Unit to achieve their goals and manage legal risk. Feedback we get is that managers also appreciate the way these meetings carve out some time for them to step back and look at the bigger picture.   

What skills and attributes do you look for when recruiting new lawyers?

We look for lawyers who have a broad base of legal experience and either already are or want to be an in-house lawyer.

Generally, this is lawyer who gets job satisfaction out of being part of the organisation they provide legal advice to, having the opportunity to develop deeper relationships with their “clients” and seeing how their advice, big or small, makes a difference on a daily basis.

We also need lawyers who are adaptable, can communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds and have a good risk radar – knowing when they can give a quick answer or when they need to dig deeper.

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

Due to budget constraints, we are experiencing more pressure to do work in-house (at no cost to the Business Unit) rather than brief out. With 1.4 FTE lawyers there is only so much we can do!

Luckily, we have already developed a Legal Operations Framework that includes a framework that has been agreed with the Senior Leadership Team for prioritisation of legal work. One of the purposes of this framework is to ensure that we are mostly working on matters that are of high risk or strategic importance to the organisation. We can now consistently refer to this framework both internally as a team and in discussions with managers to decide how to prioritise requests.

We are also going to have to be more meticulous in forecasting our available time and how long a piece of work will take so that we can have timely and realistic conversations with managers about likely timeframes for in-house resourcing and their alternative options including outsourcing or not getting the advice.

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

We have recently done a lot of work on a Legal Services Team intranet page, as a one stop shop for everything officers need to know about the services we offer and how to engage with us.

Our next step is to roll out a new landing page as a way for officers to make requests for legal advice directly within our legal matter management tool. To officers it will look seamlessly like an extension of our intranet page, with an easy-to-use form that will elicit the information we need for a good request. Officers will also be able to see a dashboard of all requests that they are involved in, including the scope of the request, estimate of costs (if outsourced), due date, status updates, relevant files etc.

This will achieve efficiencies for us, but we hope will also make the process of seeking legal advice easier for most officers (and we won’t ignore those who want to stick to old fashioned email!).